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.
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