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.
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