Monday, May 31, 2021

May 31: Cold and Naked and Alone, Memorial Day, "First Memorial Day After"

Merton wrestles with demons . . . 

But anyway, one day I woke up to find out that the peace I had known for six months or more had suddenly gone. 

The Eden I had been living in had vanished. I was outside the wall. I did not know what flaming swords barred my way to the gate whose rediscovery had become impossible. I was once more out in the cold and naked and alone. 

Then everything began to fall apart, especially my vocation to the monastery. 

Not that it occurred to me to doubt my desire to be a Franciscan, to enter the cloister, to become a priest. That desire was stronger than ever now that I was cast out into the darkness of this cold solitude. It was practically the only thing I had left, the only thing to cover me and keep me warm: and yet it was small comfort, because the very presence of the desire tortured me by contrast with the sudden hopelessness that had come storming up out of the hidden depths of my heart. 

My desire to enter the cloister was small comfort indeed: for I had suddenly been faced with the agonizing doubt, the unanswerable question: Do I really have that vocation? 

I suddenly remembered who I was, who I had been. I was astonished: since last September I seemed to have forgotten that I had ever sinned. 

And now I suddenly realized that none of the men to whom I had talked about my vocation, neither Dan Walsh nor Father Edmund, knew who I really was. They knew nothing about my past. They did not know how I had lived before I entered the Church. They had simply accepted me because I was superficially presentable, I had a fairly open sort of a face and seemed to be sincere and to have an ordinary amount of sense and good will. Surely that was not enough. 

Now the terrible problem faced me: “I have got to go and let Father Edmund know about all this. Perhaps it will make a big difference.” After all, it is not enough merely to desire to enter the monastery.

An attraction to the cloister is not even the most important element in a religious vocation. You have to have the right moral and physical and intellectual aptitudes. And you have to be accepted, and accepted on certain grounds. 

When I looked at myself in the light of this doubt, it began to appear utterly impossible that anyone in his right mind could consider me fit material for the priesthood. 

I immediately packed my bag and started out for New York.

Having existed under a blanket of self-assurance and piety for over half a year, Merton suddenly finds himself back in the trenches of real life--with all of its dirty streets, doubt-filled days, and fragmented dreams.  It's dark-night-of-the-soul time for young Merton, and he finds the whole religious life he'd imagined for himself blown away like ashes after a fire.

Here's the thing:  Merton simply isn't ready to be a monk yet.  He hasn't surrendered himself to God's will without question.  Nope.  He's created a Godly life for himself, one in which he will be comfortable and secure.  Merton is calling the shots, and that really doesn't work.  We all think we know what's best for ourselves, and we pursue those visions every waking minute.  However, those visions, in the end, have very little to do with God, and everything to do with personal happiness.

I'm not saying that making God happy and having personal happiness are mutually exclusive .  On the contrary.  The greatest happiness you can find is by doing what God wants you to do, no matter how difficult.  Every day is like a pop quiz from God.  Sometimes that quiz is easy--true/false or multiple choice.  Sometimes that quiz is more challenging--essay.  However, pop quizzes are tricky.  You can provide an answer that seems totally correct at the moment, and you'll pass.  In a day's time--or week's or month's or year's--the true answer will come into focus, and your final grade will be submitted.  And you may end up in the same boat as Merton in the above passage.  Alone and in despair.  

Today in the United States, we celebrate Memorial Day.  It's a time to honor those men and women who lost their lives in military service to our country.  This day can be misconstrued as patriotism of the worst kind--filled with hate and violence and intolerance and the glorification of war.  That's human understanding.  A more divine understanding of Memorial Day involves surrender and self-sacrifice.  Giving up everything for a greater good.

All of the graves in the cemetery today adorned with tiny flags (my father's included) represent people who walked the path of selfless sacrifice.  They lifted their crosses and willingly carried them up the hill, to use a Christian metaphor.  They didn't want to die, but they understood the bigger picture.  The one where they could make the universe a better place by their actions.

I honor the selfless today.  Those who gave up everything for something bigger and greater than themselves.  This isn't patriotism talking.  It's admiration for bravery, and thankfulness for sacrifice.  An understanding that, sometimes, God asks you to do the impossible, and you do it.  Without question.

Saint Marty wishes you all a day filled with peace.

And a poem for this Memorial Day . . . 

This Memorial Day After

by:  Martin Achatz

We gather this Memorial Day after
a long season of wintering out, happy
to see faces, brindled hope wagging
its tail as we again summon soldiers limping
home after Bull Runs, Omaha Beaches, too
tired to even think about cool hands
on shell-shocked temples, wanting only
to find a place in sun to stretch out
limbs, press faces into bowls of blue
sky, close eyes that have seen too much
that begs to be forgotten, find a Flanders
Field to rest, peace that can’t be broken
by cries of bullets or rockets ever again,
that will last until tribulation’s trumpet
blasts open the veil of grave, and we all
climb, stunned and new, from the final
battle of dirt and sod and rock, final
Memorial Day where we’ll stand
shoulder-to-shoulder with those
who, as old men in old uniforms remind
us today, paid the Christ price,
brave wounded souls who will nod
at us, smile with the knowledge of having
been through this before, heard their last
breaths rattle a blood-soaked morn, given
up their ghosts so that we could walk
in a world not haunted by sacrifice.

They stand with us now, on this Memorial
Day after, as they will stand
with us on that last Memorial Day,
when we will all understand what it means
to lay down our lives like place settings
on a dinner table, tuck napkins
under our chins, wait for grace
to be said, a thankfulness for all
gifts we have received, will receive,
and we will part our lips at the end, let
an “amen” rattle the universe’s windows
the way they rattled when we took
those first stumbling steps out of the gates
of Eden, and God’s heart split open
like a mother’s sending her only child
off to war.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

May 29: Turned Into Grace, Primary Motivation, "A Question About Bigfoot"

Merton experiences major self-doubt . . . 

The blow fell suddenly. 

I was within a few weeks of entering the novitiate. Already I was receiving those last minute letters from the novice-master, with the printed lists of things I was expected to bring with me to the monastery. They were few enough. The only perplexing item on the list was “one umbrella.” 

The list made me happy. I read it over and over. I began to feel the same pleased excitement that used to glow in the pit of my stomach when I was about to start out for camp in the summer, or to go to a new school.... 

Then God asked me a question. He asked me a question about my vocation. 

Rather, God did not have to ask me any questions. He knew all that He needed to know about my vocation. He allowed the devil, as I think, to ask me some questions, not in order that the devil should get any information, but in order that I might learn a thing or two. 

There is a certain kind of humility in hell which is one of the worst things in hell, and which is infinitely far from the humility of the saints, which is peace. The false humility of hell is an unending, burning shame at the inescapable stigma of our sins. The sins of the damned are felt by them as vesture of intolerable insults from which they cannot escape, Nessus shirts that burn them up for ever and which they can never throw off. 

The anguish of this self-knowledge is inescapable even on earth, as long as there is any self-love left in us: because it is pride that feels the burning of that shame. Only when all pride, all self-love has been consumed in our souls by the love of God, are we delivered from the thing which is the subject of those torments. It is only when we have lost all love of our selves for our own sakes that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame. 

For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God. 

It is the proud that have to be burned and devoured by the horrible humility of hell.... But as long as we are in this life, even that burning anguish can be turned into a grace, and should be a cause of joy.

Anguish that is transformed into a grace.  A cause of joy.  That's a very Flannery O'Connoresque statement.  It's sort of like the Misfit shooting the grandmother in the head at the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and then saying, "She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life."  

Basically, what Merton (and O'Connor) are saying is that most of us go through life pretty self-deluded.  Our primary motivation is not the betterment of our neighbor or neighborhood or city or state or country or planet or universe.  Nope.  Most of us don't want to be bothered with true selflessness.  That would involve sacrifice.  Handing the reins over to something bigger than ourselves.  That's a pretty terrifying notion.

Think about it.  How much of what anyone does in a day could be categorized as selfless?  Yes, there are some vocations that lean in that direction.  Teaching.  Nursing.  Doctoring.  Ministering.  Pastoring.  But my therapist recently pointed something out.  We were talking about a particular life situation that causes me a great deal of heartache, and she said to me, "What do you get out of it?"

"What do you mean?" I said, a little indignant but sensing where the conversation was headed.

"There has to be a reason why you keep doing what you're doing," she replied, "otherwise, you wouldn't continue to do it.  There has to be some kind of payoff."

There it is.  The primary motivation for most people:  reward.  Money.  Prestige.  Power.  Fame.  Self image.  Benefits.  Vacation time.  I've worked jobs I've hated for the paycheck.  I've stayed in positions for the medical insurance.  And I've remained in painful relationships because, somehow, they reinforced certain roles in which I cast myself--victim, supportive friend and partner, selfless caregiver.

What Merton says in the passage above is that, until "all self love has been consumed in our souls by the love of God, are we delivered from the thing which is the subject of those torments."  When does a person become a saint?  When the love of God and nothing else becomes that person's primary motivation.  That's a pretty tall order.  And very few people reach that point in their lives.

Most of us are in the process of becoming something better.  I would say that describes 99.9999% of the inhabitants of this little blue marble we live on.  You can be a vegan animal rights activist and still struggle with drug addiction.  Think River Phoenix.  A devoted disciple and friend and still deny God not once, not twice, but three times.  Think Saint Peter.  A  brilliant comedian and actor and still give into despair.  Think Robin Williams.  A nun who devotes her life to ministering to the poor and still not sense the presence of God.  Think Mother Teresa.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The human condition is a mysterious thing.  Full of contradiction and impossibility.  One person born into poverty will end up in prison.  Another person born into poverty will become a saint.  And still another person born into poverty will end up in prison and then become a saint.

Tonight, Saint Marty embraces the mystery of being human.

And a poem about mystery . . . 

A Question About Bigfoot

by:  Martin Achatz

Do I believe in Bigfoot?
That’s not easy to answer.
It’s like trying to figure out
love after 25 years of marriage.
Does my wife still love me?
Do I still love her?
Will she meet someone
in the dairy section at Walmart
as they both reach for the same
half gallon of 1% milk and,
in that instant, lose that ineffable
thing that has held us together
this last quarter century? What’s
bound us to each other
like a filament from a spider’s
spinneret? What sets love
in motion then lights it on fire
until it burns down the way
a fuse on a bottle rocket does?
I guess what I’m talking about
here is mystery. I want to
believe in Bigfoot, that love
won’t fuse out, shoot into
heaven, be gone faster
than a startled rabbit. Because
really, what’s life without
mysteries? Just a half gallon
of 1% milk, curdled in the back
of the fridge, three months old.

Friday, May 28, 2021

May 28: Multiply My Wounds, Bloodhounds, Bags of Gold

Merton is unsettled by reading the Bible . . . 

I did not yet have the art of reading that way, but nevertheless these words had a dark fire in them with which I began to feel myself burned and seared. 

If He come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart, I shall not understand.... If He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say: why dost Thou so?
There was something in the words that seemed to threaten all the peace that I had been tasting for months past, a kind of forewarning of an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities. I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favors... 

God whose wrath no man can resist, and under Whom they stoop that bear up the world.

What am I then, that I should answer Him and have words with Him?

And if He should hear me when I call, I should not believe that He had heard my voice.

For He shall crush me in a whirlwind and multiply my wounds even without cause....

“Even without cause!” And my uneasy spirit was already beginning to defend itself against this unfair God Who could not be unjust, could not be unfair. 

If I would justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me: if I would shew myself innocent He shall prove me wicked. 

...and multiply my wounds even without cause.

I closed the book. The words struck deep. They were more than I would ever be able to understand. But the impression they made should have been a kind of warning that I was about to find out something about their meaning. 

Merton is about to have a literal come-to-Jesus moment.  The complacency and self-satisfaction he's been wrapping around his shoulders is about to be torn away.  By entering the monastery, he thinks he's going to escape all of his worries and troubles.  He's trying to run away, but he just doesn't know it.  Yet.  He has some vague notion, a sense of being burned and seared by the "dark fire" of the Book of Job.

If there is one thing that I've learned in my life, it's that you cannot escape problems.  No matter how far you run or long you wait, problems have a way of tracking you down like a pack of bloodhounds.  And when they finally tree you, they stand around the trunk, baying and snarling.  

These last couple days, if you haven't noticed, I've been treed, and the hounds have been so loud that sleep has eluded me.  Of course, I know that worry does nothing but make you tired and sick.  It certainly doesn't solve anything.  Therefore, tonight, I am going to celebrate.  Yes, the hounds of truth are still slobbering below me, but, sometimes, in a starless night, moon breaks through the clouds.  For an instant, everything is gilded with filaments of silver.  A spiderweb of light.  And you are caught.

This afternoon, I received a phone call from a colleague and friend, giving me some unexpected good news.  I've been been selected to receive the honor of Arts Advocate of the Year from the City of Marquette.  Now, I know that awards are not a measure of your goodness or worth as a human being, and they don't guarantee lifelong happiness.  I'm not that shallow.  This recognition means something different to me.

I was nominated anonymously.  A panel of people weighed my contributions to the promotion of arts and culture in my neck of the woods and beyond.  And I was found worthy of being signaled for my work.  I'm reminded of the parable from the Bible of the master who entrusts bags of gold to three servants.  When the master returns home, he settles accounts with the servants, and he rewards the ones who have put their master's money to work and created more wealth.  They are entrusted with more, and the master says to each, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

God has given me many gifts.  Health.  Beautiful kids.  Jobs that pay my bills (for the most part).  People who love me.  And a gift for words and art.  These are my bags of gold.  Now, I could bury those bags in the sand to protect them, make sure that I never lose them.  Or I could share that gold.  Do some good with it.  Put it to work and increase its worth.

In my life, the choice has been pretty clear.  In a society that seems to value individuals who simply hoard their treasures like Smaug the dragon, I choose generosity.  In a world that seems to beat down the less fortunate, I choose to lift them up.  In a universe that sometimes seems selfish and ugly, I choose beauty.

So, the news I received sort of feels like an affirmation of this philosophy.  Generosity over greed.  Love over brutality.  Grace over neglect.

Today, God said to me, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

For that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

May 27: Deep and Disturbing, Truth, "Denial"

Merton's comfort is disturbed . . . 

Above all, it must be remembered that the world was at war, and even now, at the cottage, we sat around the fireplace at night and talked about the Selective Service Law that would soon be passed in Washington, wondering how’ it would be, and what we should do about it. 

For Lax and Gibney this law involved a complicated problem of conscience. They were even asking themselves whether the war was licit at all: and if so, whether they could be justified in entering it as combatants. For my own part, no problems even arose, since I would be in a monastery, and the question would be settled automatically.... 

I think it is very evident that such a vocation demanded more of a trial. God was not going to let me walk out of the miseries of the world into a refuge of my own choosing. He had another way prepared for me. He had several questions He wanted to ask me about this vocation of mine: questions which I would not be able to answer. 

Then, when I failed to answer them, He would give me the answers, and I would find the problem solved. 

It was a strange thing: I did not take it as a warning: but one night I was reading the ninth chapter of the Book of Job, and was amazed and stunned by a series of lines which I could not forget: 

And Job answered and said: “Indeed I know that it is so, and that man cannot be justified compared with God. If He will contend with him, he cannot answer Him, one for a thousand.... He is wise in heart and mighty in strength: who hath resisted Him and hath had peace?... Who shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble. Who commandeth the sun and it riseth not: and shutteth up the stars as it were under a seal.”

It was a cool summer evening. I was sitting in the driveway outside the wide-open garage which had become a general dormitory, since we now had no car to put there. Rice and Lax and Seymour and I had all brought our beds out there to sleep in the air. With the book in my lap I looked down at the lights of the cars crawling up the road from the valley. I looked at the dark outline of the wooded hills and at the stars that were coming out in the eastern sky. 

The words of the vulgate text rang and echoed in my heart: “Qui facit Arcturum ct Oriona...” “Who maketh Arcturus and Orion and Hyades and the inner parts of the south....” 

There was something deep and disturbing in the lines. I thought they only moved me as poetry: and yet I also felt, obscurely enough, that there was something personal about them. God often talks to us directly in Scripture. That is, He plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.

Merton is learning that God doesn't like self-confident, self-satisfied people.  Merton's friends are struggling with the coming war and whether or not they can morally serve as soldiers.  Whether they can kill people for a just cause and still call themselves Christians.  Merton has already checked out of this debate.  He's going to be in a monastery, safely tucked away from such difficult decisions.  God isn't going to let Merton off the hook that easily.  As the passage from Job says, "If He will contend with him, he cannot answer Him."

To put that a little more bluntly:  If God thinks you're full of shit, you're full of shit.

You can't really argue with the universe.  You can deny climate change all you want, but the arctic is melting.  You can try to hide from war, but war will find you.  You can say that there's no such thing as institutional racism in the United States, but "patriots" stormed the U. S. Capitol Building on January 6, waving Confederate flags.  Those are truths.  You can't get around them.  

I think everyone engages in acts of self-deception all the time.  It's how you get through the day.  Sometimes those lies are small:  I don't drink too much coffee in the morning.  Sometimes those lies are big:  my significant other still loves me, even if she breaks my heart on a daily basis.  Mistruths allow you to get out of bed, go to work, interact with coworkers.  The alternative is to pull the covers over your head and sleep away the rest of your life.  I have done both of these things.  

Eventually, though, truth catches up with you.  God calls you on your bullshit.  Then you have to face the facts, one way or another.  It depends on how long you contend with God.  If you keep denying climate change, eventually most of Greenland disappears.  If you allow your significant other to keep breaking your heart, eventually your heart breaks permanently, and you will never trust another person ever.

I am a high-functioning self-liar.  Been doing it for quite a while.  In fact, I've been doing it for so long that I'm not quite sure what the truth actually is.  I'm not going to get into details here, but I do know that, as Fox Mulder says, "The truth is out there."  Some days, it feels like I'm on the coast of Greenland, and the water is up to my eyeballs.  Other days, I can actually fool myself into believing that hearts were meant to be broken.  (Isn't that what almost every country song ever written is about?)

While I'm being purposefully vague here, my message is fairly direct:  you just can't hide from the truth.  And the truth is a lot more healing than the alternative.  There's a reason why Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" in the Book of John.  Because, you can only be fully alive in truth.  And truth will lead you to your Higher Power, whatever name you use--God, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, the universe, Creator, Bob, Carol, Ted, or Alice.

So, that is my truth for this evening.  Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, I will lie to get myself out of bed.  And to get myself to go to work.  And to do my work.  And to . . . Well, you get the idea.  Because this is a lesson I have to teach myself over and over and over.  Because some truths are just too painful to accept all at once.  Small doses are better.

As Mark Twain once said, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Saint Marty has traveled up and down that river.  He knows every bend and current.  


by:  Martin Achatz

I still own a condo there, return
From time-to-time when life gets rough.
It’s a beautiful place where the sky
Stays pink from dawn to dusk, egrets
Basking on the riverbanks, their feathers
Aglow, the temperature, perfect: 74.2° Fahrenheit.
Always. There blows a gentle breeze
Off the water, and a smell of marsh
Hangs in the air, not too strong.
Last night, with weather reports
Of an April blizzard, eight to ten inches,
I took a trip to the Nile, left
Behind everything but a toothbrush,
Clean underwear, a tube of sunscreen.
I wandered the streets of Cairo, bought
Kabobs of lamb and pineapple, ate
Them on the balcony of my place,
Watched the sunset over the river,
So orange it made the water
Sizzle, jump with color, light.
I saw people I know on the street
Below. Maija, my friend whose son
Is alcoholic, bipolar, jogged by,
Her body toned, thin, the way
She’s always wanted it to be.
My office mate, Bonnie, waded
In the river shallows, no children,
No students, just the mud in her toes,
Bach in her ears. So many people
Taking a break in this exotic, pink
Place from all the rocks in shoes,
Hangnails on thumbs, hungry babies,
Mortgages, unemployment, oil spills.
Just a balcony. 74.2°. Lamb kabobs.
Classical music. Egrets, not regrets.
And 4,135 miles of water, Lake Victoria
To the Mediterranean Sea.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

May 25-26: A Real Sacrifice, Things About God, Our Imperfections

Merton discusses his imperfections . . . 

God calls men—not only religious, but all Christians—to be the “salt of the earth.” But the savor of the salt, says St. Augustine, is a supernatural life, and we lose our savor if, ceasing to rely on God alone, we are guided, in our actions, by the mere desire of temporal goods or the fear of their loss: “Be ye not solicitous, therefore, saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” “And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life, for my sake, shall save it.” 

No matter what religious Order a man enters, whether its Rule be easy or strict in itself does not much matter; if his vocation is to be really fruitful it must cost him something, and must be a real sacrifice. It must be a cross, a true renunciation of natural goods, even of the highest natural goods. 

Since I was the person that I happened to be, and since I was so strongly attached to material goods, and so immersed in my own self, and so far from God, and so independent of Him, and so dependent on myself and my own imaginary powers, it was necessary that I should not enter a monastery feeling the way I did about the Franciscans. 

The truth of the matter is simply this: becoming a Franciscan, especially at that precise moment of history, meant absolutely no sacrifice at all, as far as I was concerned. Even the renunciation of legitimate pleasures of the flesh did not cost me as much as it might seem. I had suffered so much tribulation and unrest on their account that I rejoiced in the prospect of peace, in a life protected from the heat and anguish of passion by the vow of chastity. So even this was a boon rather than a matter of pain—all the more so because I imagined, in my stupid inexperience, that the fight against concupiscence had already been won, and that my soul was free, and that I had little or nothing to worry about any more. 

No, all I would have to do would be to enter the novitiate, and undergo one year of inconveniences so slight that they would hardly be noticeable, and after that everything would be full of fine and easy delights—plenty of freedom, plenty of time to read and study and meditate, and ample liberty to follow my own tastes and desires in all things of the mind and spirit. Indeed, I was entering upon a life of the highest possible natural pleasures: for even prayer, in a certain sense, can be a natural pleasure.

What Merton confesses here is that he really isn't ready to be a monk.  He's too attached to the world still.  His vision of a monkly life isn't about giving everything thing up and following God to the ends of the planet.  Nope.  For Merton, the monastic existence is simply an extension of his current life--reading and writing and publishing and teaching--without the distraction of the "anguish of passion."  Oh, and he'll pray, too.  After he's done with his reading and writing and publishing and teaching.  He'll squeeze God in somewhere.

Here's are some things about God that I'm fairly confident in stating:

1.  God isn't an afterthought.

2.  If you try to squeeze God in somewhere, you'll probably find out that God is bigger than the space you've created.

3.  You have a plan for your life.  God has a plan for your life.  God's plan is better.

4.  God can transform broken things, lives, people into poems.

5.  God isn't a fan of mean people.

6.  You may take a vacation from God.  God never takes a vacation from you.

7.  God has many names.  Yahweh.  Allah.  Jesus.  Creator.  Lord.  The Universe.  The Holy Spirit.  Bob.  Alice.

8.  God doesn't care what name you use.  God just wants to you to call.

9.  God isn't male or female.  So don't force that shit on God.

10.  God doesn't let bad things happen.  That's humans.  We fuck things up all the time.

11.  God fixes things that humans fuck up.

12.  God is an equal opportunity lover.  God loves everyone, regardless of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

I've learned these truths throughout my life, by trial and error, just like Merton.  I'm sure that, in six months time, I'll add to this list, or subtract from it.  The spiritual life isn't something static and fixed.  It's fluid.  Dynamic.  Constantly changing.  Because human beings are flawed, complex creatures with a seemingly infinite capacity to make mistakes.

Being a saint isn't about being perfect.  It's about striving to love God through all of our imperfections.  

Saint Marty does that every day.  Imperfectly.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

May 23: Busy Day, Holy Night, All is Calm

No Merton this evening, disciples.  Just a report from the front lines of sainthood.

I was up until 3 a.m. this morning, recording and editing an episode of my podcast Lit for Christmas.  Stumbled to bed, slept for about four hours.  Then I had to get up to play for a worship service at a local Lutheran church.  Then I went grocery shopping.  Then I prepared for a poetry workshop that I led this evening.  Then I attended a Zoom Book Club meeting, discussing Hilary St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel.  Then I led a poetry workshop in celebration of Walt Whitman's 202nd birthday.  And now . . . I'm ready to collapse.

However, I wanted to share something that I wrote this evening during the Whitman workshop . . . 

There is This

by:  Martin Achatz

There is this:  me in the middle of sleepless

night, couch my space while moon, constellations

creep by outside like hungry skunks.  Even sound

has gone to bed, and what I'm left with is nothing.  

But you.  Faithful friend, who didn't want 

crate or pillow, treat or knot.  You sit with your muzzle 

on my thigh, gray back studded with continents of black.  

I rest my hand on you, press fingers into the tiny

atlas of your shoulders, and you take a deep

breath, huff out a sigh as long as summer.

I feel its El Nino warmth on my skin, sit

there.  With you.  And somehow, I understand

why Saint Francis preached to sparrow flocks

and hungry wolves. Because they understand

what human beings, with our minds hunkered

under thick bunkers of bone, cannot. Or

will not. They accept this world for just what it is:

an aggie rattling around with loose pennies and nickels

in God's deep, wide pocket.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

May 20-21: My Selfishness, But Maybe, Possibility

Merton talks about his shortcomings . . . 

It is true I was called to the cloister. That has been made abundantly clear. But the dispositions with which I was now preparing to enter the Franciscan novitiate were much more imperfect than I was able to realize. In choosing the Franciscans, I had followed what was apparently a perfectly legitimate attraction—an attraction which might very well have been a sign of God’s will, even though it was not quite as supernatural as I thought. I had chosen this Order because I thought I would be able to keep its Rule without difficulty, and because I was attracted by the life of teaching and writing which it would offer me, and much more by the surroundings in which I saw I would probably live. God very often accepts dispositions that are no better than these, and even some that are far worse, and turns them into a true vocation in His own time. 

But with me, it was not to be so. I had to be led by a way that I could not understand, and I had to follow a path that was beyond my own choosing. God did not want anything of my natural tastes and fancies and selections until they had been more completely divorced from their old track, their old habits, and directed to Himself, by His own working. My natural choice, my own taste in selecting a mode of life, was altogether untrustworthy. And already my selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this whole vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world. 

Besides, I was depending almost entirely on my own powers and on my own virtues—as if I had any!—to become a good religious, and to live up to my obligations in the monastery. God does not want that. He does not ask us to leave the world as a favor to Himself.

Ego gets in the way of everything--marriages, friendships, educations.  And, as Merton points out in this passage, ego even gets in the way of God.  Merton has not let go of his own aspirations and dreams.  In a way, he's using God as a shield to "fortify and defend [his] ego against" the slings and arrows of the universe.  He hasn't reached the point of total surrender to God's will.

I pride myself in the teaching I do for the university, the work I do for the library.  I'm not exactly sure if this is ego or simply the work ethic that my parents instilled in me at a very young age.  My dad was a plumber, going out on service calls at all hours of the day and night, for close to 60 years.  My mom was right there beside him, doing the bookwork, paying the bills, making the dinners.  They went to church every weekend, dropped an envelope in the collection plate each time.  They did all this because it was the right thing to do.  Not because they were trying to win a trophy or title.  Thirty years from now, nobody will even remember my parents' names, except their kids and maybe their grandkids.  

I often joke on this blog about winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry or the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Writing a bestselling poetry collection (if there is such a thing).  I am kidding, of course.  I know that the chance of my name being spoken in the halls of the Swedish Academy is about as likely as Bigfoot knocking on my door tonight and coming inside for a nightcap.  However, that doesn't stop me from engaging in a little fantasy.  

Is this ego?  Perhaps.  I make these jokes, fully aware that there is a small, niggling voice in the back of my mind whispering, "Yes, but maybe . . ."

Bigfoot is sitting in my living room tonight, sipping a glass of blueberry wine.  He's good company on late nights.  His hairy presence is a reminder that belief in impossible things is half the battle.  There are people out there who've devoted their lives to hunting my hominid houseguest.  Make their livings off his image.  He is as real as wonder and mystery to them.  

I don't want to live in a world where Bigfoot doesn't roam the Pacific Northwest of the imagination.  Where the Nobel Prize doesn't get awarded to a blogger.  Maybe that's ego with size 54 feet, stomping through my backyard.  Or maybe it's just my stubborn belief that the universe is a more interesting place with constellations of possibility in the heavens.  I think that's what kept my kept my father and mother going all those years.

Saint Marty gives thanks for stargazing with Bigfoot tonight.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

May 19: Occupied My Imagination, Reality, Mitty Breaks

Merton worries about names . . . 

The general impression I got was that all the unpleasantness and hardship was crowded into the year of the canonical novitiate, and that after that things opened out and became easy and pleasant as they were now: and certainly these clerics as I saw them were leading a life that could not by any stretch of the imagination be called hard. Here they were living at this college, among these beautiful green hills, surrounded by woods and fields, in a corner of America where the summer is never hot, and which they would leave long before the cold weather came. They had whole mornings and afternoons to read or study, and there were hours in which they could play baseball or tennis or go for walks in the woods, or even go in to town, walking two by two, solemnly in black suits and Roman collars. 

They told me elaborate stories of the ways there were of getting around even the easy regulations that prohibited too much familiarity with seculars, and of course the good Catholic families in the town were falling over themselves in their anxiety to invite the young Franciscans to come and sit in their parlors and be made much of, with cookies and soft drinks. 

For my part, I was already deciding in my mind that I would make use of all these opportunities to get away and read and pray and do some writing, when I was in my brown robe and wearing those same sandals. 

Meanwhile, I got up when the clerics did—I suppose it was not much earlier than six in the morning—and went to Mass with them, and received Communion after them all, and then went to breakfast with the farm hands, where a little nun in a white and blue habit brought us cornflakes and fried eggs: for the cooking was done by some Sisters of one of those innumerable little Franciscan congregations. 

After breakfast, I would walk over to the library, breathing the cold morning air as the dew melted on the lawns. Father Irenaeus gave me the key to the philosophy seminar room, and there I could spend the morning all alone reading St. Thomas, at my leisure, with a big, plain wooden crucifix at the end of the room for me to look at when I raised my eyes from the book. 

I don’t think I had ever been so happy in my life as I now was in that silent library, turning over the pages of the first part of the Summa Theologica, and here and there making notes on the goodness, the all-presence, the wisdom, the power, the love of God. 

In the afternoons, I would walk in the woods, or along the Alleghany River that flowed among the trees, skirting the bottom of the wide pastures. 

Turning over the pages of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I had looked for some name to take in religion—indeed, that was a problem over which I had wasted an undue amount of time. The Province was a big one, and there were so many Friars in it that they had run out of all the names—and you could not take a name that was already taken by someone else. I knew in advance that I could not be a John Baptist or an Augustine or Jerome or Gregory. I would have to find some outlandish name like Paphnutius (which was Father Irenaeus’ suggestion). Finally I came across a Franciscan called Bl.John Spaniard and I thought that would sound fine.

I considered the possibility of myself running around in a brown robe and sandals, and imagined I heard the novice master saying: “Frater John Spaniard, go over there and scrub that floor.” Or else he would put his head out of his room and say to one of the other novices: “Go and get Frater John Spaniard and bring him here,” and then I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals—or rather our sandals—with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young Friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture. 

When I went back to the cottage on the hill, and timidly admitted that I thought I might take the name of Frater John Spaniard, Seymour at least thought it was a good choice. Seymour had a weakness for anything that seemed to have some sort of dash about it, and maybe in the back of his mind he was thinking of Torquemada and the Inquisition, although I don’t think the John Spaniard in question had much to do with that. But I have forgotten where that saint actually did belong in history. 

All this fuss about choosing a fancy name may seem like nothing but harmless foolishness, and I suppose that is true. But nevertheless I now realize that it was a sign of a profound and radical defect in the vocation which so filled my heart and occupied my imagination in those summer days of 1940. 

The portrait of the religious life that Merton paints here is almost of a country club with sandals, robes, and Roman collars.  Or a monastic Dead Poets Society.  Certainly, his vision is not based in any kind of reality.  He is worried more about accoutrements and less about sacrifice.  In some ways, Merton sort of reminds me of myself when my wife was pregnant with our first child.  I dreamed of first pictures and Christmases.  Cute outfits and the smell of baby shampoo.  Nothing in my fatherly daydreams contained the sleepless nights, colicky screams, or my wife's descent into depression and mania postpartum.  

I wish that Merton's visions of religious life were true.  If they were, half the world would be monks, the other half cloistered nuns.  Who wouldn't want days of cornflakes and fried eggs, some not-so-inconvenient menial labor, and then an afternoon of reading, writing, and contemplation?  Followed by a trip into town for some cookies and pop (soda, for all you non-Michiganders.)

The truth of the matter is that reality rarely aligns with fantasy.  Take me, for example.  Yes, I work for a library now.  Yes, I spend my days dreaming up readings and concerts and classes.  I've talked with a two-time U. S Poet Laureate.  I just booked a National Book Award-nominated writer for an event this fall.  I spent part of this afternoon creating a script for a podcast episode that I'll record tomorrow.  It sounds like a dream job for an artsy person like myself.  And it is.

However, I work hard.  Every day.  That conversation with the two-time U. S. Poet Laureate was the result of months of negotiation, contracts, chasing down sponsors, promotion.  Getting in touch with the National Book Award-nominated writer took me several emails, and I'm still not completely done.  I have to negotiate dates and times and an honorarium.  And writing the podcast script involved research, revision, and a fair amount of creativity.  

Merton falls into the same trap that we all do.  To borrow from James Thurber--we are all Walter Mitty.  Trapped in day-to-day monotony, we dream ourselves into lives of adventure and recognition.  We become saints or celebrated writers or gifted surgeons.  Heroes.  It's a comforting place to reside, but, eventually, we must all return to our offices. computers, hammers, and cash registers.  You can't Mitty yourself permanently out of life.  That's not how it works.

So, most days, I take Mitty breaks.  Allow myself to go for a walk along Lake Superior.  Stare out of my office window.  Let my eyes unfocus, and open the gates of fancy and dreams.  In those few minutes, I am standing next to the King of Sweden, accepting my Nobel Prize.  Reeling in the big fish with Santiago off the coast of Cuba.  Painting a mallard with James Audubon.

At the end of those Mitty breaks, I'm ready for the next email or phone call or knock on my office door.  Reality.  Merton, struggling with his trust in God.  Me, contacting another prospective sponsor to beg for money.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of his imagination.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

May 18: A Walk, A Lake, A Poem

Thought I'd write a bonus post today, since I've been so negligent about blogging.  

I went for a walk at lunch.  Down to Lake Superior, along the dock front.  A warm breeze was rucking the water, and a pair of geese bobbed in the waves, one goose dipping and dipping its head under the surface.  Everything was blue and shot with light.  And I felt really grateful and alive.

It's still warm, and summer seems to be sitting on top of us right now.  Rain coming tomorrow.

Saint Marty had a sublime afternoon.

And a poem about love and death . . . 

‘Til Death Us Do Part

by:  Martin Achatz

Death falls asleep in her chair
across the room, starts to snore.
It’s a sound I am used to, have heard
for almost thirty years. You see,
Death isn’t some shadow, breathing
down your neck, stalking you
like a water buffalo charging
Francis Macomber. No, Death
has a toothbrush in the bathroom,
leaves rolled-up socks littered
on the bedroom floor. I sometimes
cook Death eggs and toast on Sunday
morning, read her poems at night.
Death knows me. I know Death.
That’s the way it should be,
so that, at the end, when Death says
it’s time to go, I’ll rise from my chair,
put on my jacket, turn off lights,
close the front door, make sure it's locked,
then walk down the street hand-in-hand
with Death. Two kids on their first date.

May 17-18: Hottest Place, Anticipation and Gratification, My Sister Rose

Merton learns something about being a novice . . . 

It was too far from town to go down to Communion every morning—I had to hitch-hike down. And that was one reason why I asked one of my friends, Father Joseph, a friar who had come to St. Bonaventure’s from New York to teach summer school, if I could not come down there for a couple of weeks. 

Seeing that I was going to enter the Order in August, it was not hard to persuade the Guardian to let me come down and stay in the big, dilapidated room in the gymnasium that was occupied by three or four poor students and seminarians who had odd jobs around the place as telephone operators and garage hands, for the summer. 

At that time all the clerics from the different houses of studies in the Province came to St. Bonaventure’s for the summer, and I suppose they are doing it again, now that the war is over. So in those weeks I really began to enter into Franciscan life, and get some taste of it as it is led in this country and to know some of its pleasant and cheerful and easy-going informality. 

Summer school had not yet started, and the clerics had plenty of time to sit around on the steps of the library and gymnasium and tell me stories about how it had been with them in the novitiate. I began to get a picture of a life that was, in their estimation, somewhat severe, but was full of its own lighter moments. 

St. Anthony’s monastery, they said, was the hottest place they had ever seen, in the summer time, and the chapel was stuffy, and was filled with a sickening smell of wax from all the burning candles. Then there was a certain amount of work to be done. You had to scrub floors and wash dishes and work in the garden. But then you got some time to yourself and there was recreation too. I got dark hints of humiliations that were to be expected, here and there, but they all agreed that the novice master was a good sort of a fellow, and they liked him. They told me I would too.

Merton is in the thrall of the idea of being a novice in a monastery.  He hasn't had to deal with the day-to-dayness of being part of a religious order, so even mundane details like burning wax and dirty dishes and floors hold a certain excitement for him.  Everything is polished with newness and hope, that feeling you get looking at a pile of unopened Christmas gifts or sitting in a brand new car.  It's all about possibility.

Here I sit on the cusp of summer.  Outside my office window at the library, trees are flushed with green.  All day, I watched people shambling, ambling, loping by in shorts and tees as I worked.  The temperature at 3 p.m. topped out at around 81 degrees.  I actually contemplated walking up the street to get an ice cream cone about mid-afternoon.  I held on to that thought for several hours.  Because, in my experience, anticipation is much better than gratification.

In my childhood, the build-up to Christmas was huge.  This was in the days before streaming services and VCRs, when you had to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or Santa Claus is Coming to Town or How the Grinch Stole Christmas on its broadcast date and time.  If you missed the scheduled airing, you had to wait another 365 days for the chance of seeing the program again.  So, even Christmas television specials stoked the fire of longing.  And that was the best part of the whole season--the wishing and wanting and dreaming.

Now, it is next to impossible to sustain that kind of anticipation indefinitely.  Eventually, Christmas arrives or you board the plane for Hawaii or you go pick up your new pair of glasses.  Then, you are confronted by reality.  You get a biography of Alfred Nobel instead of the Nobel Prize in Literature for Christmas.  A hurricane hits Waikiki the day you arrive and causes a two-week electrical blackout.  Your new glasses make you look like Truman Capote after a three-week bender.

Yesterday morning, after a long weekend of rehearsing and performing for a live recording of a radio show, I FELT like Truman Capote after a three-week bender.  I.  Was.  T.  I.  R.  E.  D.  I had no wishes or wants or dreams, aside from five more hours of sleep and/or a hefty amount of caffeine.  I was anticipating a pretty rough day.  

About ten in the morning, I received a text, informing me that my sister, Rose, was rushed by ambulance to the hospital for a possible stroke.  Two sentences, and all of my exhaustion burned off like a comet screaming through Earth's atmosphere.  And what was left was a day of worry, more texts, prayer, and more worry.  I went from wishing, wanting, and dreaming for additional hours of sleep to wishing, wanting, and dreaming that my sister was alright.

In short, the universe gave me a reality check.

Longtime disciples of Saint Marty know that Rose is my older sister (by two years).  She has Down Syndrome and is in the later stages of Alzheimer's.  For the last year, she's been suffering from seizures, which, according to doctors, is an expected symptom of the disease.  There's not a whole lot to be done, except to medicate and hope it works.

I went from anticipating a day of complete and utter tiredness yesterday to a day of anticipating a phone call telling my my sister was on life support.  And a LOT of people sending up healing thoughts and prayers to the universe, Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, the Force, whatever.

By the late afternoon, Rose had opened her eyes.  By evening, she was eating mashed potatoes, pudding, and ice cream, washing it all down with chocolate milk.

This might not sound like a miracle to some of my disciples, but, to me, it really was like opening up a present on Christmas and finding an invitation from the Swedish Academy to travel to Stockholm to accept my Nobel Prize.  Or plane tickets to Honolulu.  Or the newest iPhone.  Or a pair of glasses that make me look like George Clooney.  In fact, it was like all of those things combined.

Today, Rose is sitting up in a chair and eating and talking.  She will probably come home tomorrow, according to the doctors.  

In this case, gratification certainly outstripped anticipation.  Rose certainly isn't out of the woods.  She still is in the later stages of Alzheimer's.  When I go to see her after she gets home, she still won't know who I am.  However, she is eating, drinking, laughing, and talking.  

And for that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

May 11: Those Weeks in June, Forks in the Road, Robert Frost

Merton spends some time with friends . . . 

The cottage was crowded, and that meant that there were far more dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen after those perilous meals of fried, suspicious meats. But everybody was busy with something and the woods were quiet and the sun was as bright as ever on the wide, airy landscape of rolling mountains before our faces. 

Presently Seymour came from New York, with Helen his wife, and Peggy Wells came to the cottage, and later came Nancy Flagg who went to Smith and for whom Lax had written a poem in the New Yorker. Gibney and Seymour climbed into the tops of thirty-foot trees and built a platform there about ten feet long between the trees, reached by a ladder up the side of one of the trees. It was so high that Lax would not even climb it. 

Meanwhile, in the early mornings, outside the room where the girls lived, you would see Peggy Wells sitting and reading one of those fancy editions of the Bible as literature out loud to herself. And when Nancy Flagg was there, she sat in the same sun, and combed her long hair, which was marvelous red-gold and I hope she never cut it short for it gave glory to God. And on those days I think Peggy Wells read the Bible out loud to Nancy Flagg. I don’t know. Later Peggy Wells walked through the woods by herself puzzling over Aristotle’s Categories

Rice and Knight and Gerdy sat apart, mostly in or around the garage, typing or discussing novels or commercial short stories, and Lax grew his beard, and thought, and sometimes put down on paper thoughts for a story, or talked with Nancy Flagg. 

For my own part, I found a good place where I could sit on a rail of the fence along the stony driveway, and look at the far hills, and say the rosary. It was a quiet, sunny place, and the others did not come by that way much, and you could not hear the sounds of the house. This was where I was happiest, in those weeks in June.

Merton is still living the life of a person who sees the future perfectly.  He knows where he's headed, and he knows how he's going to get there.  The tone he uses in this passage is one of complete satisfaction and clarity.  "I am holy and above all this," he seems to be saying.  "I don't care about novel writing or girls with marvelous red-gold hair."  All he needs is a place apart and a rosary.

I wish I had that kind of vision.  It would be comforting to possess the kind of self assurance of being exactly where you are supposed to be, knowing exactly what you are supposed to be doing.  I haven't had that experience since middle school.  Maybe grade school.  When teachers and parents tell you exactly what to do and how to do it.

Adulting is full of choices.  Places where, as Robert Frost wrote, two roads diverge in a yellow wood.  What branch of that fork do you take?  Then, when the road branches again, do you take the path less traveled again, or follow the well-worn trail?  And the next branch?  And the next?  It's a never-ending process.  The destination never any closer.

And, really, is life about destinations?  Because we're all headed to the same place, eventually.  Life is about the road itself--the choices you make along the way--not the place you end up.  It's sort of like Christmas.  I prefer the build-up to the day.  Christmas Eve is better than Christmas Day.  Wrapping a gift better than receiving one.

In the passage above, Merton has reached Christmas Day.  He's followed the star to the manger, and he's found salvation.  That's the source of his peace of mind and heart in this passage.  He's been to the manger.  Unwrapped his Christmas present.

An unquiet life is a life of constant searching.  Never trusting in the universe or a higher power.  I'm just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this.  Even though I call myself a devout Christian, I live a daily existence of fear.  Sitting on my couch every night, I have to force myself not to let my mind fall down the rabbit hole of tomorrows.  Human beings are creatures of the present moment.  And what I do right now--the path I choose to take--is the only thing within my power.

I can't backtrack to old forks in the road and make different choices.  And I can't look into the distance and tell where the bend in the road leads.  The past is over.  The future will become the present soon enough.  It's all about the current intersection.  And trust.  Frost says at one point in "The Road Not Taken":  "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." 

So, tonight I will publish this post, make my lunch for tomorrow, set out my clothes.  When I wake tomorrow, I will pick one of those ways leading on to way.  And I will leave the rest up to God or the universe.

Saint Marty just hopes there's an Olive Garden along the way somewhere.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

May 8: Spiritual Emptiness, All Kinds of Busyness, Desert Wandering

 Merton visits his brother . . . 

Meanwhile, I would go upstate. The best thing I could think of was to join Lax and Rice and Gerdy and Gibney and the red-headed Southerner Jim Knight who were all living at the cottage on the hill over Olean. But on the way, I went through Ithaca to see my brother at Cornell. 

Perhaps this was the last time I would see John Paul before I entered the novitiate. I could not tell. 

This was the year he was supposed to graduate from Cornell, but it turned out that things had gone wrong, and he was not graduating after all. The bored, lost, perplexed expression that wrinkled his forehead, the restlessness of his walk, and the joyless noisiness of his laughter told me all I needed to know about my brother’s college career. I recognized all the tokens of the spiritual emptiness that had dogged my own steps from Cambridge to Columbia. 

He had a big second-hand Buick in which he drove up and down all day under the heavy-hanging branches of the campus trees. His life was a constant reckless peregrination back and forth between the college and the town in the valley below it, from his classes to Willard Straight Hall to sit on the terrace with the co-eds and drink sodas in the sun, and look at the vast, luminous landscape as bright and highly colored as a plate in the National Geographic Magazine. He wandered from the university library to his rooms in the town, and thence to the movies, and thence to all those holes in the wall whose names I have forgotten or never knew, where Cornell students sit around tables in a dull, amber semi-darkness and fill the air with their noise and the smoke of their cigarettes and the din of their appalling wit. 

I only stayed with him at Ithaca a couple of days, and when I got up in the morning to go to Mass and Communion, he came down and knelt with me and heard Mass, and watched me go to Communion. He told me he had been talking to the chaplain of the Catholic students, but I could not make out whether his real attraction was the faith, or the fact that the chaplain was interested in flying. And John Paul himself, as it turned out, was going down most days to the Ithaca airport and learning to fly a plane. 

After we had had breakfast, he went back to the campus to take an examination in some such subject as Oriental history or Russian Literature, and I got on a bus that would take me to Elmira where I would get the train to Olean.

Merton recognizes himself in his little brother, John Paul.  John Paul is going through the motions of being a college student.  Class.  Dorm.  Library.  Bars.  Coeds.  I teach kids like Merton's brother all the time.  They fill their lives with all kinds of busyness, because that's what college students do.  But, for a lot of them, there is really no sense of direction or purpose.  There's simply something missing.

Now, I'm not saying all college students are spiritually dead if they don't find Jesus.  I'm saying that most people walk through these kinds of spiritual deserts at some point in their lives.  They either lose their way or never had a way to begin with.  This situation often occurs in college, where young people go to find themselves and their futures.

But grown adults are not immune to this desert wandering, either.  A person very close to me has been lost in the sand for close to three or more years now.  She thinks she sees a path to happiness, but I don't see a whole lot of joy in her.  Her happiness seems fraught with a lot of tears and anger and instability, for herself and her family.  And she hasn't even arrived at her destination yet.

If she reads this post and recognizes herself, she won't agree with me.  There's a certain kind of denial, especially in people with addictive personalities, that pulls a veil between reality and understanding.  The alcoholic says, "Beer doesn't count."  The prescription drug addict says, "I have terrible back pain."  The sex addict says, "It's my life, my body, my choice."  It's a way of justifying a pretty empty existence.  Replacing the Higher Power with a bottle or pill or flesh.  

The result is always the same, eventually.  Shame.  Sadness.  Emptiness again.  Then the cycle starts all over.  The thrill of the pill.  Joy of the drink.  Excitement of the touch.  Then, when that jolt of joy is over--shame, sadness, and emptiness returns.  

It's only when the person recognizes and acknowledges this destructive cycle, stands at the lip of the hole and really sees the hole, that something will change.  Until that time, it's just, as Merton says above, a spiritual emptiness.  And the people around that desert hermit do one of two things:  suffer or move on.  Children cease to trust.  Spouses cease to love.  Friends cease to friend.  

I'm looking for a positive way to end this post.  The path's a little unclear to me.  I know that nothing is impossible.  As a Christian, I cling to hope.  It's sort of the point of the whole Jesus narrative.  Salvation after darkness.  Resurrection after death.

If the desert wanderer in my life is reading this post right now--or if you're a desert wanderer yourself--I'm praying for you.  Pray for you every day.  That's all I have left to give you.  I'm tired.  Worn down.  I have to make the choice to be happy.  Really happy--not based on a person or bottle or pill.  You have that choice, too.

Saint Marty wishes you happiness.  True happiness that lasts, fills that hole.  Forever.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

May 6: Everything Seemed Clear, Hard Truths, "Dead Poets Society"

Merton readies himself for the monastery as Paris falls to the Nazis . . . 

The months passed quickly, but not quickly enough for me. Already it was June 1940: but the two months that remained until the date in August when the doors of the novitiate would open to receive thirty or forty new postulants seemed infinitely far away. 

I did not stay long in New York when I came back from Cuba. I was there only a few days, in which I went to the monastery on 31st Street, and learned from Father Edmund that my application for admission had been accepted, and that some of the necessary papers had arrived. It was a very good thing that this was so, because postulants entering a religious Order need documents from every diocese where they have lived for a morally continuous year since their fourteenth year, as well as a birth certificate and a lot of other things as well. 

But this was precisely the time when the German armies were pouring into France. At the moment when I stepped off the boat in New York, they had made their first great break through the French lines, and it had at last become obvious that the impregnable defence of the Maginot Line was a myth. Indeed, it was only a matter of very few days before the fierce armored divisions of the Nazis, following in the path broken out before them by the Luftwaffe, pierced the demoralized French army and embraced the betrayed nation in arms of steel. They had Paris within a fortnight, and then they were at the Loire, and finally the papers were full of blurred wirephotos of the dumb, isolated dining-car in the park at Compiegne where Hitler made the French eat the document on which the 1918 armistice had been written. 

So, too, if my father and mother’s marriage certificate from St. Anne’s in Soho, London, had not come in that year, it might never have come at all. I don’t know if the parish records of St. Anne’s survived the blitzkrieg that was about to be let loose over the head of the huge, dark city full of sins and miseries, in whose fogs I had once walked with such wise complacency.

Everything seemed clear. A month would go by, and then another, and soon I would be walking, with my suitcase, up some drab, unimaginable street in Paterson, New Jersey, to a small brick monastery which I could not very well envisage. But the drabness of the city would be left behind at the door and I knew, although I had no special illusions about St. Anthony’s novitiate either, that inside I would find peace. And I would begin my retreat, and after a month or so I would put on the brown robe and white cord of a friar and I would be walking in sandals with a shaved head, in silence, to a not too beautiful chapel. But anyway, there I would have God, and possess Him, and belong to Him.

It's amazing when your life seems clear, your way straight and unencumbered.  That's what Merton sees.  He is seeking a path to God, and that path runs directly through the Franciscan monastery in his mind.  Of course, life is never that simple, as Merton will soon learn.

It has been over a week since my last post.  In the betwixt time, I graded piles of student essays, entered final grades, took a day or two to celebrate surviving a year of pandemic teaching, and watched Dead Poets Society once or twice or seven times.  Other good things have happened, as well.  I got my teaching assignment for next fall semester, and I received some good news at my library job.  Overall, with some minor bumps and twists, my path to this point in the year was pretty much as I expected.  At least, in my professional life.

My personal life is a whole other ball of wax.  I am some place where I never thought I'd be.  Thirty years ago, I had a vision of what home and wife and family would look like.  I saw a clear path.  And now, sitting on my couch at 11:30 at night, watching Dead Poets Society yet again, typing this blog post, I can say that the road hasn't been all that easy.  In fact, it has twisted, turned, detoured, and potholed.  A few times, it completely shut down for construction.

No, I'm not feeling sorry for myself.  That's not what this is about.  It's about coming to terms with hard truths.  (Is that vague enough for you?  Unfortunately, that's about as specific as I'm going to get right now.)  Truth is not always pleasant.  In fact, truth can cause a whole lot of sleepless nights.  You can fight truth and be absolutely miserable.  Or you can accept it and make the necessary (if uncomfortable) adjustments.  

Me?  I'm somewhere between World War II and the Potsdam Agreement.  Not quite at peace, but really battle weary.  

So, disciples, this post will not be my Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  I have no wisdom to impart tonight, except for the fact that Dead Poets Society is a really damn good movie.  In some ways, I'm standing on top of my desk with Ethan Hawke, looking down at the world from a different perspective.  Not really liking what I see, but not being able to change it.

Say it with Saint Marty, "O Captain!  My Captain!"