Friday, January 15, 2021

January 15: The Prudence of the Flesh, Grant Writing, Obsessions and Passions

Merton realizes that there's more to being a Christian than he thought . . .

One of the big defects of my spiritual life in that first year was a lack of devotion to the Mother of God. I believed in the truths which the Church teaches about Our Lady, and I said the “Hail Mary” when I prayed, but that is not enough. People do not realize the tremendous power of the Blessed Virgin. They do not know who she is: that it is through her hands all graces come because God has willed that she thus participate in His work for the salvation of men. 

To me, in those days, although I believed in her, Our Lady occupied in my life little more than the place of a beautiful myth—for in practice I gave her no more than the kind of attention one gives to a symbol or a thing of poetry. She was the Virgin who stood in the doors of the medieval cathedrals. She was the one I had seen in all the statues in the Musée de Cluny, and whose pictures, for that matter, had decorated the walls of my study at Oakham. 

But that is not the place that belongs to Mary in the lives of men. She is the Mother of Christ still, His Mother in our souls. She is the Mother of the supernatural life in us. Sanctity comes to us through her intercession. God has willed that there be no other way. 

But I did not have that sense of dependence or of her power. I did not know what need I had of trust in her. I had to find out by experience. 

What could I do without love of the Mother of God, without a clear and lofty spiritual objective, without spiritual direction, without daily Communion, without a life of prayer? But the one thing I needed most of all was a sense of the supernatural life, and systematic mortification of my passions and of my crazy nature. 

I made the terrible mistake of entering upon the Christian life as if it were merely the natural life invested with a kind of supernatural mode by grace. I thought that all I had to do was to continue living as I had lived before, thinking and acting as I did before, with the one exception of avoiding mortal sin.

It never occurred to me that if I continued to live as I had lived before, I would be simply incapable of avoiding mortal sin. For before my Baptism I had lived for myself alone. I had lived for the satisfaction of my own desires and ambitions, for pleasure and comfort and reputation and success. Baptism had brought with it the obligation to reduce all my natural appetites to subordination to God’s will: “For the wisdom of the flesh is an enemy to God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be. And they who are in the flesh, cannot please God ... and if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Spiritu ambulate, et desideria carnis non perficietis

St. Thomas explains the words of the Epistle to the Romans very clearly and simply. The wisdom of the flesh is a judgement that the ordinary ends of our natural appetites are the goods to which the whole of man’s life are to be ordered. Therefore it inevitably inclines the will to violate God’s law. 

In so far as men are prepared to prefer their own will to God’s will, they can be said to hate God: for of course they cannot hate Him in Himself. But they hate Him in the Commandments which they violate. But God is our life: God’s will is our food, our meat, our life’s bread. To hate our life is to enter into death, and therefore the prudence of the flesh is death. 

The only thing that saved me was my ignorance. Because in actual fact, since my life after my Baptism was pretty much what it had been before Baptism, I was in the condition of those who despise God by loving the world and their own flesh rather than Him. And because that was where my heart lay, I was bound to fall into mortal sin, because almost everything that I did tended, by virtue of my habitual intention to please myself before all else, to obstruct and deaden the work of grace in my soul. 

But I did not clearly realize all this. Because of the profound and complete conversion of my intellect, I thought I was entirely converted. Because I believed in God, and in the teachings of the Church, and was prepared to sit up all night arguing about them with all comers, I imagined that I was even a zealous Christian. 

What Merton is saying here is that human beings are pretty much selfish creatures.  They care only about their own fleshy needs.  Eternity is not really on the minds of most people.  It's all about feeding hungers.  For McDonald's.  Sex.  Poetry.  Rock and roll.  Whatever.  You name it, and someone is probably obsessed with it or obsessing over it.

I apologize for my prolonged absence.  These last five days, I've been obsessed with grant writing and playing Jeopardy.

At the library, I've been working on a very large programming grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  It has pretty much consumed my thoughts and energies for the last week-and-a-half.  And I have another two weeks left before I have to submit it.  Which may sound like quite a bit of time.  However, I have to secure presenters and workshop leaders and venues and videographers and partnering organizations.

At home, every time I've had a few minutes of my own to write, I've been playing a Jeopardy board game with my family.  My son and daughter have been a little obsessed with it.  And I get to play Alex Trebek.  I think they let me be the host simply because I can pronounce all of the names and terms and geographical locations correctly.  

And right now most of the people in the United States are obsessed with the second impeachment of Donald Trump and coronavirus restrictions and vaccines.  I try to avoid the rabbit hole of Facebook posts about these subjects.  For example, the members of the Baraga County Board here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan issued a "manifesto" stating they would no longer enforce the health department's pandemic restrictions--throwing open the doors to dining in restaurants, no facemasks, and crowded bars.  A friend of mine--who is a nurse, no less--posted this news with the comment "Wow about time."  (The sheer short-sightedness and scientific ignorance of that statement astounds me--and I could easily obsess about it.)

Obsession can be a good thing, too.  Just found out that Amanda Gorman will the the poet at Joe Biden's Presidential Inauguration this coming Wednesday.  I can guarantee you that, over the next few days, I will be obsessing about Gorman and her work.  (I've already been obsessing about inaugural poets, anyway.  I'm hosting a virtual reading at the library of all of the past Presidential Inaugural poems, so I've been doing lots of research and reading on the subject.)

There's not much difference, I think, between obsession and passion.  Yet, to say that you're passionate about someone or something seems respectable.  To say you're obsessed about someone or something has a Charles Manson-quality.  Notice the difference in tone between these two statements:  "I'm really passionate about kitchen knives" and "I'm obsessed with kitchen knives."  The former phrase could be uttered by a contestant on Master Chef, and the latter is straight Hannibal Lecter material.

Yet, passion and obsession are two sides of the same coin.  Healthy.  Unhealthy.  Light.  Dark.  They're both about feeding a hunger.  Fleshy.  Metaphysical.  Here are a few of my healthy obsessions/passions from the last few weeks:  poet Natasha Trethewey, Charles Dickens, the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, Louisa May Alcott, Greta Gerwig's Little Women, my puppy, the films The Family Stone and Love Actually, poet Joy Harjo, Bigfoot, poets Richard Blanco and Diane Glancy, and Clementine oranges.  

Here are a few of my less healthy obsessions/passions from the last few weeks:  staying up until 2 a.m. every night watching the movies I listed above, drinking a few too many glasses of wine in the evening, late-night Amazon orders, Facebook posts about Donald Trump's unraveling presidency, COVID-19 infection and fatality numbers, and the Weather Channel app.  

So, you see what has kept me from posting these last five or so days.  These selfish distractions.  I have said it before, and I will say it again: 

Saint Marty is a very weak person--with very strong passions.

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