Sunday, February 28, 2021

February 28: Reduced Me to Jelly, Quiet Day, Life of Simplicity

 Merton reflects on different religious orders . . . 

This is not something that is confined to the Franciscans: it is at the heart of every religious vocation, and if it is not, the vocation does not mean much. But the Franciscans, or at least St. Francis, reduced it to its logical limits, and at the same time invested it with a kind of simple thirteenth century lyricism which made it doubly attractive to me. 

However, the lyricism must be carefully distinguished from the real substance of the Franciscan vocation, which is that tremendous and heroic poverty, poverty of body and spirit which makes the Friar literally a tramp. For, after all, “mendicant” is only a fancy word for tramp, and if a Franciscan cannot be a tramp in this full and complete and total mystical sense, he is bound to be a little unhappy and dissatisfied. As soon as he acquires a lot of special articles for his use and comfort and becomes sedate and respectable and spiritually sedentary he will, no doubt, have an easy and pleasant time, but there will be always gnawing in his heart the nostalgia for that uncompromising destitution which alone can give him joy because it flings him headlong into the arms of God. 

Without poverty, Franciscan lyricism sounds tinny and sentimental and raw and false. Its tone is sour, and all its harmonies are somewhat strained. 

I am afraid that at that time, it was the lyricism that attracted me more than the poverty, but really I don’t think I was in a position to know any better. It was too soon for me to be able to make the distinction. However, I remember admitting that one of the advantages of their Rule, as far as I was concerned, was that it was easy. 

After all, I was really rather frightened of all religious rules as a whole, and this new step, into the monastery, was not something that presented itself to me, all at once, as something that I would just take in my stride. On the contrary, my mind was full of misgivings about fasting and enclosure and all the long prayers and community life and monastic obedience and poverty, and there were plenty of strange spectres dancing about in the doors of my imagination, all ready to come in, if I would let them in. And if I did, they would show me how I would go insane in a monastery, and how my health would crack up, and my heart would give out. and I would collapse and go to pieces and be cast back into the world a hopeless moral and physical wreck. 

All this, of course, was based on the assumption that I was in weak health, for that was something I still believed. Perhaps it was to some extent true, I don’t know. But the fear of collapse had done nothing, in the past years, to prevent me from staying up all night and wandering around the city in search of very unhealthy entertainments. Nevertheless, as soon as there was question of a little fasting or going without meat or living within the walls of a monastery, I instantly began to fear death. 

What I eventually found out was that as soon as I started to fast and deny myself pleasures and devote time to prayer and meditation and to the various exercises that belong to the religious life, I quickly got over all my bad health, and became sound and strong and immensely happy. 

That particular night I was convinced that I could not follow anything but the easiest of religious rules.

When Dan began to talk about the one religious Order that filled him with the most enthusiasm, I was able to share his admiration but I had no desire to join it. It was the Order of Cistercians, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The very title made me shiver, and so did their commoner name: The Trappists. 

Once, six years before—and it seemed much longer than that—when I had barely glanced at the walls of the Trappist monastery of Tre Fontane, outside Rome, the fancy of becoming a Trappist had entered my adolescent mind: but if it had been anything but a pure day-dream, it would not have got inside my head at all. Now, when I was actually and seriously thinking of entering a monastery, the very idea of Trappists almost reduced me to a jelly. 

The irony of this passage, of course, is that Merton became one of the most famous Trappist monks of all time.  Of course, being a monk AND being famous are sort of antithetical.  The Trappists are all about simplicity and humility and hiddenness and service and prayer.  In a lot of ways, that does not define Merton at all.  Yes, he lived as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  Yet, he was also an international literary star, sought out by fans and fellow writers.  He traveled.  Attended conferences.  His life was anything but hidden.

It has been a fairly quiet day for me.  By "quiet," I mean that I have pretty much not left my house, except for a three-mile walk with my puppy.  Aside from that, I've been grading and reading and writing.  This evening, I met with my book club for a lovely two-hour discussion of Maggie O'Farrell's novel Hamnet, an uplifting novel about the Black Plague, childhood death, and William Shakespeare.

And now, I am back at grading after this little blogging respite.  Heavy snow fell this afternoon.  A very quick drop of four or five inches in about two hours.  At one point, I looked out my living room window and could barely see the trees and bushes that mark my property line.  It is now almost 9 p.m., and the precipitation has stopped.  The wind has picked up.  All this after a three-day thaw with temperatures approaching 40 degrees. 

Today has proven to me that I could easily live a life of simplicity and prayer and service.  I'm not so sure about humility and hiddenness.  There's a part of most poets, I think, that craves attention and praise.  I can't think of a single poet of my acquaintance who would say, "I hope nobody reads my work."  No, we all want to be read.  Widely.  

Yet, poetry isn't a field that really attracts a whole lot of attention, except from other poets.  Unless you happen to get invited to deliver a poem at a U. S. Presidential inauguration.  Then, you can start asking for $100,000 for public appearances.  (I can't imagine pulling down that kind of money.  As a poet, I'm used to getting paid in snacks and a free poster.)  I am in the wrong field if I want acclaim and wealth.

Yet, I am rich and famous in a lot of ways.  I have an abundance of friends who care about me a great deal.  Who send me messages like "How are you today?" and genuinely want to know.  That is real wealth.  And, hopefully, those same friends know that I will do anything for them if they are hurt or hungry or homeless. I want to be famous for being compassionate and generous.

Life isn't about how much you have or how many people know you.  If's about how much you give and how many people you serve.  That's what frightens the young Merton about the Trappists.  That dying to self.  But the whole world would be a better place if we all operated this way.  

That is the lesson young Thomas Merton still needs to learn in the passage above.

And it's the lesson that Saint Marty lives by every day.  He doesn't always succeed, but he fails trying.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

February 24-27: God Will Come, Michael Landon, Stayed Stuck

 Merton goes shopping for a religious order to join . . . 

The quietest place we could think of in that neighborhood was the men’s bar at the Biltmore, a big room full of comfortable chairs, hushed and paneled and half empty. We sat down in one of the far corners, and it was there, two being gathered together in His Name and in His charity, that Christ impressed the first definite form and direction upon my vocation. 

It was very simply done. We just talked about several different religious Orders, and Dan suggested various priests I might consult and finally promised to give me a note of introduction to one of them. 

I had read a little here and there about the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Benedictines, leafing through the Catholic Encyclopedia in the reference library in South Hall, and shopping around in the stacks. I had put my nose into the Rule of St. Benedict and not derived much benefit from so cursory an acquaintance—all I remembered was that the saint seemed a little vexed at the fact that the monks of his day could not be persuaded to go without wine. I had looked into a little French book about the Dominicans, and there I met with a piece of information that gave me pause: it said they all slept together in a common dormitory, and I thought: “Who wants to sleep in a common dormitory?” The picture in my mind was that of the long, cold, green upstairs room in the LycĂ©e, with row after row of iron beds and a lot of skinny people in nightshirts. 

I spoke to Dan Walsh about the Jesuits, but he said he did not know any Jesuits, and for my own part, the mere fact that he did not seem to have any particular reaction, positive or negative, to that Order, did away with the weak and vague preference which I had hitherto given it in my own mind. I had instinctively turned that way first of all, because I had read the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins and studied his poems, but there had never been any real attraction calling me to that kind of a life. It was geared to a pitch of active intensity and military routine which were alien to my own needs. I doubt if they would have kept me in their novitiate—but if they had, they would probably have found me a great misfit. What I needed was the solitude to expand in breadth and depth and to be simplified out under the gaze of God more or less the way a plant spreads out its leaves in the sun. That meant that I needed a Rule that was almost entirely aimed at detaching me from the world and uniting me with God, not a Rule made to fit me to fight for God in the world. But I did not find out all that in one day. 

Dan spoke of the Benedictines. In itself, the vocation attracted me: a liturgical life in some big abbey in the depths of the country. But in actual fact it might just mean being nailed down to a desk in an expensive prepschool in New Hampshire for the rest of my life—or, worse still, being a parish priest remotely attached to such a prep-school, and living in more or less permanent separation from the claustral and liturgical center which had first attracted me. 

“What do you think of the Franciscans?” said Dan. 

As soon as I mentioned St. Bonaventure’s, it turned out that he had many friends there and knew the place fairly well; in fact they had given him some sort of an honorary degree there that summer. Yes, I liked the Franciscans. Their life was very simple and informal and the atmosphere of St. Bonaventure’s was pleasant and happy and peaceful. One thing that attracted me to them was a sort of freedom from spiritual restraint, from systems and routine. No matter how much the original Rule of St. Francis has changed, I think his spirit and his inspiration are still the fundamental thing in Franciscan life. And it is an inspiration rooted in joy, because it is guided by the prudence and wisdom which are revealed only to the little ones—the glad wisdom of those who have had the grace and the madness to throw away everything in one uncompromising rush, and to walk around barefooted in the simple confidence that if they get into trouble, God will come and get them out of it again. 

This post will be short.  I am tired, and I hope to rest tonight after almost a week of sleeplessness.  

I really love the last few sentences of the above passage about the Franciscan order from Merton:  ". . . the glad wisdom of those who have had the grace and madness to throw away everything in one uncompromising rush, and to walk around barefooted in the simple confidence that if they get into trouble, God will come and get them out of it again."  (Emphasis mine.)

I think it's that word "again" that really strikes me.  It hints at the fact that these Franciscans have gotten into trouble more than once.  In fact, it pretty much seems to say that they have screwed up over and over and over.  And God, like a good parent, has rolled out of bed each time they've called home, put on his coat, climbed behind the wheel of the car, and driven down to the police station to bail them out.  

I like that version of God.  The tired parent who always shows up in times of crisis.  Always forgives.  Doesn't yell or make you feel shittier than you already feel.  This God is simply a divine version of Michael Landon in Little House on the Prairie.  In the end, you know he's always going to be there to help his neighbor raise the new barn or slog through a blizzard to find a lost dog.

I think that's the version of God everyone should have.  All-loving and with really good hair.  It's the version that I cling to in times of difficulty.  Nobody really wants an Old Testament God showing up when you've just gotten pulled over for drunk driving.  Nope.  I want Pa Ingalls, with a warm blanket and a plate of Ma's stew.  

A couple evenings ago, I got home late from cleaning at church.  I was exhausted and ready to just sit down and try not to think about anything.  My mind has been running like a gerbil on a wheel for many days now.  As I climbed out of my car and grabbed my belongings from the back seat, I heard the sound of car wheels spinning on ice.  Like a belt sander whirring and whirring and whirring.  I looked across the street.

My neighbor's car was stuck in his driveway.  It had stormed heavily that day, and the city snowplows had roared by in the afternoon, scraping piles of what I call white cement into driveways and sidewalks.  My neighbor had obviously underestimated the amount of snow in his driveway, tried to barrel through it with his car, and gotten solidly stuck.  He and his significant other were pushing and rocking the vehicle, trying to get it unstuck.

But it just wasn't moving.  

I noted the situation as I reached my front step.  Let me repeat:  I was pretty exhausted.  I didn't feel like peopling at all.  Yet, there was God, planting the seed in my brain.  I went inside my house, put my car keys on the dining room table, slipped a facemask on, and headed back outside.

As I crossed the street, I called out, "Do you need a hand?"

The neighbor looked over at me and said something like, "I'd really appreciate it, man.  I didn't think it was that deep."

"I'll get behind and push," I said.

"Don't get run over," said my neighbor's significant other.

I got behind the car and started pushing and rocking the vehicle.  It inched forward, rolled back, inched forward, rolled back.  It stayed stuck.

"Just a minute," I called.

I went back to my house and asked my wife to come help.  

In a few minutes, the neighbor's significant other, my wife, and I were all behind the car, lifting and pushing as my neighbor gunned the accelerator.  The car inched forward, rolled back.  Inched forward a few more inches, rolled back.   Inched forward, inched forward, inched forward, and then . . . the wheels caught traction, and the car rolled out of the driveway into the street.

As I walked back across the street to my house with my wife, my neighbor waved and called out, "Thanks, man."

I waved and climbed the steps to my house.

That's what God does for us sometimes.  We get stuck in bad habits or situations or illnesses.  Addictions.  Depressions.  Joblessness.  Cheating boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses.  Poverty.  Our wheels keep spinning and spinning and spinning.  Digging deeper and deeper and deeper.  

And then God shows up, gives us a shove in the right direction, and we start moving.  Slowly.  Really slowly.  Until, eventually, you're free.

It felt good to help my neighbor out this week.  It reminded me that I can be someone's light.  

Yes, there is darkness in the world.  We all make mistakes, get sick, experience loss.  But God will show up to help you.  Every time.  He may look like your sister, brother, best friend, spouse.  A complete stranger.  Nurse.  Police officer.  Teacher.

Or he may look exhausted and stressed, as if he hasn't slept in five days.   Like Saint Marty. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

February 23: Season of New Beginnings, Latecomer to the Party, Insomnia

 Merton pursues his vocation . . . 

Once again, classes were beginning at the university.  The pleasant fall winds played in the yellowing leaves of the poplars in front of the college dormitories and many young men came out of the subways and walked earnestly and rapidly about the campus with little blue catalogues of courses under their arms, and their hearts warm with the desire to buy books. But now, in this season of new beginnings, I really had something new to begin. 

A year ago the conviction had developed in my mind that the one who was going to give me the best advice about where and how to become a priest was Dan Walsh. I had come to this conclusion before I had ever met him, or sat and listened to his happy and ingenuous lectures on St. Thomas. So on this September day, in 1939, the conviction was to bear its fruit. 

Dan was not on the Columbia campus that day. I went into one of the phone booths at Livingston Hall and called him up. 

He was a man with rich friends, and that night he had been invited to dinner with some people on Park Avenue, although there was certainly nothing of Park Avenue about him and his simplicity. But we arranged to meet downtown, and at about ten o’clock that evening I was standing in the lobby of one of those big, shiny, stuffy apartments, waiting for him to come down out of the elevator. 

As soon as we walked out into the cool night, Dan turned to me and said: “You know, the first time I met you I thought you had a vocation to the priesthood.” 

I was astonished and ashamed. Did I really give that impression? It made me feel like a whited sepulchre, considering what I knew was inside me. On the whole, perhaps it would have been more reassuring if he had been surprised. 

He was not surprised, he was very pleased. And he was glad to talk about my vocation, and about the priesthood and about religious Orders. They were things to which he had given a certain amount of thought, and on the whole, I think that my selection of an adviser was a very happy one. It was a good inspiration and, in fact, it was to turn out much better than I realized at first. 

As often is the case, Merton is the last person to realize his true calling.  Dan, the person Merton seeks out after deciding to pursue a religious life, had already discerned Merton's vocation on their first meeting.  It's sort of like finally you're admitting you're an alcoholic after years of drinking--everyone already knows it.  You're the only latecomer to the party.

Today was a long day after a long, fitful night.  Dealing with some issues in my personal life, and I just couldn't seem to fall asleep.  So I did what I normally do when I suffer insomnia:  I sat on the couch and read all night long.  Started with Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist, and then moved on to Maggie O'Farrell's novel Hamnet.  I finally was able to drift off around 3 a.m., and got up at 5:45 a.m. to start my day.  

And now I'm in the same boat--tired but unable to shut my eyes without my mind beginning to race.  I have been like this for most of my life.  Late nights and early mornings have been my thing since I was a teenager.  I'm not saying it's a healthy existence, but it's just how I'm wired.  Plus, my life these last three years has contributed to the problem.

I write these words knowing that anyone who knows me is already well aware that I'm a chronic insomniac.  Sort of like Merton walking around telling people he's going to be a priest.  It's not earth-shattering news in the least.  That doesn't make these long, dark hours any easier.  

People who've never suffered from insomnia have no idea how lonely a state it is.  It feels as if the entire planet is tucked under a warm blanket, soundly snoring, and you are stuck awake, washing dishes, folding laundry, reading The Brothers Karamazov, trying to make yourself tired enough to collapse.  You feel isolated with all of your worries.

It is now 1 a.m., and I'm going to try to go to sleep again.  I'll probably end up on the couch, watching Claire Danes in an episode of My So-Called Life, cuz, well, if I'm going to stay awake all night, I might as well do it with her.  Another non-revelation about myself--I love Claire Danes.  

So, my faithful disciples, I wish you all sweet dreams.

Saint Marty is going to go alphabetize his bookshelves now.

Monday, February 22, 2021

February 22: Power of My Decision, Wide-Spread Leprosy, Seamus Heaney

 Merton makes a momentous decision . . . 

I cannot say what caused it: it was not a reaction of especially strong disgust at being so tired and so uninterested in this life I was still leading, in spite of its futility. It was not the music, not the fall air, for this conviction that had suddenly been planted in me full grown was not the sick and haunting sort of a thing that an emotional urge always is. It was not a thing of passion or of fancy. It was a strong and sweet and deep and insistent attraction that suddenly made itself felt, but not as movement of appetite towards any sensible good. It was something in the order of conscience, a new and profound and clear sense that this was what I really ought to do. 

How long the idea was in my mind before I mentioned it, I cannot say. But presently I said casually: 

“You know, I think I ought to go and enter a monastery and become a priest.” 

Gibney had heard that before, and thought I was fooling. The statement aroused no argument or comment, and anyway, it was not one to which Gibney was essentially unsympathetic. As far as he was concerned, any life made sense except that of a business man. 

As we went out the door of the house I was thinking: 

“I am going to be a priest.” 

When we were on the Chicken Dock, my mind was full of the same idea. Around three or four in the afternoon Gibney left and went home to Port Washington. Peggy and I sat looking at the dirty river for a while longer. Then I walked with her to the subway. In the shadows under the elevated drive over Tenth Avenue I said: 

“Peggy, I mean it, I am going to enter a monastery and be a priest.” 

She didn’t know me very well and anyway, she had no special ideas about being a priest. There wasn’t much she could say. Anyway, what did I expect her to say? 

I was glad, at last, to be alone. On that big wide street that is a continuation of Eighth Avenue, where the trucks run down very fast and loud—I forget its name—there was a little Catholic library and a German bakery where I often ate my meals. Before going to the bakery to get dinner and supper in one, I went to the Catholic library, St. Veronica’s. The only book about religious Orders they seemed to have was a little green book about the Jesuits but I took it and read it while I ate in the bakery. 

Now that I was alone, the idea assumed a different and more cogent form. Very well: I had accepted the possibility of the priesthood as real and fitting for me. It remained for me to make it, in some sense, more decisive. 

What did that mean? What was required? My mind groped for some sort of an answer. What was I supposed to do, here and now? 

I must have been a long time over the little book and these thoughts. When I came out into the street again, it was dusk. The side streets, in fact, were already quite dark. I suppose it was around seven o’clock. 

Some kind of an instinct prompted me to go to Sixteenth Street, to the Jesuit Church of St. Francis Xavier. I had never been there. I don’t know what I was looking for: perhaps I was thinking primarily of talking to some one of the Fathers there—I don’t know. 

When I got to Sixteenth Street, the whole building seemed dark and empty, and as a matter of fact the doors of the church were locked. Even the street was empty. I was about to go away disappointed, when I noticed a door to some kind of a basement under the church. 

Ordinarily I would never have noticed such a door. You went down a couple of steps, and there it was, half hidden under the stairs that led up to the main door of the church. There was no sign that the door was anything but locked and bolted fast. 

But something prompted me: “Try that door.” 

I went down the two steps, put my hand on the heavy iron handle. The door yielded and I found myself in a lower church, and the church was full of lights and people and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a monstrance on the altar, and at last I realized what I was supposed to do, and why I had been brought here. 

It was some kind of a novena service, maybe a Holy Hour, I don’t know: but it was nearly ending. Just as I found a place and fell on my knees, they began singing the Tantum Ergo.... All these people, workmen, poor women, students, clerks, singing the Latin hymn to the Blessed Sacrament written by St. Thomas Aquinas. I fixed my eyes on the monstrance, on the white Host. 

And then it suddenly became clear to me that my whole life was at a crisis. Far more than I could imagine or understand or conceive was now hanging upon a word—a decision of mine. 

I had not shaped my life to this situation: I had not been building up to this. Nothing had been further from my mind. There was, therefore, an added solemnity in the fact that I had been called in here abruptly to answer a question that had been preparing, not in my mind, but in the infinite depths of an eternal Providence. 

I did not clearly see it then, but I think now that it might have been something in the nature of a last chance. If I had hesitated or refused at that moment—what would have become of me? 

But the way into the new land, the promised land, the land that was not like the Egypt where I persisted in living, was now thrown open again: and I instinctively sensed that it was only for a moment. 

It was a moment of crisis, yet of interrogation: a moment of searching, but it was a moment of joy. It took me about a minute to collect my thoughts about the grace that had been suddenly planted in my soul, and to adjust the weak eyes of my spirit to its unaccustomed light, and during that moment my whole life remained suspended on the edge of an abyss: but this time, the abyss was an abyss of love and peace, the abyss was God. 

It would be in some sense a blind, irrevocable act to throw myself over. But if I failed to do that ... I did not even have to turn and look behind me at what I would be leaving. Wasn’t I tired enough of all that? 

So now the question faced me: 

“Do you really want to be a priest? If you do, say so...” 

The hymn was ending. The priest collected the ends of the humeral veil over his hands that held the base of the monstrance, and slowly lifted it off the altar, and turned to bless the people. 

I looked straight at the Host, and I knew, now, Who it was that I was looking at, and I said: 

“Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest—make me a priest.” 

When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what a union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision.

I don't think that I have ever had a moment of clarity like this.  Merton is absolutely sure in his decision.  It may have come after years of being faithless.  False starts and ignored signs.  Yet, here Merton finally is:  hearing God's voice and answering with an emphatic "yes."

I ruminate.  Ponder.  Weigh options.  Think.  Think about it again.  Then, I may seek out advice from one or two people.  Sometimes more.  After I have done all this, I'm usually no closer to an answer than when I started the whole process.  

I wish a lived in Biblical times.  Aside from wide-spread leprosy and some plagues of locusts, things were a lot simpler back then.  If you prayed and prayed for something, eventually God sent down an angel who knocked on your door, asking for some food and lodging.  If you were smart enough to be a hospitable host, in the morning, that angel would answer your prayer.  Your barren wife would be with child.  Your possessed child would be unpossessed.  Your terminally ill mother would get out of bed and make breakfast for everyone in the house.

God was a lot more transparent back then.  Miracles more plentiful.  Angels as common as sheep.  

These days, God doesn't write answers on walls or send seraphic messengers.  Cities don't get destroyed by pillars of fire, and, the last time I checked the weather forecast, the meteorologist wasn't predicting 40 days of rain.  Miracles have been replaced by metaphors.

That means that poets have become the prophets of our time.  They deal in truth, even if they tell it slant.  The best poems--the ones that take my breath away--have the power of prophecy in them.  Think about it.  Even Rodney Dangerfield got inspired by Dylan Thomas in Back to School to not go gentle into that good night.  

I think that's why, when I'm really churning over a really difficult question or problem, I pick up a collection of poems.  For me, it's a sacred act.  Words elevated to God's breath.  My favorite gospel text, as my one Constant Reader already knows, is John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  

Tonight has been a struggle for me.  Without delving into the details, let me just say that I reached for a little Seamus Heaney, from his poem "Digging":

. . .

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Life can be difficult sometimes, full of mold and squelch and slap.  Hard earth that needs to be turned by a spade, over and over and over, until it yields something living.  Something that can feed and sustain you.

Tonight, I'm digging with my pen, looking for answers.

Saint Marty will let you know when something green starts to grow.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

February 20: I Am Going to Be a Priest, God Talks to Us, River Phoenix

Merton has a quiet revelation . . .

It was the voice of the Church, the Bride of Christ who is in the world yet not of it, whose life transcends and outlives wars and persecutions and revolutions and all the wickedness and cruelty and rapacity and injustice of men. It is truly meet and just always and in all things to give Thee thanks, Holy Lord, omnipotent Father, eternal God: a tremendous prayer that reduces all wars to their real smallness and insignificance in the face of eternity. It is a prayer that opens the door to eternity, that springs from eternity and goes again into eternity, taking our minds with it in its deep and peaceful wisdom. Always and in all things to give Thee thanks, omnipotent Father. Was it thus that she was singing, this Church, this one Body, who had already begun to suffer and to bleed again in another war? 

She was thanking Him in the war, in her suffering: not for the war and for the suffering, but for His love which she knew was protecting her, and us, in this new crisis. And raising up her eyes to Him, she saw the eternal God alone through all these things, was interested in His action alone, not in the bungling cruelty of secondary causes, but only in His love, His wisdom. And to Him the Church, His Bride, gave praise through Christ, through Whom all the angelic hierarchies praise Him... 

I knelt at the altar rail and on this the first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the Host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men. 

There was no special joy in that week-end in Virginia. On the Saturday afternoon when we started out from Richmond to go to Urbanna, where Jinny’s family had a boat they were going to sail in a regatta, we got the news about the sinking of the Atbenia, and then, that evening, I suddenly developed a pain in an impacted wisdom tooth. It raged all night and the next day I staggered off to the regatta, worn out with sleeplessness and holding a jaw full of pain. 

Down at the dock where there was a gas-pump for the motor boats and a red tank full of Coca-Cola on ice, we stood out of the sun in the doorway of a big shed smelling of ropes and pitch, and listened to a man talking on the radio from London. 

His voice was reassuring. The city had not yet been bombed. 

We started out of the cove, and passed through the mouth into the open estuary of the Rappahannock, blazing with sun, and everybody was joking about the Bremen. The big German liner had sailed out of New York without warning and had disappeared. Every once in a while some high drawling Southern female voice would cry: 

“There’s the Bremen.” 

I had a bottle of medicine in my pocket, and with a match and a bit of cotton I swabbed the furious impacted tooth. 

Nevertheless, when I got back to New York, it turned out that the war was not going to be so ruthless after all—at least so it seemed. The fighting was fierce in Poland, but in the west there was nothing doing. And now that the awful tension was over, people were quieter and more confident than they had been before the fighting had started. 

I went to a dentist who hammered and chipped at my jaw until he got the wisdom tooth out of my head, and then I went back to Perry Street and lay on my bed and played some ancient records of Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman’s trumpet player, and swabbed my bleeding mouth with purple disinfectant until the whole place reeked of it. 

I had five stitches in my jaw. 

The days went by. The city was quiet and confident. It even began to get gay again. Whatever happened, it was evident that America was not going to get into the war right away, and a lot of people were saying that it would just go on like this for years, a sort of state of armed waiting and sniping, with the big armies lined up in their impregnable fortified areas. It was as if the world were entering upon a strange new era in which the pretence of peace had defined itself out into what it was, a state of permanent hostility that was nevertheless not quite ready to fight. And some people thought we were just going to stay that way for twenty years. 

For my own part, I did not think anything about it, except that the grim humor of Russia’s position in the war could not help but strike me: for now, after a loud outcry and a great storm of crocodile tears over Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia the year before, the Reds were comfortably allied with Germany and blessing, with a benign smile, the annihilation of Poland, ready themselves to put into effect some small designs of their own regarding the Finns. 

The party line had evolved indeed, and turned itself into many knots since the days of the 1935 Peace Strike and the Oxford Pledge. We had once been led to believe that all wars were wars of aggression and wars of aggression were the direct product of capitalism, masking behind Fascism and all the other movements with colored shirts, and therefore no one should fight at all. It now turned out that the thing to do was support the aggressive war of the Soviets against Finland and approve the Russian support of German aggression in Poland. 

The September days went by, and the first signs of fall were beginning to be seen in the clearing of the bright air. The days of heat were done. It was getting on toward that season of new beginnings, when I would get back to work on my Ph.D., and when I hoped possibly to get some kind of job as an instructor at Columbia, in the College or in Extension. 

These were the things I was thinking about when one night Rice and Bob Gerdy and I were in Nick’s on Sheridan Square, sitting at the curved bar while the room rocked with jazz. Presently Gibney came in with Peggy Wells, who was one of the girls in that show at the Center Theater, the name of which I have forgotten. We all sat together at a table and talked and drank. It was just like all the other nights we spent in those places. It was more or less uninteresting but we couldn’t think of anything else to do and there seemed to be no point in going to bed. 

After Rice and Gerdy went home, Gibney and Peggy and I still sat there. Finally it got to be about four o’clock in the morning. Gibney did not want to go out on Long Island, and Peggy lived uptown in the Eighties. 

They came to Perry Street, which was just around the corner. 

It was nothing unusual for me to sleep on the floor, or in a chair, or on a couch too narrow and too short for comfort—that was the way we lived, and the way thousands of other people like us lived. One stayed up all night, and finally went to sleep wherever there happened to be room for one man to put his tired carcass. 

It is a strange thing that we should have thought nothing of it, when if anyone had suggested sleeping on the floor as a penance, for the love of God, we would have felt that he was trying to insult our intelligence and dignity as men! What a barbarous notion! Making yourself uncomfortable as a penance! And yet we somehow seemed to think it quite logical to sleep that way as part of an evening dedicated to pleasure. It shows how far the wisdom of the world will go in contradicting itself. “From him that hath not, it shall be taken away even that which he hath.” 

I suppose I got some five or six hours of fitful sleep, and at about eleven we were all awake, sitting around dishevelled and half stupefied, talking and smoking and playing records. The thin, ancient, somewhat elegiac cadences of the long dead Beiderbecke sang in the room. From where I sat, on the floor, I could see beyond the roofs to a patch of clear fall sky. 

At about one o’clock in the afternoon I went out to get some breakfast, returning with scrambled eggs and toast and coffee in an armful of cardboard containers, different shapes and sizes, and pockets full of new packs of cigarettes. But I did not feel like smoking. We ate and talked, and finally cleared up all the mess and someone had the idea of going for a walk to the Chicken Dock. So we got ready to go. 

Somewhere in the midst of all this, an idea had come to me, an idea that was startling enough and momentous enough by itself, but much more astonishing in the context. Perhaps many people will not believe what I am saying. 

While we were sitting there on the floor playing records and eating this breakfast the idea came to me: “I am going to be a priest.”

This is how most big ideas come to me:  in quiet, mundane moments.  Between scrambled eggs and jazz, Merton comes to his calling.  It's not one thing.  He doesn't read a want ad from a Trappist monastery.  Doesn't see a billboard in Times Square with the face of Saint Benedict on it.  I suppose that it is simply an accumulation of events and experiences that leads him to this epiphany.  Perhaps it's everything that's happened in his life up to this point.

It is almost midnight on Saturday.  It has been a long day of library work and church musician work and writer's work.  This blog post is the end for me.  After I click the publish tab, I may just stumble off to bed, or I may put a movie in the Blu-ray player and fall asleep on the couch.  I could go grab some chips from the kitchen cupboard, a glass of wine, and a book.  Read into the early Sunday morning hours.  

And somewhere, in the middle of all that, perhaps God will reach down and tap me on the shoulder.  Whisper in my ear.  Place in my mind something astounding.  Maybe I'll wake up in the morning, run to my kitchen table, and start writing a book that will become a bestseller.  Or start scribbling a poem in my journal that will become a viral sensation.  Or apply for an arts residency on Rabbit Island.  Or compose an opera libretto.   

Here's the thing:  I think God talks to us all the time.  We're just too blinded and deafened by life to hear Her.  It's like chasing sleep when the person in bed next to you is snoring so loud that it rattles the windows.  It's impossible to do.  The noise overwhelms the urge for rest, drives it away.  And you lie there, head on the pillow, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about the leftover pizza in the fridge.

Since I'm a poet, I sort of depend on inspiration for a lot of what I do.  Sometimes it's easy.  Last weekend, God put a poem in my head.  I took out my journal and, about three hours later, I had a finished poem.  Sometimes it's difficult, like tonight.  I planned on working on a chapbook manuscript this evening.  Instead, I read a short story.  Had a text conversation with a good friend who had a really terrible day because of a reaction to a medication.  Watched the movie The Family Stone.  Planned a couple poetry workshops.  Answered a couple e-mails.  Took a nap.  Basically, I did everything BUT revise that book.

Now, I want to watch a River Phoenix movie.  Maybe My Own Private Idaho.  I'm not sure if all the things I've done this evening are a prelude to some kind divine artistic revelation, or just stupid indulgences.  Avoidance.  Noise getting in the way of God's work in my life.  And it's getting so late that God may just have to call back tomorrow.  

I'm going to click publish in a minute or so.  Grab a piece of pizza.  Cue up River Phoenix.  Fall asleep on the couch.

That is what Saint Marty is feeling called to do.  Amen.  Hallelujah.  Pass the bottle.

Friday, February 19, 2021

February 15-19: Idiotic World of Men, Lenten Year, Plagues

Merton goes to church at the start of World War II:

The nights dragged by. I remember one, when I was driving in from Long Island where I had been having dinner at Gibney’s house at Port Washington. The man with whom I was riding had a radio in the car, and we were riding along the empty Parkway, listening to a quiet, tired voice from Berlin. These commentators’ voices had lost all their pep. There was none of that lusty and doctrinaire elation with which the news broadcasters usually convey the idea that they know all about everything. This time you knew that nobody knew what was going to happen, and they all admitted it. True, they were all agreed that the war was now going to break out. But when? Where? They could not say. 

All the trains to the German frontier had been stopped. All air service had been discontinued. The streets were empty. You got the feeling that things were being cleared for the first great air-raid, the one that everyone had been wondering about, that H. G. Wells and all the other people had written about, the one that would wipe out London in one night... 

The Thursday night before the first Friday of September I went to confession at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then, with characteristic stupidity, stopped in at Dillon’s, which was a bar where we went all the time, across the street from the stage-door of the Center Theater. Gibney and I used to sit there waiting for the show to end, and we would hang around until one or two in the morning with several girls we knew who had bits to play in it. This evening, before the show was out, I ran into Jinny Burton, who was not in the show, but could have been in many better shows than that, and she said she was going home to Richmond over Labor Day. She invited me to come with her. We arranged to meet in Pennsylvania Station the following morning. 

When it was morning, I woke up early and heard the radios. I could not quite make out what they were saying, but the voices were not tired any more: there was much metallic shouting which meant something had really happened. 

On my way to Mass, I found out what it was. They had bombed Warsaw, and the war had finally begun. 

In the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, near the Pennsylvania Station, there was a High Mass. The priest stood at the altar under the domed mosaic of the apse and his voice rose in the solemn cadences of the Preface of the Mass—those ancient and splendid and holy words of the Immortal Church. Vere dignum et justum est aequum et salutare nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus... 

It was the voice of the Church, the Bride of Christ who is in the world yet not of it, whose life transcends and outlives wars and persecutions and revolutions and all the wickedness and cruelty and rapacity and injustice of men. It is truly meet and just always and in all things to give Thee thanks, Holy Lord, omnipotent Father, eternal God: a tremendous prayer that reduces all wars to their real smallness and insignificance in the face of eternity. It is a prayer that opens the door to eternity, that springs from eternity and goes again into eternity, taking our minds with it in its deep and peaceful wisdom. Always and in all things to give Thee thanks, omnipotent Father. Was it thus that she was singing, this Church, this one Body, who had already begun to suffer and to bleed again in another war? 

She was thanking Him in the war, in her suffering: not for the war and for the suffering, but for His love which she knew was protecting her, and us, in this new crisis. And raising up her eyes to Him, she saw the eternal God alone through all these things, was interested in His action alone, not in the bungling cruelty of secondary causes, but only in His love, His wisdom. And to Him the Church, His Bride, gave praise through Christ, through Whom all the angelic hierarchies praise Him... 

I knelt at the altar rail and on this the first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the Host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men. 

The world is falling apart around Merton, and he turns to the rituals of the Catholic Church for some kind of solace or meaning.  To makes sense of the selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.  How do you find meaning in a world where Adolf Hitler is possible?  Where the Holocaust happened?  You kneel, I guess.  Bow your head.  Wait for some action of grace to take place.

Three days ago, Mardi Gras was celebrated, with paczkis and king cakes.  Two days ago, ashes and the beginning of Lent.  But, really, it seems like we have lived an entire Lenten year.  Since last March, I feel like ashes have been dusting our heads every day.  So, this transition into the next 40 days of the Christian calendar doesn't seem all that difficult to me, aside from the fact of not eating meat on Fridays.  We've all been fasting for a very long time.  

Of course, everyone knows what comes after the fasting and sacrifice and darkness.  Renewal.  Rebirth.  Redemption.  That is what we're all waiting for.  For the last several days, snow has fallen overnight.  Every morning, when I take my dog for a spin around the house, I step into a world that's been erased, filled with palimpsest cars and trees and buildings.  Everything paper white and new, waiting for the pencil of day.

Nobody who knows me would say that I'm an optimist.  In fact, I have been categorized by more than one therapist and counselor as a pessimist.  I don't see the glass as half-full or half-empty.  I see it as coated in a virus that could wreak Armageddon on my compromised immune system and wind me up on a ventilator.  I have a Lenten disposition.

While I love eggs and ham and chocolate, I am not a big Easter person.  Never have been.  I don't know why.  Perhaps it's because I was raised by really hard-working Catholic parents who taught me about Purgatory and penance.  Nothing is free.  Therefore, the marshmallow eggs and peanut butter bunnies of Easter were hard-earned.  As a young kid, I thought that Jesus died on the cross so that Easter Bunny could hop across the globe and deliver baskets.  Christ paid the price for our candy.  Of course, I now know that the Easter Bunny is much less Old Testament than Santa, who delivers coal to the naughty of the world.  There is no threat of chocolate-coated dung beetles in the Easter Bunny gospel.  Yet, the notion of earning grace persists in my being.

Since this pandemic began, there have been groups of people who have forwarded the idea that the human race is somehow being punished for its collective transgressions.  Certainly, when the entire planet shutdown in March and April of last year, the environment benefitted.  Air pollution lifted.  Mount Everest could be seen clearly from 120 miles away in northern India for the first time in decades.  All of the sins that we've committed against nature were abruptly curtailed or ceased altogether for a few months.  The result?  The world took a deep breath of fresh air.

Now, I know that plagues have been with us since the beginning of time.  Moses had plagues.  Back in the day, the bubonic plague wiped out 75 to 200 million people, that's almost 60% of the population of Europe.  Cholera.  Flu.  AIDS.  Pandemics happen and have been happening forever.  I don't buy into the idea of widespread divine retribution.  God doesn't work that way.  I think we as a group disappoint God every day.  However, She isn't some holy Mommie Dearest waiting to whip us all with a wire coat hanger.  She has more in common with Carol Brady than Joan Crawford.

So, I enter Lent this year with my eyes focused on what's coming.  Because after times of great struggle and pain come times of celebration and joy.  Spring times.  One hundred and seventy trees survived the bombing of Hiroshima and are still thriving, over 75 years later.  Panic grass and feverfew flourished and greened the blighted Hiroshima landscape in the weeks following the bombing, filling survivors with hope.  Nobody earned these symbols of resilience.  They were there.  Period.  To lift a people who had experienced a great horror.

All this knowledge doesn't change me.  I will still work hard to feel as if I've earned the goodness that comes my way.  Because that's who I am.  I think that we are placed in this universe for a reason.  To be instruments for peace and happiness and compassion and love.  That's the point of the entire Jesus narrative.  It's the point of life.  When it's my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, I sincerely hope that I will leave this place a little better than when I entered it.  

Instead of a plague of sickness and despair, I want to spread a plague of kindness, understanding, and wonder.

For the possibility of that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

February 14: A Little Darkness and Suffering, Unconditional Love, Valentine's Day

Merton gets an answer to a prayer . . . 

I think I prayed as well as I could, considering what I was, and with considerable confidence in God and in Our Lady, and I knew I would be answered. I am only just beginning to realize how well I was answered. In the first place the book was never published, and that was a good thing. But in the second place God answered me by a favor which I had already refused and had practically ceased to desire. He gave me back the vocation that I had half-consciously given up, and He opened to me again the doors that had fallen shut when I had not known what to make of my Baptism and the grace of that First Communion. 

But before He did this I had to go through some little darkness and suffering. 

I think those days at the end of August 1939 were terrible for everyone. They were grey days of great heat and sultriness and the weight of physical oppression by the weather added immeasurably to the burden of the news from Europe that got more ominous day by day. 

Now it seemed that at last there really would be war in earnest. Some sense of the craven and perverted esthetic excitement with which the Nazis were waiting for the thrill of this awful spectacle made itself felt negatively, and with hundredfold force, in the disgust and nausea with which the rest of the world expected the embrace of this colossal instrument of death. It was a danger that had, added to it, an almost incalculable element of dishonor and insult and degradation and shame. And the world faced not only destruction, but destruction with the greatest possible defilement: defilement of that which is most perfect in man, his reason and his will, his immortal soul. 

All this was obscure to most people, and made itself felt only in a mixture of disgust and hopelessness and dread. They did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of its individuals had made of their own souls. We had given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled by sin, by hell itself and now, for our inexorable instruction and reward, the whole thing was to take place all over again before our eyes, physically and morally, in the social order, so that some of us at least might have some conception of what we had done. 

In those days, I realized it myself. I remember one of the nights at the end of August when I was riding on the subway, and suddenly noticed that practically nobody in the car was reading the evening paper, although the wires were hot with news. The tension had become so great that even this toughest of cities had had to turn aside and defend itself against the needles of such an agonizing stimulation. For once everybody else was feeling what Lax and I and Gibney and Rice had been feeling for two years about newspapers and news. 

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I myself am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too...” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my soul a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September. 

One of the most common prayers today, I think, is for love.  The continuing of it.  The finding of it.  The fixing of it.  The longing for it.  And, of course, prayers for love are often accompanied by "some little darkness and suffering," as Merton notes.

It is Valentine's Day night.  I've been seeing all kinds of love posts in my Facebook feed all day.  Photos of couples, surrounded by clouds of hearts.  Wedding photos.  Photos of homemade pizza, with captions like "My hubby made me this,"  The most common post this year:  a form filled filled out by one partner with details about first dates and who said "I love you" first and who's the most stubborn.  

For anyone struggling with love or pining for it, Valentine's Day is not the happiest of occasions.  In fact, it can highlight loneliness and isolation almost as much as Christmas.  Maybe even a little bit more.  This holiday highlights everything that you have in your life, or everything that you lack.  

Of course, the greatest love that exists in the universe is God's love for each and everyone of us.  If you believe in God.  Even the metaphor of God.  A being that is all about unconditional love.  It's what we all hope for.  Aspire to be.  Now, the question is whether unconditional love is really a healthy thing.  

God forgives.  Over and over and over.  No matter how many times you wrong God, He will still love you.  That's sort of the deal.  There's something really beautiful in that.  Yet, when it comes to human relationships, my therapist might call that dynamic a little unhealthy.  Codependent.  Abusive.  

I've been married for 25 years.  My wife and I have been together for over 30 years.  There's been a lot of mistakes.  Arguments.  Betrayals even.  And there's been a lot of forgiveness, as well.  That's how we've made it this long.  Over 30 Valentine's Days.  I love my wife.  Tried to love her unconditionally.  I'm not sure if I've succeeded all the time, but I've tried.

And my wife has loved me, as well.  

Human love is imperfect, because humans are imperfect.  We make frequent mistakes.  Sometimes, we make the same mistakes, over and over and over. and over.  For a lot of reasons.  That means, if we follow God's example, we also have to forgive.  Over and over and over and over.  That is the depth of God's love for us.  

Yet, imperfect human love can be pretty heartbreaking.  I can vouch for that, as well.  Heartbreak and love go hand-in-hand.  Two sides of the same coin.  They define each other.  One can't exist without the other.

Yet, I do have unconditional love in my life.  In fact, I just put unconditional love to bed, after she slept next to me for the better part of an hour.  She licked my face before she walked to her kennel.  

When I look into my puppy's eyes, I know the face of unconditional love.  The only things she expects of me are a hand to scratch her belly, water in her dish, food in her bowl, and a walk every day or so.

I look into her eyes, and there is unconditional love.  Simple.  Unquestioning.  No human shortcomings to muck it all up.

So, Saint Marty hopes that all of his disciples know the miracle of unconditional love in their lives.  Undying and infinitely compassionate.  That is what Valentine's Day is all about.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

February 8-13: For God's Glory, Trust Thing, "A House of Sand"

Merton prays and prays and prays to be a published writer . . .  

When we went back to New York, in the middle of August, the world that I had helped to make was finally preparing to break the shell and put forth its evil head and devour another generation of men. 

At Olean we never read any newspapers, and we kept away from radios on principle, and for my own part the one thing that occupied my mind was the publication of the new novel. Having found an old copy of Fortune lying around Benjie’s premises, I had read an article in it on the publishing business: and on the basis of that article I had made what was perhaps the worst possible choice of a publisher—the kind of people who would readily reprint everything in the Saturday Evening Post in diamond letters on sheets of gold. They were certainly not disposed to be sympathetic to the wild and rambling thing I had composed on the mountain. 

And it was going to take them a good long time to get around to telling me about it. 

For my own part, I was walking around New York in the incomparable agony of a new author waiting to hear the fate of his first book—an agony which is second to nothing except the torments of adolescent love. And because of my anguish I was driven, naturally enough, to fervent though interested prayer. But after all God does not care if our prayers are interested. He wants them to be. Ask and you shall receive. It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs: for this is only another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God—acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him and dependent, by His will, on material things too. 

So I knelt at the altar rail in the little Mexican church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Fourteenth Street, where I sometimes went to Communion, and asked with great intensity of desire for the publication of the book, if it should be for God’s glory. 

The fact that I could even calmly assume that there was some possibility of the book giving glory to God shows the profound depths of my ignorance and spiritual blindness: but anyway, that was what I asked. But now I realize that it was a very good thing that I made that prayer. 

It is a matter of common belief among Catholics that when God promises to answer our prayers, He does not promise to give us exactly what we ask for. But we can always be certain that if he does not give us that, it is because He has something much better to give us instead. That is what is meant by Christ’s promise that we will receive all that we ask in His Name. Quodcumque petimus adversus utilitatem salutis, non petimus in nomine Salvatoris. 

I've been taught this lesson since I was a small boy.  God hears all our prayers, and He answers each and every one of them.  He just doesn't always answer them in the way that we want or expect.  And if He doesn't give you exactly what you want, it's because He has something bigger and better in mind for you.  Merton wants his terrible novel published.  God doesn't grant him this petition.  Instead, eventually, Merton writes The Seven Storey Mountain, and here we are--over seven decades after it was published--going on the second year of Saint Marty posts based on his book.  I suppose that is an answer to Merton's prayer, just not in the way or time frame he had in mind.

Of course, Merton could never have realized the impact of his memoir, or even envisioned something like a blog.  He didn't have that kind of long-range vision.  And that's the rub.  When my sister was dying of lymphoma of the brain, I prayed for her recovery.  With every cell in my body, I prayed for that.  It didn't happen.  Now, I don't know what "bigger and better" thing God has planned for a world without my sister's physical presence.  Since my sister's passing, as a matter of fact, my family has sort of disintegrated.  I haven't seen a lot of good coming out of my sister's death.

But maybe that good is going to come 70 years from now, after I've written a poem or memoir or play about my sister.  Through my words, maybe I'll save someone from despair.  Or maybe somebody has already read the poem I wrote for my sister's funeral, and it has provided some kind of comfort or solace.  I may never know what difference my sister's death made in the universe. 

It's that whole trust thing.  I have to trust that God knows what He's doing.  My wanting God to save my sister's life--well, that's me wanting to be God.  I've seen the movie Bruce Almighty enough times to know that playing God doesn't work out all that well.  Human beings are too selfish and myopic.  Perhaps me winning the Nobel Prize in Literature will cause a failed writer to commit genocide.  That sort of thing.  (Think about it.  If The Apprentice had still been a top-rated show on network TV, would Donald Trump have run for President of the United States?  If Adolf Hitler had been a successful artist, would the Holocaust have happened?  Nobody will know the answers to these questions.)

I have trust issues--a lot of them.  And I have faith.  Go to church every weekend.  Usually a couple times.  Yet, I still question why God allows things to happen in the world and in my life.  My agnostic and atheist friends who read this blog regularly are now shaking their heads at my stupid naivete.  And my pastor friends are doing the same thing.

My godless friends are saying to me, "It's all chance and humanity.  People get sick.  People cheat on their spouses.  People blindly follow hate-mongering tyrants."  My pastor friends are saying to me, "God doesn't allow things like that to happen.  We live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people.  Humans mess it up, and God just picks up the pieces and puts them back together in new and miraculous ways."  Both groups of friends are basically saying the same thing:  human beings are flawed creatures, and they inflict their imperfections on the world.

The difference, however, comes in the belief--the faith and trust--that the universe or Creator or God will somehow right what's wrong.  Out of the darkness will come light.  It may take a long time.  We may never see that light.  But, you cannot have darkness without its opposite.  The two define each other.  Therefore, you also cannot have despair without hope.  Same principle.

This week, I've been struggling a lot with these ideas, for very personal reasons that I won't get into.  That is what has kept me from blogging regularly.  I've been too tired from arguing with God all day to sit down at night and string together coherent sentences.  And I'm not on the other side of this battle yet.  Still in the trenches.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.  It's one of those holidays that come with all kinds of unrealistic expectations, sort of like Christmas.  I have been married for over 25 years now, and my wife and I have been together for close to 30 years.  That time has not always been easy or filled with romance and love.  It has also been filled depression, separation, mental illness, and addictions.  So when I went shopping for a Valentine's card for my wife today, I couldn't find a single one that exactly expressed my feelings.  Instead, I settled on one card, which I will revise.  That's what poets do.

I have been trying to hold things in my life together for a long time.  Like Merton, I've been praying, telling God exactly how He should fix my problems.  God hasn't really been cooperating.  He seems to have other plans.  So, I've had sleepless nights and tired days.  Because where there is faith, there's also its opposite:  fear.  I suppose you can't have one without the other, either.

Even saints experience this struggle.  Mother Teresa wrote, "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss--of God not wanting me--of God not being God--of God not really existing . . . That darkness that surrounds me on all sides--"  But, she also said, "If ever I become a saint, I will surely be one of 'darkness.'  I will continually be absent from heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth."

Saint Marty believes in the miracle of light after darkness, whatever form that light may take.  Who is he to argue with Mother Teresa.

And a poem written during this week . . .

A House of Sand

by:  Martin Achatz

I live in a house of sand
that shivers, moves with my breath,
becomes grit in wind, shrinks
with every sparrow wing
that slaps by. I haul
bags of beach, pour them
into living room, kitchen, mold
new couch, dining table, shelves
to hold my words, a bed to sink
into at night. I am an oyster
burrowed, hidden in silt,
a grain under my tongue
that I work, worry, polish
until dawn, when I open my lips
to loose a pearl of sun, watch it
rise, rise over vast dunes, ruins
of the previous day's architecture,
just powder now, sifting through
my fingers. I understand why God
rested on the seventh day.
It's exhausting trying to hold
a world together.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

February 7: Pile of Dirty Clothes, Super Bowl Sunday, Amanda Gorman

Merton gets blind drunk . . . 

With the money I had kept in my pocket we went into the other places we would have done well to keep out of, and saw all of the carnival, and then went into Bradford where, drinking beer in a bar, we began to feel better and started to assuage our wounds by telling a lot of fancy lies to some girls we met in the bar—they were maids who worked at the t.b. sanatorium at Rocky Crest, on the mountain about a mile and a half from the cottage. 

I remember that as the evening went on, there was a fairly large mixed audience of strangers gathered around the table where we were holding forth about the amusement ring which we managed and controlled. It was called the Panama-American Entertainment corporation, and was so magnificent that it made the present carnival in Bradford look like a sideshow. However, the effect was somewhat spoiled when a couple of Bradford strong men came up with no signs of interest in our story, and said:

 “If we see you guys around here again with those beards we are going to knock your heads off” 

So Rice stood up and said: “Yeah? Do you want to fight?” 

Everybody went out into the alley, and there was a great deal of talk back and forth, but no fight, which was a good thing. They were quite capable of making us eat those beards. 

We eventually found our way home but Rice did not dare try to drive the car into the garage for fear he would miss the door. He stopped short in the driveway and we opened the doors of the car and rolled out and lay on the grass, looking blindly up into the stars while the earth rolled and pitched beneath us like a foundering ship. The last thing I remember about that night was that Rice and I eventually got up and walked into the house, and found Lax sitting in one of the chairs in the living room, talking aloud, and uttering a lot of careful and well-thought-out statements directed to a pile of dirty clothes, bundled up and ready for the laundry, which somebody had left in another armchair on the other side of the room. 

There's nothing very deep in this passage from The Seven Storey Mountain.  It can be summed up pretty easily:  Thomas Merton and his friends lose most of their money gambling, get stinking drunk, drive home, and pass out.  If you throw football into the mix, you'd have a perfect description of today in the United States.

It's Super Bowl Sunday.  The teams playing--the Tampa Bay Buccaneers versus the Kansas City Racially Insensitive Mascots.  I just checked Google to see who won.  It appears the Buccaneers defeated the Racially Insensitive Mascots pretty soundly.  I don't know if that was a surprise or not.  What was a surprise to me:  Amanda Gorman reading a Super Bowl poem.

It appears that Gorman is the It Girl at the moment.  Presidential Inauguration.  Interviewed by Michelle Obama for Time Magazine.  Now, the preshow for the Super Bowl.  I don't think poetry has ever been in the spotlight in my country this much.  First, American poet Louise Gluck wins the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, and now Amanda Gorman dominates two of the biggest events that will happen this year.  

As a poet, this makes me quite happy.  Obviously.  That teenagers and 20-somethings have a young, African American poet as a role model.  And, at one of the largest sporting events in the world, poetry takes the same stage as the Weeknd, and gets better reviews.  If you're feeling a little cold, that's because hell is freezing over.

I didn't watch the Super Bowl tonight.  Don't really care about football.  Instead, I led a poetry workshop.  Spent a couple of hours writing with two talented poets.  It was a pretty good ending to a cold weekend.  (Or should that be Weeknd?)  If I could make my living just doing workshops and poetry readings, that would be a dream.  

From a pretty good source, I found out that Amanda Gorman is now pulling down $50,000 for a virtual appearance.  If you want Amanda to actually walk across your stage, the price tag goes up to $100,000.  Now, I am not saying that she doesn't deserve to be paid well for what she does.  I believe all artists are underpaid and underappreciated.

I've called myself a poet for the majority of my adult life.  I'm happy if I'm given a free poster and a plate of brownies for doing a reading.  The kind of money Gorman is making is unfathomable to me.  If I were her, I'd do about ten or 12 readings in January and February, and then I'd take the rest of the year off.  Maybe go to Disney World.  Or buy a condo there.

So, now I have a new goal:  reading a poem at the Super Bowl.  I think that should be worth at least a free dinner at Red Lobster.  Or a box of Oatmeal Cream Pies.

Saint Marty gives thanks for poetic miracles.


Friday, February 5, 2021

February 5: The Game is Open, Carnival Barkers, Free Will

 Merton takes a gamble . . . 

A carnival came to Bradford. To us that meant a couple of Ferris wheels and a bingo game and the “Whip” and a man wearing a white uniform and a crash helmet being fired out of a cannon into a net. We got into the car and started out along the Rock City road, through the dark woods alive with the drumming of the oil-pumps. 

It was a big carnival. It seemed to fill the bottom of a narrow valley, one of the zig-zag valleys in which Bradford is hidden, and the place blazed with lights. The stacks of the oil refinery stood up, beyond the lights, like the guardians of hell. We walked into the white glare and the noise of crazy electric music and the thick sweet smell of candy. 

“Hey, fellows, come over this way if you please.” 

We turned our beards shyly towards the man in shirt sleeves, hatted with a felt hat, leaning out of his booth. We could see the colored board, the numbers. We approached. He began to explain to us that, out of the kindness of his big foolish heart, he was conducting this game of chance which was so easy and simple that it really amounted to a kind of public charity, a means for endowing intelligent and honest young men like ourselves with a handsome patrimony. 

We listened to his explanation. It was not one of those games where you won a box of popcorn, that was evident. In fact, although it started at a quarter, the ante doubled at every throw: of course, so did the prize, and the prize was in dollars. 

“All you have to do is roll the little ball into these holes and...” 

And he explained just what holes you had to roll the little ball into. Each time you had to get a new and different combination of numbers. 

“You put down a quarter,” said our benefactor, “and you are about to win two dollars and fifty cents. If you should happen to miss it the first time, it will be all the better for you, because for fifty cents you’ll win five dollars —for one dollar you’ll take ten—for two you’ll take twenty.” 

We put down our quarters, and rolled the little balls into the wrong holes. 

“Good for you,” said the man, “now you stand a chance of winning twice as much.” And we all put down fifty cents. 

“Fine, keep it up, you’re getting ready to win more and more each time— you can’t miss, it’s in-ev-i-table!” 

He pocketed a dollar bill from each of us. 

“That’s the way, men, that’s the way,” he exclaimed, as we all rolled the little ball into the wrong holes again. 

I paused and asked him to go over the rules of the game a second time. He did, and I listened closely. It was as I thought. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was talking about. You had to get certain combinations of numbers, and for my own part I was completely unable to figure out what the combinations were. He simply told us what to shoot for, and then rapidly added up all the numbers and announced: 

“You just missed it. Try again, you’re so close you can’t fail.” And the combination changed again. 

In about two and a half minutes he had taken all our money except for a dollar which I was earnestly saving for the rest of the carnival and for beer. How, he asked us, could we have the heart to quit now? Here we were right on the point of cleaning up, getting back all our losses, and winning a sum that made us dizzy: three hundred and fifty dollars. 

“Men,” he said, “you can’t quit now, you’re just throwing away your money if you quit. It doesn’t make sense, does it? You didn’t come all the way out here just to throw away your dough? Use your heads, boys. Can’t you see you’ve got to win?” 

Rice got that big grin on his face that meant “Let’s get out of here.” 

“We haven’t any more money,” someone said. 

“Have you any traveler’s checks?” the philanthropist inquired. 


But I never saw anyone so absorbed and solemn as Lax was, at that moment, in his black beard, with his head bowed over all those incomprehensible numbers. So he looked at me and I looked at him, and the man said: 

“If you want to run home and get a little more money, I’ll hold the game open for you—how’s that?”

 We said: “Hold the game open, we’ll be back.” 

We got into the car and drove, in the most intense silence, fifteen miles or whatever the distance was to the cottage, and fifteen miles back, with thirty-five dollars and all the rest of the money we had: but the thirty-five alone were for the game. 

When the benefactor of the poor saw the three of us come through that gate again, he really looked surprised and a little scared. The expressions on our faces must have been rather frightening, and perhaps he imagined that we had gone home not only to get our money but our guns. 

We walked up to the booth. 

“You held this game open for us, huh?” 

“Yes, indeed, men, the game is open.” 

“Explain it over again.” 

He explained it over again. He told us what we had to get to win—it seemed impossible to miss. We put the money down on the counter and Lax rolled the little ball—into the wrong holes. 

“Is that all, boys?” said the prince of charity. 

“That’s all.” We turned on our heels and went away. 

Merton the gullible.  He and his friends fall victim to two things:  a grifter and their own prides.  I've been to many of those carnival midways--as most people have--where people bark at you from inside their booths, trying, by hook or by crook, to get you to stop and lay down some cash.  And the results are pretty much what Merton describes here:  you shell twenty dollars for a sickly goldfish in a plastic bag of water.  Or you walk away empty-handed.

When I was younger, I allowed myself to get lured in by these barkers.  Walking along with my girlfriend, a man chewing a cigar shouting at me, "Hey, lover boy, want to win something for that pretty girl of yours?"  Trying to rush my children past the booths, a tattooed woman calling out, "Hey, kids, don't you want to take home a unicorn as big as you?"  The messages are always different, tailored to the situation and carnival goers.  But it's all about temptation--the game runners size you up for your weaknesses and then go to work.

As a kid, going to Catholic catechism, I would hear the story of Christ being tempted by the devil in the desert after 40 days of fasting.  I always pictured the devil as a carnival barker, offering Jesus the biggest stuffed animal on the sandy midway.  Of course, Jesus doesn't surrender to this conman.  Because . . . well, He's God.  Christ recognizes that the game is rigged.  There is literally no human way to win.

Every day is like that for humans.  We  make choices, from the time we climb out of bed in the morning to the time we crawl back in at night.  The carnival barkers are all there, vying for our attentions.  We make good choices (an apple and oatmeal for breakfast) and bad choices (a bottle of watermelon wine and Little Caesar's pizza for dinner).  It's all about free will.

I'm not a big fan of free will a lot of the time.  Because many of the people who I love make terrible choices, every day, all day.  It's so easy, as Merton learns in the passage above, to get suckered by the lights and smells and excitements of the carnival games.  In the end, however, most of us leave the fairgrounds broke and broken.

Yet, free will is what makes life interesting, I suppose.  The world would be pretty boring if everyone ate the same things, dressed the same way, read the same books, listened to the same music, liked the same movies.  Without free will, I wouldn't be a poet.  Because the world doesn't put a high value on poetry, unless you happen to be Amanda Gorman or Joy Harjo.  Instead, I'd be an accountant or doctor or plumber.  Something utilitarian.  

So, free will is a double-edged sword.  It allows abusers to be abusers.  Saints to be saints.  Trump supporters to be Trump supporters.  Poets to be poets.  You have to take the good with the not-so-good.  I'm not saying that poetry is the equivalent of losing all your money at a carnival ring toss game.  What I'm saying is that free will leaves room for poetry, but it also for porn addiction.

I chose to ask my wife to marry me.  She chose to marry me.  We chose to have children.  I chose to be a poet and contingent university professor.  I chose to have three glasses of Bailey's Irish Cream mixed with eggnog tonight.  And to watch The Man Who Invented Christmas because Christopher Plummer died today.

Like I said, every day is about possibilities, with very few opportunities for do-overs.  I'm lucky because I wouldn't change a whole lot about my life.  I would still marry my wife, despite all of the struggles we've faced because of mental illness and addiction.  I would still be a father, regardless of the fact that my son seems headed for a repeat of seventh grade.  And I would still be a poet, though it will never buy groceries or pay the water bill.  All of these choices were winning hands for me.

Saint Marty knows when to hold 'em, and knows when to fold 'em. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

February 4: A Life of Perfection, White Male Privilege, Penance

 Merton explains the two-column approach to sin . . .

In such an event, you get, not contemplation, but a kind of intellectual and esthetic gluttony—a high and refined and even virtuous form of selfishness. And when it leads to no movement of the will towards God, no efficacious love of Him, it is sterile and dead, this meditation, and could even accidentally become, under certain circumstances, a kind of a sin—at least an imperfection. 

Experience has taught me one big moral principle, which is this: it is totally impractical to plan your actions on the basis of a vast two-columned list of possibilities, with mortal sins on one side and things that are “not a mortal sin” on the other—the one to be avoided, the other to be accepted without discussion. 

Yet this hopelessly misleading division of possibilities is what serves large numbers of Catholics as a whole moral theology. It is not so bad when they are so busy working for a living that the range of possibilities is more or less cut down and determined: but Heaven help them when they go on their vacation, or when Saturday night comes around. It is one reason for the number of drunken Irishmen in the world on Saturday nights for, as we know—and it is quite true—incomplete drunkenness is per se a venial sin. Therefore apply the two-column principle. You run your finger down the column of mortal sins per se. Going to a movie in which a man and woman maul each other at close range for hundreds of feet of film is not a mortal sin per se. Neither is incomplete drunkenness, nor gambling and so on. Therefore all these belong to the order of pursuits which are not illicit. Therefore they are licit. Therefore if anyone says, no matter with what qualifications, that you ought not to do these things—he is a heretic. If people are not careful, they get themselves into the position of arguing that it is virtuous to go to the movies, to gamble, to get half-drunk ... 

I know what I am talking about, because that was the way I was still trying to live in those days. Do you want to see the two-column principle in operation? Here is an example of a lot of things which were not mortal sins in themselves. What they were per accidens I am afraid to say: I leave them up to the mercy of God; but they were done by one whom He was calling to a life of perfection, a life dedicated to the joy of serving and loving Him alone . . . 

Of course, Merton is going to go on to list and explain sins that he's committed.  Not necessarily mortal sins.  More like, sins that won't get you kicked out of the heavenly clubhouse.  Only mildly chastised.  For those of my disciples who aren't Catholic, let me give you a quick lesson in this two-columned approach to sin.  First, there are venial sins.  These are sins that are less serious and won't put your mortal soul in danger of eternal damnation.  In this category would be things like gossiping or gluttony or lustful thoughts or reading Nicholas Sparks books.  All bad, but easily and quickly forgivable.  Then there are mortal sins, which buy you a one-way ticket to the hot place.  Included in this column are things like adultery or murder or voting for Donald Trump.  Mortal sins are not unforgivable.  No sin is unforgivable.  It's just that, if a person knowingly commits a mortal sin, that person needs to repent (in the case of Catholics, go to Confession) in order to save him/herself from sharing a dorm room with Satan.

So, people can pick sins from the venial garden, but should stick away from the poison ivy of the mortal garden.  And that's what Merton does.  He won't stray so far from God that he'll put himself in the queue for hellfire, but he's not about to give up drinking or telling dirty jokes or having indiscriminate sex.  Basically, he's cherry picking how he's going to break the rules.

We've all done this as teenagers.  Seen how far we can push out parents before they take away the keys to the car, lock the front door, or kick us out into the cold.  That's part of growing up, and, I suppose, it's a part of growing up as a follower of God.  How much can we get away with before God won't let us borrow the car anymore?

Tonight, I led my monthly poetry workshop.  It was for Black History Month, and I chose prompts based on poems by some of the best African American poets of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Langston Hughes.  Rita Dove.  Gwendolyn Brooks.  Claudia Rankine.  Robert Hayden.  Yusef Komunyakaa.  Natasha Trethewey.  And it was sort of a revelation.  

As a white male, I am privileged.  I am fully aware of that.  I don't have to worry about getting pulled over by the police because I'm driving through the wrong neighborhood with the wrong skin pigment.  Or my kids being seen as intellectually inferior in school or "dangerous" as they walk down the street.  I will never be discriminated against in the workplace because of my race, and nobody will ever think that I should have natural rhythm because I'm descended from slaves.  

I've taken my privileged status for granted most of my life.  Accepted it without thought.  Benefitted from it in ways that I'm probably not even aware of.  I like to think that I'm an enlightened person now, but it's easy for a white male to say that he's racially enlightened.  It doesn't cost me anything.  I don't have to give up my job or accept a salary reduction.  It doesn't affect my kids.  I can use my enlightenment to look down on people--label them as racist and dismiss them.  Go to bed at night and sleep with a clear conscience because I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day instead of Presidents' Day.  And I think that Presidents' Day should be replaced by Indigenous Peoples' Day.  

See?  I'm a good person.  I'm on the right side.  I'm moved when I hear the song "We Shall Overcome."  Get outraged when another African American becomes the victim of police violence.  Try to include diverse points of view in the classes I teach at the university.  Lead poetry workshops for Black History Month in which I read aloud these words from Claudia Rankine:  

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.

My whole life is the product of a society that was created on the backs of slaves.  If that isn't a mortal sin, I don't know what is.  The question then is this:  what should my penance be?

I don't know the answer to that question.  Certainly, this blog post is a step in the right direction.  The workshop I led tonight was, too.  It's about speaking truth, even when it is uncomfortable.  Because I have been comfortable all my life.  

This isn't a sin that can be forgiven by saying three Our Fathers.  It's not that simple.  The last four years in the United States have proven that.  Penance is work.  Hard work.  Requiring a change of mind and heart and deed.  Until everyone starts doing this penance, there are going to be a lot more George Floyds and Trayvon Martins.

So, Bless Saint Marty, Father, for he has sinned.  It has been an entire lifetime since his last confession . . .