Sunday, June 6, 2021

June 5-6: As Close As Possible, a Little Obsessive, Love Your Neighbor

Merton runs into his brother . . . 

It was very hot on Church Street.  The street was torn up, and the dust swirled in the sun like gold around the crawling busses and the trucks and taxis. There were crowds of people on the sidewalks. 

I stood under the relatively cool, white walls of the new post-office building. And then, suddenly, walking in the crowd I saw my brother who was supposed to be at Ithaca. He was coming out of the building, and walking with more of a purpose, more of a swing. He almost ran into me. 

“Oh,” he said, “hello. Are you going out to Douglaston? I’ll give you a ride. I’ve got the car here, just around the corner.” 

“What are you doing here?” I said. 

Under the arching door of the big building were placards about joining the Navy, the Army, the Marines. The only question in my mind was which one he had been trying to join. 

“Did you read about this new Naval Reserve scheme they’ve got?” he said. I knew something about it. That was what he was trying to get into. It was practically settled. 

“You go on a cruise,” he said, “and then you get a commission.” 

“Is it as easy as that?” 

“Well, I guess they’re anxious to get men. Of course, you have to be a college man.” 

When I told him I was not going to enter the novitiate after all, he said: “Why don’t you come in to the Naval Reserve.” 

“No,” I said, “no, thanks.” 

Presently he said: “What’s that package you’ve got under your arm? Buy some books?” 


When he had unlocked the car, I ripped the paper off the package, and took out the cardboard box containing the set of four books, bound in black leather, marked in gold. 

I handed him one of the volumes. It was sleek and smelled new. The pages were edged in gold. There were red and green markers.

“What are they?” said John Paul. 


The four books represented a decision. They said that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in a monastery. They said that I was going to get as close as possible to the life I was not allowed to lead. If I could not wear the religious habit, I would at least join a Third Order and would try my best to get a job teaching in some Catholic College where I could live under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament. 

Merton, despite his recent spiritual setbacks, is pretty tenacious.  He feels some sort of calling, and he's going to stick to it, even if it means just being near monastics and emulating their way of life.  Somehow, he will experience the religious life by osmosis and personal practice.  Of course, Merton's younger brother has a singular focus, himself--joining the armed forces at the cusp of World War II.

Believe it or not, I have been known to be a little obsessive.  I know it's hard to envision.  At certain times in my life, I have been obsessed with River Phoenix (still am), poetry (ummm--yeah), the Nobel Prize in Literature (I have a replica of one sitting on my desk), Sharon Olds (attended a poetry workshop led by her in California), fountain pens, Moleskine journals, Bigfoot (almost done with my book of poems), Normal People by Sally Rooney (I've read it seven times), astronomy, Star Wars, Christmas (always), and horror movies.

Since becoming a home owner, I also obsess over snow removal and lawn mowing.  I don't enjoy shoveling snow or pushing a lawnmower.  However, I like a clear driveway and sidewalk in winter and a manicured front and backyard in the summer.  Yesterday, in 90-degree temperatures, I mowed my lawn.  Cuz it was shaggy.

By the time I was done, I was so hot it felt like the skin was going to melt from my face like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark who gazes into the Ark of the Covenant, at the power of God, and turns into a puddle of Jell-O.  All I wanted was a cool shower and an M&M ice cream sandwich from my freezer.

I had just returned the lawnmower to my parents' house because I don't own my own.  As I pulled up in front of my house and turned off my car engine, I saw a man coming around my house from the backyard.

He was tall.  Thin as a blade of grass, as my mom used to say.  The kind of thin that looked as if you could cut your finger if you touched him.  He wore dirty jeans and a tee-shirt that hung like an empty grocery bag on him.  His face hadn't seen a razor in weeks.  By my estimation, he was in his 20s.  

I was about to say something like, "What the hell are you doing in my backyard?"  I was still hot and cranky.  But I didn't say that.  Instead, I nodded, smiled, and said, "Hey, how's it going?"

He held out an empty Gatorade bottle to me.  "Do you think you could spare some water?" he said.

And then I remembered the water spigot in my backyard that didn't work.  "Absolutely," I said.  I took his bottle, brought it inside, filled it with ice and water.  Then I went to my freezer, grabbed the last M&M ice cream sandwich.  I went back outside.

I handed the young guy his bottle and the ice cream sandwich.  "Looks like you need to cool down," I said.

The man took the bottle and ice cream.  "God bless you," he said.  He turned and walked up the street, holding that ice cream sandwich in one hand, drinking deeply from the Gatorade bottle.  

Sometimes, God is kind of a showoff.  She likes to put things into perspective in dramatic ways.  A well-kept lawn is not one of the Ten Commandments.  In the Book of Mark, Jesus identifies the two greatest of God's commandments:  "The most important one is this . . . 'Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  The second is this:  'Love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no commandment greater than these."

Saint Marty got the hint.   

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