Sunday, March 28, 2021

March 26-28: Poetry Workshop, Snow, Something I Wrote

This will be a Merton-less post.  Too tired for much reflection tonight.

It has been a busy day.  I woke this morning to about five or six inches of snow.  A storm blew in overnight.  After a week or so of spring weather, greening grass, fifty-degree days, winter returned with a vengeance.  Wet and heavy as a load of laundry.

Church in the morning.  Grocery shopping in the afternoon.  Cooked dinner.  Met with my book club.  Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by my friend Matt Frank.  Then, I led a poetry workshop.  Got done a little after 9 p.m.

I'm beat.  But, I wanted to share something I wrote this evening.  Not sure if it counts as a poem.

Saint Marty is not quite ready to face another week.

Reading Yellow Dog

by:  Martin Achatz

It sits on the top shelf, left-hand side, first
stack. Its cover antique yellow, a Daguerreotype
book--something that would look natural
in a Mathew Brady Civil War photo, ground
strewn with wounded, dead. I can imagine
it in the white fingers of a fallen soldier, clutched
like the picture of a wife or girlfriend. These poems,
simple as birch bark, profound as sparrow song, fill
me with feelings I haven't experienced in 40 or more
years, sitting in front of a potbellied stove, reading
Conan and Red Sonja comic books with my sisters,
hearing something large and black nose through
the garbage in the dark outside. 

I open the book's cover, to where 
its author wrote a note to me
three wars ago: For Martin, 
who knows the bear.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

March 22-25: Simple Way of Wiping Out Sins, Giving Thanks, Darkness and Light

Merton in Cuba . . . 

There was a partial natural explanation for this. I was learning a thing that could not be completely learned except in a culture that is at least outwardly Catholic. One needs the atmosphere of French or Spanish or Italian Catholicism before there is any possibility of a complete and total experience of all the natural and sensible joys that overflow from the Sacramental life. 

But here, at every turn, I found my way into great, cool, dark churches, some of them with splendid altars shining with carven retables or rich with mahogany and silver: and wonderful red gardens of flame flowered before the saints or the Blessed Sacrament. 

Here in niches were those lovely, dressed-up images, those little carved Virgins full of miracle and pathos and clad in silks and black velvet, throned above the high altars. Here, in side chapels, were those pietas fraught with fierce, Spanish drama, with thorns and nails whose very sight pierced the mind and heart, and all around the church were many altars to white and black saints: and everywhere were Cubans in prayer, for it is not true that the Cubans neglect their religion—or not as true as Americans complacently think, basing their judgements on the lives of the rich, sallow young men who come north from the island and spend their days in arduous gambling in the dormitories of Jesuit colleges. 

But I was living like a prince in that island, like a spiritual millionaire. Every morning, getting up about seven or half-past, and walking out into the warm sunny street, I could find my way quickly to any one of a dozen churches, new churches or as old as the seventeenth century. Almost as soon as I went in the door I could receive Communion, if I wished, for the priest came out with a ciborium loaded with Hosts before Mass and during it and after it—and every fifteen or twenty minutes a new Mass was starting at a different altar. These were the churches of the religious Orders— Carmelites, Franciscans, the American Augustinians at El Santo Cristo, or the Fathers of Mercy—everywhere I turned, there was someone ready to feed me with the infinite strength of the Christ Who loved me, and Who was beginning to show me with an immense and subtle and generous lavishness how much He loved me.

And there were a thousand things to do, a thousand ways of easily making a thanksgiving: everything lent itself to Communion: I could hear another Mass, I could say the Rosary, do the Stations of the Cross, or if I just knelt where I was, everywhere I turned my eyes I saw saints in wood or plaster or those who seemed to be saints in flesh and blood—and even those who were probably not saints, were new enough and picturesque enough to stimulate my mind with many meanings and my heart with prayers. And as I left the church there was no lack of beggars to give me the opportunity of almsgiving, which is an easy and simple way of wiping out sins. 

I love stories about people waking up to the holiness within them and around them.  That's what is going on here with young Merton.  He is unaccountably happy and at peace, and that state doesn't come from money or fame or chocolate or power.  Nope.  It comes from, as Merton says, making a thanksgiving.  Being grateful for all the gifts and graces in his life.  

I think that everyone would be a lot happier if they simply gave thanks more.  If you wake up in the morning and--instead of thinking "I can't face this day!"--say out loud, "thank you for this day!" . . . Well, I think your day is going to be a whole lot better.  Gratitude does that--changes you.  It's like Communion in a way.  You're giving thanks for the table that's been set for you.

Some days, I can perform this little act of praise.  It's simple and easy.  Other days, however, I struggle to muster this attitude of gratitude.  I know that my life is deeply blessed.  With kids, family, friends.  A job that allows me to talk to poets and musicians and writers.  Students that challenge me to think in new and exciting ways.  A home.  Food in the fridge.  A puppy that is, quite simply, the cutest puppy that has ever existed.  My blessings are pretty plentiful.  And most days, I'm able to recognize that and give thanks.

Yet, there are also days when darkness sort of overtakes me, and I focus instead on the empty chairs at the Communion table.  Poverty instead of plenty.  Today was one of those days.  I've been teaching the gothic vampire novella Carmilla in my writing class these last couple weeks, and I've sort of felt like there's been some kind of darkness following me since I woke up this morning.  I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting to see some shadow disappearing around the corner.

No, I'm not having a psychotic break.  I'm just noticing the spaces in my life that used to be full.  That's all.  The dark places that used to be filled with light.  There's an essential truth to recognize here, and I've said it before:  you cannot have light without darkness.  And, conversely, you can't have darkness without light.  That's the way life works.

So, this evening, I have to give thanks for the darkness in my life.  Because it reminds me that light is on the way.  In a week, we'll be celebrating Good Friday.  Three days in the tomb.  And then, Easter morning.  Death into resurrection.

Saint Marty gives thanks this evening--for his whole messy life.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

March 21: Under the Direction of Grace, Pandemic Conversations, Dr. Fauci

 Merton recuperates in Cuba . . .

So I was all at once surrounded with everything that could protect me against trouble, against savagery, against suffering. Of course, while I was in the hospital, there were some physical pains, some very small inconveniences: but on the whole, everybody who has had an ordinary appendix operation knows that it is really only a picnic. And it was certainly that for me. I finished the whole Paradiso, in Italian, and read part of Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics

After ten days I got out and went to Douglaston, to the house where my uncle and aunt still lived and where they invited me to rest until I was on my feet again. So that meant two more weeks of quiet, and undisturbed reading. I could shut myself up in the room that had once been Pop’s “den,” and make meditations, and pray, as I did, for instance, on the afternoon of Good Friday. And for the rest my aunt was willing to talk all day about the Redemptorists whose monastery had been just down the street when she had been a little girl in Brooklyn. 

Finally, in the middle of Easter week, I went to my doctor and he ripped off the bandages and said it was all right for me to go to Cuba. 

I think it was in that bright Island that the kindness and solicitude that surrounded me wherever I turned my weak steps, reached their ultimate limit. It would be hard to believe that anyone was so well taken care of as I was: and no one has ever seen an earthly child guarded so closely and so efficiently and cherished and guided and watched and led with such attentive and prevenient care as surrounded me in those days. For I walked through fires and put my head into the mouths of such lions as would bring grey hairs even to the head of a moral theologian, and all the while I was walking in my new simplicity and hardly knew what it was all about, so solicitous were my surrounding angels to whisk the scandals out from the path of my feet, and to put pillows under my knees wherever I seemed about to stumble. 

I don’t believe that a saint who had been elevated to the state of mystical marriage could walk through the perilous streets and dives of Havana with notably less contamination than I seem to have contracted. And yet this absence of trouble, this apparent immunity from passion or from accident, was something that I calmly took for granted. God was giving me a taste of that sense of proprietorship to which grace gives a sort of a right in the hearts of all His children. For all things are theirs, and they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. They own the world, because they have renounced proprietorship of anything in the world, and of their own bodies, and have ceased to listen to the unjust claims of passion. 

Of course, with me there was no question of any real detachment. If I did not listen to my passions it was because, in the merciful dispensation of God, they had ceased to make any noise—for the time being. They did wake up, momentarily, but only when I was well out of harm’s way in a very dull and sleepy city called Camag├╝ey where practically everybody was in bed by nine o’clock at night, and where I tried to read St. Teresa’s Autobiography in Spanish under the big royal palms in a huge garden which I had all to myself. 

I told myself that the reason why I had come to Cuba was to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Cobre. And I did, in fact, make a kind of a pilgrimage. But it was one of those medieval pilgrimages that was nine-tenths vacation and one-tenth pilgrimage. God tolerated all this and accepted the pilgrimage on the best terms in which it could be interpreted, because He certainly beset me with graces all the way around Cuba: graces of the kind that even a person without deep spirituality can appreciate as graces: and that is the kind of person I was then and still am. 

Every step I took opened up a new world of joys, spiritual joys, and joys of the mind and imagination and senses in the natural order, but on the plane of innocence, and under the direction of grace.

I think that the joy and peace Merton experiences in this passage flow from his decision to enter the religious life.  Rather than stumbling through his daily existence, he has direction and purpose.  He has some indistinct understanding of what his future holds, and he feels like God is watching over and guiding him.  Protecting him.  And so, he has lost the sense of fear and dread that veils most human lives.

I've had several conversations in the last week or so regarding the pandemic.  They pretty much go like this:

Person:  "I'm not going to walk around all the time afraid of getting COVID."

Me:  "I'm not walking around in fear all the time."

Person:  "What do you call it then?"

Me:  "Walking in reality."

Person:  "What do you mean?"

Me:  "There's still a pandemic going on."

Person:  "Yeah, I know."

Me:  "There are new strains of the virus that are 50% more contagious."

Person:  "But people are getting vaccinated."

Me:  "Which helps, but we aren't anywhere close to herd immunity."

Person:  "I've had my vaccine."

Me:  "So, you're protected from not getting as sick if you get the virus" 

Person:  "Right."

Me:  "But you could still pass it on to someone else."

Person:  (Indistinct)

Me:  "Look, what's a few more months of wearing a mask and social distancing?"

Person:  "I want things to go back to normal."

Me:  "Isn't that what got us in trouble in the first place?"

Person:  (Indistinct again--something about God)

Me:  "What?"

Person:  "Nothing."

Me:  "Look, I think God is watching over us for sure.  But God gave us science and medicine and common sense.  And if we ignore those things, then we're ignoring God, too."

Person:  (Indistinct)

Me:  "What?"

Person:  "Nothing."

Me:  "You do what you think is right.  I'll do what I think is right.  We'll both live with our choices."

Person:  "I'm so tired of you judging me."

Me:  "I'm not the one you need to worry about . . ."

And so forth.  These exchanges either go on forever or end in uncomfortable silences.  

My point here is that there is a difference between trusting in God versus being foolhardy and plain stupid.  It's sort of like the guy who's hanging on for dear life from a branch on a cliff's edge.  "Dear God," he prays, "please rescue me from this!!!"

Pretty soon, the man hears a voice calling from above, "Hello, I'm going to throw a rope down for you.  Grab on, and I'll haul you up!"  

"No, thanks!" the man hanging from the branch calls back.  "I'm waiting for God to save me."

A little while later, a helicopter comes by, and the pilot calls out, "I'm going to lower a basket for you to climb into."

"No, thanks!" the man hanging from the branch calls back.  "I'm waiting for God to save me."

Some more time passes, and the man hears a voice from beneath him shout, "I'm in a boat below you!  Let go and fall into the water!  I'll rescue you!"

"No, thanks!" the man hanging on the branch calls back.  "I'm waiting for God to save me."

Eventually, the man's grip begins to loosen, and the strength in his arms starts to fade.  Pretty soon, the man can't hang on any longer, and he lets go and falls to his death in the sea below.

When the man gets to heaven, he storms up to God and says, "Where were you?!  I prayed for you to save me, and you let me die!"

God looks at the man and says, "What are you talking about?  I sent a guy with a rope, a helicopter, and a boat."

God uses people to do his work.  Dr. Fauci has been doing it since the beginning of the pandemic.  In the face of major opposition at times, he has been that voice in the wilderness.  Throwing us a rope.  Telling us how we can return to "normal."  Being sane in the midst of insanity.

We just all need to listen and trust.  It's not about stripping naked, covering yourself in honey, and throwing yourself into a colony of fire ants because God will keep you safe.  It's about paying attention.  Noticing when God sends us messages, through whatever angels happen to be on hand.  A doctor of infectious disease.  Friend.  Poet.  Sister-in-law.  Son,  Daughter.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of angels.  

Saturday, March 20, 2021

March 19-20: Still Only New-Born, Vernal Equinox, New World or Sea Monster

Merton is reborn . . . 

Every morning, early, after I had washed my teeth and the nurse had fixed my bed, I would lie quiet, in happy expectancy, for the sound of the little bell coming down the hall which meant: Communion. I could count the doors the priest entered, as he stopped at the different rooms and wards. Then, with the nuns kneeling in the door, he came to my bedside with the ciborium. 

Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam.” 

And he was gone. You could hear the bell disappear down the corridor. Under the sheet my hands folded quietly with my rosary between my fingers. It was a rosary John Paul had given me for Christmas: since he did not know the difference between one rosary and another, he had let himself be cheated in some pious store, and bought some beads that looked good but which fell to pieces in six months. It was the kind of rosary that was meant to be looked at rather than used. But the affection which it represented was as strong as the rosary itself was weak, and so, while the beads held together, I used them in preference to the strong, cheap, black wooden beads made for workmen and old Irish washwomen which I had bought for twenty-five cents in the basement of Corpus Christi during the mission. 

“You go to Communion every day?” said the Italian in the next bed. He had got himself full of pneumonia shoveling snow all night for the WPA. 

“Yes,” I said, “I am going to be a priest.” 

“You see this book,” I said to him, later in the day. “That’s Dante’s Paradiso.” 

“Dante,” he said, “an Italian.” And he lay on the bed with his eyes staring at the ceiling and said nothing more. 

This lying in bed and being fed, so to speak, with a spoon was more than luxury: it was also full of meaning. I could not realize it at the time—and I did not need to: but a couple of years later I saw that this all expressed my spiritual life as it was then.

For I was now, at last, born: but I was still only new-born. I was living: I had an interior life, real, but feeble and precarious. And I was still nursed and fed with spiritual milk. 

The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life. I had found my spiritual freedom. My eyes were beginning to open to the powerful and constant light of heaven and my will was at last learning to give in to the subtle and gentle and loving guidance of that love which is Life without end. For once, for the first time in my life, I had been, not days, not weeks, but months, a stranger to sin. And so much health was so new to me, that it might have been too much for me. 

And therefore I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me. 

Merton is experiencing a spiritual rebirth.  Or, since he really wasn't raised in any religion, perhaps he's just experiencing a spiritual birth.  In this passage, he sees all things new, shot through with grace and light.  Even though he's recovering from an appendicitis in a hospital ward, he feels "so much health."  As if the universe is opening like a kind of cosmic tulip bulb at the first flush of spring.

I am writing these words on the vernal equinox.  Equal parts day and night.  Tomorrow, the world will start tipping toward more and more light, gobbling it up the way my son eats pizza.  Messily.  Getting it all over his face.  Today was all about greenness and openness and wind and sun.  Stretching and cracking open after a long season of darkness.

It really hasn't been a terrible winter, weather-wise, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  In a place that usually gets almost 150 inches of snow annually (and last year got close to 300 inches), it actually felt like spring today.  My backyard is almost bereft of snow.  February brought a few weeks of arctic temperatures--with -30-below-zero wind chills.  The lower harbor of Marquette froze into an ice rink that the entire city took advantage of.  Yet, near the end of that month, thaw came, and Lake Superior transformed from sheet ice to crashing wave in the space of a day or so.

I think life can sometimes be like that, too.  You go for weeks or months or years frozen in place, skating the same figure-eights on the same pond, day-after-day.  And then, one morning, the weather changes.  Everything shifts and thaws.  Open water appears.  What was once an unchanging horizon, a razor line of ice, becomes whitecap and wave thunder.  At that moment, you have a decision to make.  You can wait for things to freeze again, or you can find a boat and see what's out there.  New world or sea monster.

Someone I love disappointed me today.  The disappointment wasn't a surprise.  This person has been skating on this particular pond for years.  She's stuck.  Frozen in place.  And she doesn't want to get unstuck.  Tonight, as I contemplate the darkness that's turned my living room window into a mirror, I wonder what will happen for this someone when the thaw comes for her.  When she can't skate on the same pond any more because the ice has become paper thin.  She will either drown or strap on a life preserver.  Either way, she will end up cold and wet.  I really pray that she sees the "Thin Ice" sign and takes heed.

This vernal equinox, Saint Marty embraces thaw, is ready for light.  Miracles are as abundant as crocuses, digging through frozen mud with purple fingers toward a reborn sun.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

March 17-18: Indeed a Paradise, Treading Fear and Doubt, Miracle of Anger

Merton suffers an appendicitis . . . 

Since I still had some money coming to me from the University on my “Grant-in-Aid” I signed up for two courses in the spring. One of them was a seminar on St. Thomas, with Dan Walsh, which ended up with two of us sitting and reading the De Ente et Essentia with Dan in his room, in a house run by an old lady who had made a kind of career for herself by harboring the New York Giants under her roof in the baseball season. 

While I was still wondering whether I could afford to go to Mexico or only to Cuba, Lent came in sight, and so I put it off until after Lent. And then, one day, when I was working in the library, I suddenly began to get pains in my stomach, and to feel weak and sick. I put away my books, and went to see a doctor, who put me on a table, and poked at my stomach and said, without hesitation: 

“Yes, you’ve got it.”


“Yes. You’d better have that thing out.”

 “Right away?” 

“Well, you might as well. What’s the use of waiting? You would only get into trouble with it.” 

And immediately he called up the hospital. 

I walked down the brownstone stairs of the doctor’s house, thinking that it would be nice, in the hospital, with nuns to look after me: but at the same time I was already having visions of mishaps, fatal accidents, slips of the knife that would land me in the grave.... I made a lot of prayers to Our Lady of Lourdes and went home to Perry Street to get a toothbrush and a copy of Dante’s Paradiso

And so I started back uptown. In the Fourteenth Street subway station there was a drunk. And he was really drunk. He was lying prostrate in the middle of the turnstiles, in everybody’s way. Several people pushed him and told him to get up and get out of there, but he could not even get himself up on his feet. 

I thought to myself: “If I try to lift him out of there, my appendix will burst, and I too will be lying there in the turnstiles along with him.” With my nervousness tempered by a nice warm feeling of smugness and self-complacency, I took the drunk by the shoulders and laboriously hauled him backwards out of the turnstiles and propped him up against the wall. He groaned feebly in protest. 

Then, mentally congratulating myself for my great solicitude and charity towards drunks, I entered the turnstile and went down to take the train to the hospital on Washington Heights. As I looked back, over my shoulder, from the bottom of the stairs, I could see the drunk slowly and painfully crawling back towards the turnstile, where he once again flung himself down, prostrate, across the opening, and blocked the passage as he had done before. 

It was night when I got out of the station uptown, and started to climb scores of monumental steps to the top of the bluff where St. Elizabeth’s Hospital was. Ice was shining in the branches of the trees, and here and there bright icicles would break off and fall and shatter in the street. I climbed the steps of the hospital, and entered the clean shiny hall and saw a crucifix and a Franciscan nun, all in white, and a statue of the Sacred Heart.

I was very sick when I came out of the ether, and I filled myself full of swords by taking a clandestine drink of water before I should have done so. But one of the nuns who was on night duty brought me a glass of what tasted like, and turned out to be, anisette. It braced me up considerably. After that, when I could eat again, I began to sit up and read Dante in bed, and the rest of the ten days were indeed a paradise.

Ten days of quiet, in bed, reading.  Sounds like paradise to me, as well.  Too bad I've already had my appendix removed.  I could use a ten-day break from life.

I come to you at the end of a very long day at the end of a very long week.  I've written quite a few blog posts in the last few weeks about happiness and worry.  It seems as if, every morning, I put on a pair of shoes.  One of those shoes has happiness written across its sole.  The other shoe, sadness.  And I walk around with both of these emotions guiding my steps all day.  I have to be careful which foot I lead with in any situation.

Unfortunately, I have been leading a lot with worry.  Some people are left-handed or right-handed.  I am worry-footed.  I step into a room kicking, treading fear and doubt like deep water.  It's something that I've been doing for so long that I can't imagine my life without that kind of struggle.  If I suddenly found both of my shoes labeled "happiness," I'd probably go looking for another pair.  You see, happiness and I haven't really been on speaking terms for quite a while.

Now, I've heard that happiness is a choice.  No matter what the situation, I can choose to be happy or sad or worried.  It's all about attitude.  I once taught a Sunday school class using a textbook that was titled something like Attitude Is Your Paintbrush.  Not to belabor a terrible metaphor, but the main idea of the text was that a situation is neither happy or sad, worrisome or ecstatic.  Life is neutral.  It's the human element that transforms an experience into a Disney World Vacation or a trip to the dentist.

I'm not sure I buy into that idea anymore.  I used to.  However, it's pretty difficult to tell someone whose father has just died, "Buck up.  You don't have to be sad.  It's all a matter of choice."  Look at a person whose spouse is cheating on him and say, "Look at the bright side."  Or how about a parent whose child has just tested positive for COVID, "You know, you don't have to be so negative."  

Sometimes, sorrow is an appropriate response.  And grief.  Even anger.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I am saying that it is okay to get pissed every once in a while.   Because some experiences call for it.  The Book of Psalms are full of moments of contention and anger:  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Sound familiar?  That's Psalm 22:1.  "O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?  Why do you hide your face from me?"   Psalm 88:14.  

Yes, God gave us happiness.  He also gave us anger and sadness.  And he's okay with us feeling them.  Because he knows a few things about disappointment and grief.  After all, he watched his only child die a really horrible death.  So, he understands the emotions of a grieving father.  God watched his children in Israel make golden idols and worship them, and God got mightily pissed.  He was going to kill them all, until Moses talked him out of it.

It's alright to feel the entire palette of emotions, from joy to desolation.  God expects it, welcomes it.  Jesus whipped people in the temple with his belt.  When he was dying on the cross, he echoed the psalmist, saying, "My God, my God, why have you  forsaken me?"  That's anger, disappointment, fear, isolation.

Tonight, I'm feeling a lot of those crucifixion emotions.  Having a hard time shaking them off.  I don't understand what God is doing in my life.  What his plan is.  Yet, I also know that God is with me.  Again, from the psalmist: "The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore."  Sort of like when my son refuses to do his homework or screams at me to get out of his room.  I'm still going to love him, keep him safe.  It's what all good parents do, even when their kids are being shitheads.

Saint Marty embraces anger and disappointment tonight.  Because, eventually, they will lead him back to God.  That's the miracle.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

March 16: Tired, New Poem, "Whitman and the Skunk"

It has been a long five or six days, and I apologize for my absence.  Things have been busy and exhausting and out-of-control.

Not much time to write or relax.  However, I do I have a new poem.

Saint Marty wishes all of his disciples peaceful nights and dreams.

Whitman and the Skunk

by:  Martin Achatz

I see you on the shore of Superior, water
curling around your blue feet. In your arms,
pressed into the capacious swirls of your gray
beard, a skunk, cradled like a wounded
soldier. This creature, black hole body
shot with nova light, trusts you, 
knows that you contain cannon
fire and lilac, armies of geese in winter
retreat, salmon sun leaping into
dawn, yawn of dusk in oak
bough. You contain it all, shin
deep in this arctic sea, smell
of you mixing with the smell
of him. God, you're both
so beautiful and electric
in your love
and need!

Monday, March 15, 2021

March 15: Giving Them All They Want, Satchel, Seamus Heaney, Walking the Same Path

Merton the teacher . . . 

But I liked teaching very much—especially teaching this kind of a class, in which most of the students had to work for their living, and valued their course because they had to pay for it out of their own savings. Teaching people like that is very flattering: the class is always so eager to get anything you have to give them, and the mere fact that they want so much, is liable to give you the impression that you are capable of giving them all they want. 

For my part I was left more or less free to go ahead and teach them according to my own ideas. Now if people are going to write, they must first of all have something to write about, and if a man starts out to teach English composition, he implicitly obliges himself to teach the students how to get up enough interest in things to write about them. But it is also impossible for people to learn to write unless they also read. And so a course in composition, if it is not accompanied somewhere along the line by a course in literature, should also take a little time to teach people how to read, or at least how to get interested in a book. 

Therefore, I spent most of the time throwing out ideas about what might or might not be important in life and in literature, and letting them argue about it. The arguments got better when they also included discussion of thestudents’ favorite ideas, as expressed on paper. It soon turned out that although they did not all have ideas, they all had a definite hunger for ideas and for convictions, from the young man who wrote a theme about how happy he had been one summer when he had had a job painting a church, to the quiet Catholic housewife who sat in one of the middle rows viewing me with a reassuring smile and an air of friendly complicity whenever the discussion got around near the borders of religion. So it was a very lively class, on the whole. 

But it was only to last a term. And when January came around, they told me, down in the office, that they were going to give me a class in straight, unalleviated grammar in the spring session. 

Grammar was something I knew absolutely nothing about, and only the most constant vigilance had kept it out of sight in the composition class. Besides, since I was entering the monastery in the summer, I assured myself that I ought to take a last vacation, and I was already leafing through books about Mexico and Cuba, trying to decide where I would spend the money that I was no longer going to need to support myself in the world. 

I told the heads of my department that I could not teach grammar in the spring, because I wanted to prepare myself for life in the cloister. They asked me what made me want to do such a thing as that, and sadly shook their heads, but did not try to argue me out of it. They told me I could come back if I changed my mind—and it almost sounded as if they were saying: “We’ll take you back when you’ve been disillusioned and given up this fantastic notion as a bad job.”

I agree with Merton about writing.  It is impossible to learn how to write well without reading.  A lot.

Many people wonder why the satchel I carry with me all of the time is so overburdened with books.  Currently, I'm hauling books of poems by Seamus Heaney and Natasha Trethewey and Joy Harjo, a biography of Charles Dickens, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank, and various notebooks, journals, and sketchbooks.  Plus, I squeeze in my laptop and some power cords.

I tell people who ask my why, WHY do I need all these books, "Well, you never know when you're going to get stuck in an elevator for a few weeks."  The answer is weirdly specific enough to disarm the inquirer of any follow-up questions, and I am able to change the topic.

Here's my real answer to this query:  I carry piles of books with me everywhere I go because I like to surround myself with friends.  The voices in the books speak to me in deep ways.  They don't try to make small talk about the weather or sports teams.  No, these friends talk about subjects that are essential and important.  Just this morning, Seamus Heaney said to me, "Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home." (Heaney, "The Tollund Man," Wintering Out.)  And Natasha Trethewey answered back " . . . Here is the threshold I do not cross: / a sliver of light through the doorway finds his tattoo, / the anchor on his forearm tangled in its chain."  (Trethewey, "Fouled," Thrall,) 

I live my days with lots of unanswered, unanswerable questions.  Like almost every human being on this planet.  When those questions become loud and insistent, I turn to the friends in my satchel.  They don't try to hand me easy answers aimed at making me feel better.  In fact, they don't try to make me feel better at all.  Instead, they speak words that help me understand that I am not alone in my struggle.  That they are walking the same path that I'm on.

That is what true friendship and love is all about.  Not solving all the problems of life.  Rather, being a fellow traveler.  Through thick, thin, in the old man-killing parishes, at the threshold of the doorway, in a sliver of light.  Preach, Seamus.  Hallelujah, Natasha.

Saint Marty says a holy "amen" for his friends whose voices cry out in the wilderness.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

March 10: Fecundity in Minute and Irrelevant Material, Matthew Gavin Frank, "Flight of the Diamond Smugglers"

 Thomas Merton writes of teaching a writing class at Columbia University . . .

That was also the season in which, three nights a week, I taught a class in English composition, in one of the rooms in the School of Business at Columbia. Like all Extension classes, it was a mixture of all flesh. There was a tough and bad-tempered chemist who was a center of potential opposition, because he was taking the course under duress—it was required of all the students who were following a systematic series of courses in anything at all. There was an earnest and sensitive Negro youth who sat in the front row, dressed in a neat grey suit, and peered at me intently through his glasses all the time the class was going on. There was an exchange student from the University of Rome, and there was one of those middle-aged ladies who had been taking courses like this for years and who handed in neat and punctilious themes and occupied, with a serene and conscious modesty, her rightful place as the star of the class. This entitled her to talk more than anybody else and ask more unpredictable questions. 

Once, after I had been insisting that they should stick to concrete and tangible evidence, in describing places and things, an Irishman called Finegan who had been sitting in bewilderment and without promise in one of the back rows, suddenly blossomed out with a fecundity in minute and irrelevant material detail that it was impossible to check. He began handing in descriptions of shoe factories that made you feel as if you were being buried under fifty tons of machinery. And I learned, with wonder and fear, that teachers have a mysterious and deadly power of letting loose psychological forces in the minds of the young. The rapidity, the happy enthusiasm with which they responded to hints and suggestions—but with the wrong response—was enough to make a man run away and live in the woods.

I love Merton's description of giving writers nudges and suggestions, and said writers launching into descriptions of shoe factories and Himalayas of machinery.  Unpredictable questions that make the future monk want to flee to the forest and live like John the Baptist on grasshoppers and pinecones.  For me, that is writing at its best--when it slaps you in the face like a startled pigeon wing.

A couple nights ago, I finished reading Flight of the Diamond Smugglers:  A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa by Matthew Gavin Frank, a book that is part Homeric odyssey/part memoir/part contemplation on loss and grief.  It's the sort of story that defies categorization, refuses to be pinned down.  Like its titular diamond-smuggling avians, the pages fly off in wild pursuit of mysterious destinations, guided only by a kind of inner mytho-magnetic GPS system.

On the surface, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers is a historical and contemporary exploration of the ruthless De Beers diamond industry in South Africa, from infancy to violent conglomerate monstrosity.  Yet, the book begins with Frank and his wife, Louisa, huddled on the edge of the Big Hole, "a gaping open-pit and underground diamond mine that was active from 1871 to 1914 . . . a man-made Grand Canyon."  It is into this abyss that they empty a thermos containing the ashes of a lost child.  Their sixth miscarriage.  Frank recites Kaddish, and his wife whispers "Amen," as this tiny ghost swirls to the bottom of the hole.

From this ceremony, Frank launches into a narrative that spans the wasted coasts of South Africa, to Orpheus and the Underworld, to Krishna's cursed Koh-i-Noor diamond.  It's a ride that takes wild turns.  Isaac Newton and a wooden pigeon.  Middle school Champagne Snowball dance and midnight meeting with a security demigod.  Just when you think you see the destination ahead, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers finds an updraft or trade wind, and you go sailing into another gleaming facet or bottomless mine.

Stitching the book together, like a recurring motif in a symphony, are lyrical "Bartholomew Variations," Frank meditating on a particular diamond smuggling pigeon (Bartholomew) owned by a young mine worker (Msizi).  The veins of these small sections carry the blood of the book to its heart.  Through Msizi and his bird, Frank is able to humanize a story that, most of the time, seems inhuman, even otherworldly.  And, by doing this, he transforms the book into something personal, alive, heartbreaking.

Matthew Gavin Frank is a master of juxtaposition, throwing all of these disparate elements--grief and greed, desperation and diamonds--into a tale that, ultimately, ends the way all stories about carrier pigeons end.  With another long flight, another winding journey, through a dung-beetle night, toward a distant, waiting home.

Saint Marty thinks you should book passage on this trip.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, March 8, 2021

March 8: Man in a Mouse-Colored Overcoat, Angels, "Fezziwigging"

Merton encounters a possible angel . . . 

In the big meditation on the “Two Standards,” where you are supposed to line up the army of Christ in one field and the army of the devil in the other, and ask yourself which one you choose, I got into too much of a Cecil B. De Mille atmosphere to make much out of it, but in the considerations on a choice of a state in life which followed, a strange thing happened, which scared me a little. It was the only incident that savored of externally supernatural intervention in the retreat. 

I had already made my choice of a state of life. I was going to be a Franciscan. Consequently, I embarked on these thoughts without too much personal concern. I was meandering around in considerations of what a man ought to do with his earthly possessions—a meditation that might have been useful to someone who really had some possessions to dispose of—when my doorbell rang. I pressed the button that opened the street-door below, and went to the head of the stairs, thinking that perhaps it was Gibney or somebody like that. 

It was a little man in a mouse-colored overcoat, whom I had never before seen. 

“Are you Thomas Merton?” he said to me, as he arrived on my landing. 

I did not deny it, and he entered my room and sat down on the bed. 

“Did you write that review of that book about D. H. Lawrence in the Times book section last Sunday?” he asked me. 

I thought I was in for it. I had favorably reviewed a book on Lawrence by Tyndall, under whom I had done my thesis at Columbia. He had written just the kind of a book that was calculated to drive all the people who had made a Messiah out of Lawrence clean out of their wits with pain and rage. I had already got an angry letter in the mail for even reviewing such a book, and I thought that now somebody had come around to shoot me if I did not recant. 

“Yes,” I said, “I wrote the review. Didn’t you like it?” 

“Oh, I didn’t read it,” said the little man, “but Mr. Richardson read it, and he told me all about it.”

“Who is Mr. Richardson?” 

“You don’t know him? He lives in Norwalk. I was talking to him about your review only yesterday.” 

“I don’t know anybody in Norwalk,” I said. I could not figure out whether this Mr. Richardson liked the review or not, and did not bother. It did not seem to have any bearing on the man’s visit after all. 

“I have been travelling around all day,” he said, thoughtfully. “I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey; then in Bayonne, New Jersey; then in Newark. Then, when I was coming back on the Hudson Tube I thought of Mr. Richardson and how he had been talking about you, and I thought I would come and see you.” 

So there he was. He had been in Elizabeth and Bayonne and Newark and now he was sitting on my bed, with his mouse-colored overcoat and his hat in his hand. 

“Do you live in New Jersey?” I said, out of politeness. 

“Oh, no, of course not, I live in Connecticut,” he said quickly. But I had opened out only an avenue to further confusion. He went into intricate geographical details about where he lived and how he happened to be associated with this Mr. Richardson of Norwalk, and then he said: 

“When I saw the ad in the paper, I decided to go over to New Jersey.” 

“The ad?” 

“Yes, the ad about the job I was looking for in Elizabeth, and didn’t get. And now I haven’t even enough money to get back to Connecticut.” 

I finally began to see what it was all about. 

The visitor was stumbling around in a long, earnest, and infinitely complicated account of all the jobs he had failed to get in New Jersey, and I, with a strange awe and excitement, began to think two things: “How much money have I got to give him?” and “How did he happen to walk in here just when I was in the middle of that meditation about giving all your goods to the poor?...” 

The possibility that he might even be an angel, disguised in that mouse-colored coat, struck me with a force that was all the more affecting because it was so obviously absurd. And yet the more I think about it, the more I am convinced of the propriety of God sending me an angel with instructions to try and fool me by talking like a character in one of those confusing short stories that get printed in the New Yorker.

Anyway, I reached into my pockets and started emptying them, putting quarters and pennies and nickels on the desk. Of course, if the man was an angel, then the whole affair was nothing but a set-up, and I should give him everything I had on me, and go without supper. Two things restrained me. First, the desire of supper, and, second, the fact that the stranger seemed to be aware that I was somewhat moved with secret thoughts, and apparently interpreted them as annoyance. Anyway, figuring that I was in some way upset, he showed himself to be in a hurry to take the little I had already collected for him, as if that were plenty. 

He hastened away, stuffing a dollar bill and the change into his pockets, leaving me in such a state of bewilderment that I positively could not sit down cross-legged and continue the meditation. I was still wondering if I should not run down the street after him and give him the other dollar which I still had. 

But still, applying St. Ignatius’ standard to the present circumstances, I had done fairly well. I had given him about three-fifths of my liquid capital. 

Perhaps, in a way, it is better that I didn’t give him everything and go without supper. I would have preened myself with such consummate and disgusting vanity—assuming I did not die of fear, and call up one of my friends to lend me something—that there would have been no merit in it at all. For all that, even if his story was disconnected and very silly, and even if he was not an angel, he was much more than that if you apply Christ’s own standard about whatsoever you have done to the least of His little ones. 

Anyway, it certainly put some point into that meditation. 

I don't think angels are recognized very much these days.  They still walk around, knock on doors, ask for money on the subway, hold signs outside Walmart that read "Haven't Ate in 3 Days."  They may be sitting at the desk six feet away in your office.  Or they may be sleeping in your house, right in the next room.

It isn't a matter of snow-white wings and harps and halos.  Angels are those people who put you to the test--to see whether you'll share your last piece of pizza, hand them your hat and gloves, put your arms around them when they are breaking in two.  That's what Merton recognizes in the passage above.  He sees an angel in a mouse-colored overcoat, and he gives that angel enough money to find his way home.

I think I failed an angel recently.  A young one, full of pain.  Instead of holding him tightly, telling him that I love him, I got angry instead.  Made him feel worse.  And, because of that act of impatience on my part, I almost paid a very big price.  God taught me a lesson.  A huge one.

That's also the job of angels.  They teach us things about ourselves, push us to be better people.  I am moving forward tonight, thankful for the chance to redeem myself.  Prove to that young angel that I can do better.  Be better.  

That's what this messy life is all about.  It's pretty simple.  When you feel anger, reach toward understanding.  When you're feeling poor or hungry, share what you have anyway.  And when you are in despair, look for hope.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for a little angel with a big message.

And a poem to make you smile tonight . . .


by:  Martin Achatz

I've always loved how your calves
flash like comets as the fiddler saws
"Sir Roger de Coverly" across
his strings, and you and Mrs.
Feizziwag march across warehouse
floor, flush other dancers away,
startled partridges before hungry
hounds. How your face gleams
with goose grease, figgy pudding,
pockets filled with crumbs of mince
meat. How at home, you peel off
breeches, stockings, unbutton, unbuckle,
shrug on nightshirt, climb into bed.
Mr. Fezziwig, she coos.
Mrs. Fezziwig, you growl.
As if you don't know her
first name, she forgotten yours.
That you have just met
at that yule revel, spied
her by the wassail bowl, decided
she would be your gold
and frankincense and myrrh
that holy night. How you coax
her with lip, mouth, tongue
until she finally remembers
your name, sighs it over
and over and over and over:
Francis, oh, Francis, oh,
Frank, yes, Frank, yes, Frank
until bells begin to peal
in the steeples on that cold,
clear Christmas morning.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

March 7: One's Own Will, Gingerbread Houses, Second Chances

Merton contemplates the purpose of his life . . . 

And so, having prayed, sitting on the floor, I began to consider the reason why God had brought me into the world: 

Man was created to this end: that he should praise God, Our Lord, and reverence and serve Him, and by doing these things, should save his soul. And all the other things on the face of the earth were created for man, to help him in attaining the end for which he was created. Whence it follows that man must use these things only in so far as they help him towards his end, and must withdraw himself from them in so far as they are obstacles to his attaining his end.... Wherefore it is necessary that we make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in so far as it is permitted to our free will ... in such a way that, as far as we are concerned, we should not desire health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than ignominy, a long life rather than a short life, and so on, desiring and choosing only those things which more efficaciously lead us to the end for which we were created. 

The big and simple and radical truths of the “Foundation” were, I think, too big and too radical for me. By myself, I did not even scratch the surface of them. I vaguely remember fixing my mind on this notion of indifference to all created things in themselves, to sickness and health, and being mildly appalled. Who was I to understand such a thing? If I got a cold I nearly choked myself with aspirins and hot lemonade, and dived into bed with undisguised alarm. And here was a book that might perhaps be telling me that I ought to be able to remain as cool as an icebox in the presence of a violent death. How could I figure out just what and how much that word “indifferent” meant, if there was no one to tell me? I did not have any way of seeing the distinction between indifference of the will and indifference of the feelings—the latter being practically a thing unknown, even in the experience of the saints. So, worrying about this big difficulty of my own creation, I missed the real fruit of this fundamental meditation, which would have been an application of its notions to all the things to which I myself was attached, and which always tended to get me into trouble. 

However, the real value of the Exercises for me came when I got to the various contemplations, especially the mysteries of the life of Christ. I docilely followed all St. Ignatius’s rules about the “composition of place” and sat myself down in the Holy House at Nazareth with Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and considered what they did, and listened to what they said and so on. And I elicited affections, and made resolutions, and ended with a colloquy and finally made a brief retrospective examination of how the meditation had worked out. All this was so new and interesting, and the labor of learning it engrossed me so much, that I was far too busy for distractions. The most vital part of each meditation was always the application of the senses (hearing the yelling of the damned in hell, smelling their burning rottenness, seeing the devils coming at you to drag you down with the rest, and so on). 

As far as I remember, there was one theological point that made a very deep impression on me, greater than anything else. Somewhere in the first week, after having considered the malice of mortal sin, I had turned to the evil of venial sin. And there, suddenly, while the horror of mortal sin had remained somewhat abstract to me, simply because there were so many aspects and angles to the question, I clearly saw the malice of venial sin precisely as an offense against the goodness and loving kindness of God, without any respect to punishment. I left that meditation with a deep conviction of the deordination and malice there is in preferring one’s own will and satisfaction to the will of God for Whose love we were created. 

Yes, Merton learns a lesson about indulgence versus sacrifice.  His will versus God's will.  The world is a pretty selfish place.  Most people walk around, more worried about their own needs and wants and ambitions than about the greater good--what's better for the world and the universe.  I'm just as guilty of anyone else of this "sin."  Because, when you're in the midst of struggle, it's pretty hard to think of anything else.  Proverbially, seeing the forest instead of the trees.

If you've read my last two posts, you know that I've been focusing on the trees.  A lot.  That's a pretty human thing to do.  When you're lost in the woods, there's pretty much only one thing you can think about:  getting back home.  Hansel and Gretel, in their efforts to become unlost, made the mistake of nibbling the eaves on the witch's gingerbread house, which led to their imprisonment; to the witch being turned into a witch-kabob in the oven; to, eventually, a return home and happily ever after.

Being lost is pretty common.  Nibbling on metaphorical gingerbread houses is pretty common, too.  There are all kinds of temptations in the forest as you try to find your way home.  Things that distract you from the path.  That's what a majority of fairy tales are about.  Getting lost and then getting found.  Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf.  Jack meeting the guy who gives him the magic beans, and all the giant stuff that follows.  Aurora Rose pricking her finger on the spinning wheel.  Of course, there's always happily ever afters, but they come after the wolf eats grandma or the entire kingdom is hexed into a very long nap.

I frequently fall into the trap of straying from the path that God has laid out for me to follow.  Pretty much everyone from any story in the Bible does the same.  Adam and Eve get kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  David has a little thing with Bathsheba.  Peter denies Jesus.  Paul is blinded.  It's a human thing.  We all eat the forbidden gingerbread house at one point or another, stop to chat with hairy, fanged strangers.

Right now, I'm trying to find my way home after being lost in the woods.  Life is full of wolves and spinning wheels and gingerbread houses.  My particular wolf this weekend came in the form of a loved one who was lost in the forest momentarily and almost did something very permanent to find a way out.  The Big Bad Wolf didn't win, but came pretty damn close.

Now, we are at the edge of the forest, can see home and a kind of happily ever after in the distance.  We still have a ways to go, but there's a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

Saint Marty is thankful for the miracle of second chances.  And third chances.  And fourth.  And . . . 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

March 6: Pedestrian and Practical, Chaos and Chance, Judy the Star

 Merton reflects on the struggle of meditation and prayer . . .

Now every day began with Mass and Communion, either at Our Lady of Guadalupe or St. Francis of Assisi Church. 

After that I went back to Perry Street, and got to work rewriting the novel which had been handed back to me politely by one of those tall, thin, anxious young men with horn-rimmed glasses who are to be found in the offices of publishers. (He had asked me if I was trying to write in some new experimental style, and then ducked behind his desk as if I might pull a knife on him for his impertinence.) 

About twelve I would go out to get a sandwich at some drug-store, and read in the paper about the Russians and the Finns or about the French sitting in the Maginot Line, and sending out a party of six men somewhere in Loraine to fire three rifle shots at an imaginary German. 

In the afternoon I usually had to go to Columbia and sit in a room and hear some lecture on English Literature, after which I went to the library and read St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics which I had reserved for me on my desk in the graduate reading-room. This was a matter of great consternation to some Sisters of St. Joseph who occupied nearby desks and who, after a while, became timidly friendly when they learned that I was going to become a Franciscan in the summer. 

At about three in the afternoon I was in the habit of going to Corpus Christi, or to Our Lady of Lourdes which was even closer, and doing the Stations of the Cross. This meditative and easy prayer provided me with another way, more valuable than I realized, of entering into participation in the merits of Christ’s Passion, and of renewing within me the life that had been set alight by that morning’s Communion. 

In those days it took a little effort to walk to a church and go around the fourteen stations saving vocal prayers, for I was still not used to praying. Therefore, doing the Stations of the Cross was still more laborious than consoling, and required a sacrifice. It was much the same with all my devotions. They did not come easily or spontaneously, and they very seldom brought with them any strong sensible satisfaction. Nevertheless the work of performing them ended in a profound and fortifying peace: a peace that was scarcely perceptible, but which deepened and which, as my passions subsided, became more and more real, more and more sure, and finally stayed with me permanently. 

It was also at this time that I first attempted any kind of mental prayer. I had bought a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius many months before, and it had remained idle on the shelf—except that when I came back from Olean and took over the apartment from Seymour’s wife, to whom I had sub-let it, I found a couple of little pencil marks in the margin opposite passages that might be interpreted as sinister and Jesuitical. One of them was about death, and the other had something to do with pulling all the blinds down when you wanted to meditate. 

For my own part I had long been a little scared of the Spiritual Exercises, having somewhere acquired a false impression that if you did not look out they would plunge you head first into mysticism before you were aware of it. How could I be sure that I would not fly up into the air as soon as I applied my mind to the first meditation? I have since found out that there is very little danger of my ever flying around the premises at mental prayer. The Spiritual Exercises are very pedestrian and practical—their chief purpose being to enable all the busy Jesuits to get their minds off their work and back to God with a minimum of wasted time. 

I wish I had been able to go through the Exercises under the roof of some Jesuit house, directed by one of their priests. However, I went about it under my own direction, studying the rules of procedure that were given in the book, and following them in so far as I managed to grasp what they were all about. I never even breathed a word about what I was doing to any priest. 

As far as I remember I devoted a whole month to the Exercises, taking one hour each day. I took a quiet hour, in the afternoon, in my room on Perry Street: and since I now lived in the back of the house, there were no street noises to worry me. It was really quite silent. With the windows closed, since it was winter, I could not even hear any of the neighborhood’s five thousand radios. 

The book said the room should be darkened, and I pulled down the blinds so that there was just enough light left for me to see the pages, and to look at the Crucifix on the wall over my bed. And the book also invited me to consider what kind of a position I should take for my meditation. It left me plenty of freedom of choice, so long as I remained more or less the way I was, once I had settled down, and did not go promenading around the room scratching my head and talking to myself. 

So I thought and prayed awhile over this momentous problem, and finally decided to make my meditations sitting cross-legged on the floor. I think the Jesuits would have had a nasty shock if they had walked in and seen me doing their Spiritual Exercises sitting there like Mahatma Gandhi. But it worked very well. Most of the time I kept my eyes on the Crucifix or on the floor, when I did not have to look at the book. 

Here's the thing--prayers get answered, whether you're sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes closed, driving into a pink Lake Superior sunrise, or eating a bag of microwave popcorn at eleven o'clock at night after a long day of toil.  Open your mouth and give words to your heart, and those words will rise into the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere.  Prayers are subject to a different kind of gravity, pulled toward the eardrum of the universe.

Merton is simply too worried about details--space and position, method and light.  He doesn't understand that the only thing that matters, in the end, is surrender.  Giving yourself over to God's will.  Trusting that the universe isn't all chaos and chance.  There is order and design in all things.  Scientists have laws of motion, thermodynamics, energy, chemistry, evolution.  They rely on these concepts for their understanding of how things work.  Christians have the Bible--Old Testament, New Testament.  Jewish people have the Torah.  Muslims have the Koran.  We trust in these lessons and rules and narratives.  They give meaning and import to our lives.  And comfort.

 I found out this evening that a young someone I love lost that sense of meaning.  Gave into feelings of shame and despair.  Forgot that the universe's capacity for love and forgiveness is infinite, filled with multitudes of stars and planets and nebulae.  Let's name that young person "Judy."  Judy, in that black hole moment, almost did something--something irrevocable.  Then got scared, changed her mind.  

Tonight, I'm lifting Judy up to the light of the universe.  Giving thanks that she's still here.  With us.  That God reached down and filled her with fear.  That the object that was set into motion in Judy's spirit spun off in a different and opposite direction.  Judy is still here, on this mess of a world in which we all live.  

And I am here to tell Judy that she is loved, by her parents and family and friends.  That the universe is a brighter place because she is in it.  It needs the elements of her.  Solar systems collapse when stars die, and the star of her is brighter than Sirius, despite all of the garbage that swirls in its orbit.  

Tonight, Saint Marty is wishing on a star, hoping on a star, giving thanks for a star.

Friday, March 5, 2021

March 5: I Was Happy, Smell of Bacon, Worry

 Merton doesn't realize that he's really happy . . . 

I was still without any formal spiritual direction, but I went frequently to confession, especially at St. Francis’ Church, where the Friars were more inclined to give me advice than secular priests had been. And it was in one of the confessionals at St. Francis’ that a good priest one day told me, very insistently: 

“Go to Communion every day, every day.” 

By that time, I had already become a daily communicant, but his words comforted and strengthened me, and his emphasis made me glad. And indeed I had reason to be, for it was those daily Communions that were transforming my life almost visibly, from day to day. 

I did not realize any of this on those beautiful mornings: I scarcely was aware that I was so happy. It took someone else to draw my attention to it. 

I was coming down Seventh Avenue one morning. It must have been in December or January. I had just come from the little church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and from Communion, and was going to get some breakfast at a lunch wagon near Loew’s Sheridan Theater. I don’t know what I was thinking of, but as I walked along I nearly bumped into Mark who was on his way to the subway, going to Columbia for his morning classes. 

“Where are you going?” he said. The question surprised me, as there did not seem to be any reason to ask where I was going, and all I could answer was: “To breakfast.” 

Later on, Mark referred again to the meeting and said: 

“What made you look so happy, on the street, there?” 

So that was what had impressed him, and that was why he had asked me where I was going. It was not where I was going that made me happy, but where I was coming from. Yet, as I say, this surprised me too, because I had not really paid any attention to the fact that I was happy—which indeed I was. 

Can I tell you that happiness is snow that comes in the middle of the night, coating everything, the way medicine paints a sore throat into numbness?  You wake up in the morning, and the world, once ugly with mud or dead leaves or bare black branches, is Ansel Adams stunning.  You wander through your backyard, not even recognizing it as your backyard.  It has become the most beautiful place you have ever been.

Happiness always arrives in that surprising way, like a cousin that travels all night and appears at your door at 7 a.m., asking for coffee and a bed.  You don't even realize you've missed the cousin until his face is staring at you across the kitchen table.  And then you find yourself smiling, laughing even, when you haven't smiled or laughed in a very long time.

That's what Merton experiences here--the kind of happiness that sneaks in the back door and is making you breakfast when you didn't even realize you were hungry.  And, for the rest of the day, you walk around with the smell of bacon sitting in your nose, feeling full, satisfied.  You don't even realize how happy you are, because you are simply too busy being happy.

I think most people walk around focusing on what's wrong in their lives.  I know I do.  For me, today was all about a person who's been making choices that are painful to witness and be a part of.  These thoughts have consumed me for a good portion of my waking hours, like a wine hangover.  No matter what remedy I've tried, I couldn't shake the lingering headache of the situation.

Here's the other truth I know:  most of us worry about things we have absolutely no control over.  Worry about unemployment or illness or weather or your sister's Alzheimer's or Donald Trump's bad hair.  I have zero control over any of these things.  No matter what I say or do, the person I spoke about in the above paragraph will continue to make bad choices.  Until she decides not to.  It has absolutely nothing to do with me.  Yet, I allow those bad decisions to control my happiness.  

Jeanne Calment, purportedly the oldest living person in modern times (she died at age 123), had something to say about worry.  Calment lived from 1875 to 1997 in Arles, France, and allegedly met Vincent van Gogh.  She said about the famous painter, "I met him at the end of his life . . . At the very end.  He was ugly.  He was blighted by alcohol."  Calment became known for her blunt talk and wisdom.  She outlived every person in her immediate family.  At the end of her life, she had become an international celebrity.  Here is what Calment said about worry:

"If you can't do anything about it, don't worry about it."

This philosophy seemed to have served Calment well.  She smoked from the time she was 21 until age 117, when she quit because she could no longer see well enough to light her cigarette.  She ate a pound of chocolate a week.  Hers was not a life of denial and frugality.  More like excess and indulgence.  Worry was not a factor.  She experienced great loss--her daughter died of pleurisy at the age of 36, her grandson was killed in a car accident.  Yet, she remained indefatigably happy, right up to her dying day.

I think we can all pick a card from Calment's deck.  Worry over things you can't change is pointless and harmful.  Tonight, I can say that it is also exhausting.  So, tomorrow, I choose to be happy, regardless of what happens during the day.  Because life is short.  Even if I live to be 123, I've already spent a good portion of my days chasing after a version of happiness that just might be impossible.

So, happiness tomorrow.  And chocolate.

Saint Marty can get behind those two miracles. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

March 3: Softened and Humanized, Obsession, Pass the Salt

 Merton gets serious about being a priest . . . sort of . . . 

The Franciscan monastery on 31st Street, New York is a grey unprepossessing place, crowded in among big buildings, and inhabited by very busy priests. Not the least busy of them in those days was Father Edmund, Dan Walsh’s friend: and yet he was not too busy to talk to me practically any time I came around to see him. He was a big amiable man full of Franciscan cheerfulness, kind, disciplined by hard work yet not hardened by it, for his priesthood, which kept him close to Christ and to souls more than softened and humanized him. 

From the first moment I met him, I knew I had a good friend in Father Edmund. He questioned me about my vocation, asking me how long it was since my Baptism, and what it was that attracted me to the Franciscans, and what I was doing at Columbia, and when I had talked to him for a while, he began to encourage me in the idea of becoming a Friar. 

“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t eventually make application to enter the novitiate next August,” he said. 

Next August! That was a long way off Now that my mind was made up, I was impatient to get started. However, I had not expected to be admitted immediately by any Order. But I asked him: 

“Father, isn’t there some chance of my entering sooner?” 

“We admit all our novices together, in a group,” he said. “They start out at Paterson, in August, then they go on together all the way through until ordination. It’s the only way we can handle them. If you entered at any other time, you would miss out all along the line. Have you had much philosophy?” 

I told him of Dan Walsh’s courses, and he thought for a moment. 

“Perhaps there might be a chance of starting you out in the novitiate in February,” he said, but he did not seem to be very hopeful. No doubt what he was thinking of was that I might skip a half-year of philosophy and so catch up with the others at the house of studies up-state, where they would be sent after the year’s noviceship. 

“Are you living with your parents?” he asked me. 

I told him they had long been dead, and that none of my family was left, except an uncle and a brother. 

“Is your brother a Catholic too.” 

“No, Father.” 

“Where is he? What does he do?” 

“He goes to Cornell. He is supposed to get out of there next June.” 

“Well,” said Father Edmund, “what about yourself? Have you got enough to live on? You aren’t starving or anything, are you?” 

“Oh, no, Father, I can get along. I’ve got a chance of a job teaching English in Extension at Columbia this year, and besides that they gave me a grant-in-aid to pay for my courses for the doctorate.” 

“You take that job,” said the Friar; “that will do you a lot of good. And get busy on that doctorate, too. Do all the work you can, and study a little philosophy. Study won’t hurt you at all. After all, you know, if you come into the Order you’ll probably end up teaching at St. Bona’s or Siena. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” 

“Oh, sure,” I said, and that was the truth. 

I walked down the steps of the monastery into the noisy street, with my heart full of happiness and peace. 

What a transformation this made in my life! Now, at last, God had become the center of my existence. And it had taken no less than this decision to make Him so. Apparently, in my case, it had to be that way. 

I understand Merton's obsession here.  Yes, I used the word "obsession" instead of "calling."  Because I don't think that he has quite gotten to the place where he's willing to simply surrender to God's will in his life.  If he was at that point, he wouldn't have pushed Father Edmund about entering the Franciscan Order on some kind of advanced placement plan.  He would have just said, "August?  Okay."  Merton still wants to be in charge here.  His mind is set on becoming a priest.  Right now.

I totally get this kind of obsession.  It happens to me when I write poems or read books.  I don't want anything to get in the way.  Last night, I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. revising the poem I posted on my blog.  This morning, I started revising it some more.  Off and on, all day long, that poem has been with me.  I think I'm on about my 25th or 26th iteration of the ending lines.  Since 6 a.m.  Sometimes, I changed one word.  Moved a line up or down.  Eliminated an image.  Put an image back in.  Sent it to friends for their advice.  Got their advice and did another revision.  Now, I think that it is done.


And I'm fairly exhausted.  That's what obsession does to you.  It sort of sets you on fire, and you blaze brightly for a while.  Two hours.  Two days.  Two months.  Two years.  Whatever.  After that, the fire settles down to ash or ember, and it becomes work to keep it stoked and burning.  Then, you have a choice:  find a new obsession or put in the effort to keep your old one going.

Of course, this rule applies to almost anything.  A job.  Writing a book.  Parenting.  Owning a car.  A friendship.  A marriage.  There's always the initial excitement of the first date.  First draft.  Wedding night.  First eight hour shift.  First road trip.  First time holding your newborn child.  Firsts are easy and exciting.

After first, however, comes second.  Then third.  Fourth,  Fifth.  Eventually, new becomes old.  Worn.  Comfortable.  You stop trying so hard.  Take things for granted.  That is the mistake most people make.  For a first birthday, you throw a big party.  Invite relatives and friends.  Hang streamers and balloons.  Video the child smashing birthday cake with fists.  It's a big deal.  Eventually, though, the birthday parties become less and less elaborate.  Until, one year, it becomes a text message sent in the morning because everyone is so busy with their lives:  "Happy birthday, sweetheart!  Hope it's great!"

In a marriage, when one spouse simply stops trying, the relationship is doomed.  It becomes a mechanical series of days, with "I love you" said like "pass the salt."  It's the easy thing to do.  Because, as with anything that lasts for a long time, maintaining love is hard work.  That's why affairs happen.  A match that's just been struck burns bright and hot and fast.  It's beautiful and fleeting.

I am tired of working on the poem that I wrote yesterday.  After thirty or so drafts, it has become a stone worn smooth.  Maybe it's still beautiful, but I just can't tell anymore.  So I toss it into the lake, where it will tumble and shine in the waves.  Become wonderful again.  Hopefully.

Here's my advice to everyone reading this post tonight:  say "I love you" and mean it.  Every day.  Take your dog for a walk, every day, and let her be a puppy again.  Write a letter or note or e-mail or text to a friend, and in that message, tell that person why they are important to you.  Do this every day.  Eat Fruit Loops like you've never tasted them before.  Reread The Catcher in the Rye, and remember when it was the most important book in your life.

If you do the hard work of making everything new, every day, you will be that match burning bright and hot.  The word "boring" will never enter your vocabulary.  Sure, your heart may get broken.  Many times.  Every day.  But a broken heart means that you have loved.  Do love.  Deeply.  

And new poems will pour out of you.  

Tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for the hard work of love.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

March 2: You Know Yourself So Well, Flaming Swords, "Koi"

 Merton says he could never be a Trappist monk . . . 

Dan said: “Do you think you would like that kind of a life?” 

“Oh, no,” I said, “not a chance! That’s not for me! I’d never be able to stand it. It would kill me in a week. Besides, I have to have meat. I can’t get along without meat, I need it for my health.” 

“Well,” said Dan, “it’s a good thing you know yourself so well.” 

For a moment it occurred to me that he was being ironical, but there was not a shadow of irony in his voice, and there never was. He was far too good and too kind and too simple for irony. He thought I knew what I was talking about, and took my word for it. 

And so the conclusion of that evening was that I decided to go and see the Franciscans, and after all, we both agreed that they seemed to be the best for me. 

So he gave me a note to his friend Father Edmund, at the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street.

Merton is absolutely certain he knows what is best for himself.  He could never be a Trappist, because their way of life would kill him.  Simplicity.  Prayer.  Solitude.  Not for him.  Vegetarian diet.  Nope, he needs meat.  Every day.

This passage is Merton at his most human--wanting to be in charge of his own destiny.  Of course, none of us can really claim that privilege.  Six years ago, I was working full-time in the business office of an outpatient surgical center while contingent teaching at the local university.  Three years later, I was still working at the surgical center while contingent teaching, but I was also the Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.  Another two years--I was working for a cardiology practice, contingent teaching, and serving my second term as Poet Laureate.  Today?  I am the coordinator of adult programming for the largest library in the Upper Peninsula, still a contingent professor at the university, and am no longer Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.  

During that span of time, my older brother died of complications from a stroke.  My sister died of lymphoma of the brain.  And my dad died of natural causes at the age of 90.  Some people in my life have had on-again, off-again, on-again struggles with addiction and mental illness.  Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.  And a global pandemic pretty much shut down the world.

Six years ago, I wouldn't have predicted any of that.  I was contentedly doing my thing--teaching and working and writing.  I thought I knew who I was and understood my place in the universe.  And that place didn't entail me deciding which facemask matched my outfit every morning.  Or a failed reality TV star inciting the overthrow of the government of the United States.

Yet, God had different plans for me.  Just like she had different plans for Merton.  My life zigged when I thought it was going to zag.  Here I sit in my living room this evening, after hosting a virtual astronomy event for the library, thinking about how I got where I am right now.  And thinking about all the people who have supported and helped me along the way.

You see, I believe that people enter your life for a reason.  Because I'm a Christian, I think God puts them there.  For Merton, God sent Dan into his life to steer him toward a contemplative religious existence.  Me?  Well, it takes a whole village to keep me functioning.  

But even now, I still like to think that I'm pretty independent.  That I call the shots.  I think everybody labors under that particular fallacy.  Because, otherwise, it means you have to surrender control to the universe or God or Buddha or Muhammed or Yahweh or Jesus.  Take your pick, depending on your particular belief system.  And that's pretty scary.  Like riding blindfolded in a car on the Autobahn.  A white knuckle experience.

Unless you have faith and trust.  Then, you can just take a nap and, when you wake up, you'll have safely arrived at your destination.  Some days, I nap.  Other days, I white knuckle it.  Reading the Old Testament, I get the impression that visitations from angels were as common as colds.  Faith was easy.  Even Job, scabby and poor and childless and bereft, held onto his faith.  Because angels walked the blighted earth bestowing blessings on those who believed.

The Book of Daniel in the Bible describes an angel like this:  "I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude."  

These days, angels take on a different form.  In my life, they are friends who send me text messages every day:  "How are you doing?"  Who drop off notes containing Bigfoot stickers on my front porch:  "Thank you for being you."  Who do Zoom calls with me where we drink wine and scribble poems:  "Write about an animal that fills you with wonder, like Elizabeth Bishop with that fish."

It's easy to have faith when you have messengers like these in your life.  More Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life than six-winged seraphim with flaming swords.  At the end of Frank Capra's film, George Bailey receives these heavenly words from his angelic visitor:  "Remember no man is a failure who has friends."

Tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for all the angels in his life.


for A. C.

by:  Martin Achatz

They blossom in ripples, Monet
creatures, fuzzy at the edges, suffused
with a kind of radioactive light.
The old Japanese man created
this pond, perhaps from some haiku
by Basho.  Here, in the lake. Fish float.
God's eyelashes flash.
from some recollection of Kyoto
where his father suckled the umbra
of his grandmother's young breasts.
Or perhaps he just woke up
one morning, aching
for something beautiful, went
to work. Van Gogh in an Arles
field.  Michelangelo on a slab
of David marble. 
Him hauling 
a copper bucket of kumquat 
fish that chased, orbited
the starry water, the way my pen 
pursues this poem's end
like Halley's Comet
toward the gravity
of its last breath.