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.

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