Poet...Musician...Thinker...Blogger...Teacher...Husband...Father...I'm not perfect, but I try!
Saturday, July 31, 2021
July 28-31: Shattered My Heart, Calling, Stumbled into Things
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
July 19-27: An Act of Love, Tokyo Olympics, Perseverance,
Merton prepares for his Trappist retreat . . .
There were still about three weeks left until Easter. Thinking more and more about the Trappist monastery where I was going to spend Holy Week, I went to the library one day and took down the Catholic Encyclopaedia to read about the Trappists. I found out that the Trappists were Cistercians, and then, in looking up Cistercians, I also came across the Carthusians, and a great big picture of the hermitages of the Camaldolese.
What I saw on those pages pierced me to the heart like a knife.
What wonderful happiness there was, then, in the world! There were still men on this miserable, noisy, cruel earth, who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them.
They were free from the burden of the flesh’s tyranny, and their clear vision, clean of the world’s smoke and of its bitter sting, were raised to heaven and penetrated into the deeps of heaven’s infinite and healing light.
They were poor, they had nothing, and therefore they were free and possessed everything, and everything they touched struck off something ofthe fire of divinity. And they worked with their hands, silently ploughing and harrowing the earth, and sowing seed in obscurity, and reaping their small harvests to feed themselves and the other poor. They built their own houses and made, with their own hands, their own furniture and their own coarse clothing, and everything around them was simple and primitive and poor, because they were the least and the last of men, they had made themselves outcasts, seeking, outside the walls of the world, Christ poor and rejected of men.
Above all, they had found Christ, and they knew the power and the sweetness and the depth and the infinity of His love, living and working in them. In Him, hidden in Him, they had become the “Poor Brothers of God.” And for His love, they had thrown away everything, and concealed themselves in the Secret of His Face. Yet because they had nothing, they were the richest men in the world, possessing everything: because in proportion as grace emptied their hearts of created desire, the Spirit of God entered in and filled the place that had been made for God. And the Poor Brothers of God, in their cells, they tasted within them the secret glory, the hidden manna, the infinite nourishment and strength of the Presence of God. They tasted the sweet exultancy of the fear of God, which is the first intimate touch of the reality of God, known and experienced on earth, the beginning of heaven. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of heaven. And all day long, God spoke to them: the clean voice of God, in His tremendous peacefulness, spending truth within them as simply and directly as water wells up in a spring. And grace was in them, suddenly, always in more and more abundance, they knew not from where, and the coming of this grace to them occupied them altogether, and filled them with love, and with freedom.
And grace, overflowing in all their acts and movements, made everything they did an act of love, glorifying God not by drama, not by gesture, not by outward show, but by the very simplicity and economy of utter perfection, so utter that it escapes notice entirely.
I want to believe that this kind of perfection is possible in the world. That it's possible to empty oneself of all worries and troubles that plague the human race, and pour grace into the empty vessels of our bodies. Out with the bad, in with the good. And Thomas Merton is painting a pretty idealized vision of the Trappist way of life, devoted completely to the glory of God.
I'm a little too jaded to buy completely Merton's Edenic portrait. Trappist monks are, above all, human beings. As such, they pretty much have the same struggles as each one of us. Granted, living in a cloistered monastery makes it a little easier to avoid the normal pitfalls of the world like lust or greed or envy. Yet, these impulses can't be entirely erased. Maybe they can be muffled a little. But they still exist.
Perfection does not exist because we live in a broken world where terrible things happen. I think that you can STRIVE to be perfect, and it's in the striving where grace can enter in. You have to make room in yourself for things like generosity and self-sacrifice, because they go against all of the normal selfish impulses that everyone feels. If you aren't able to wave that white flag, then grace will remain on the bench and never come up to bat. (Yes, I just used a sports metaphor. Don't judge me.)
It has been a long seven or eight days. I've been having a difficult time not focusing on my problems. Forget about emptying myself out to make room for grace. That's not going to happen. However, this is not going to be one of THOSE posts where I depress all my loyal disciples out there with some kind of poetic meditation on loss and anger and grief. I've been treading water in that pool for about a week now. (Yes, I just used another sports metaphor. Blame it on the fact that I'm watching the Tokyo Olympics as I'm writing this post.)
So, what is this post about then? It's about perseverance. Not giving up when every part of you--body, mind, and spirit--wants to pull the blanket over your head and never get out of bed again. As I said, I've been watching the Tokyo Olympics since they began last Friday, and I'm constantly inspired by the athletes. But not the ones with gold, silver, or bronze medals hanging around their necks. Nope. It's the athletes who come in dead last. Who know they have no chance of winning anything, but still persist. Finish the race. Or the game. Or the match. Who give it their all--against great odds, sometimes. The ones who are only battling themselves.
For me, those athletes are the true heroes of the Olympics. I grew up in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where everyone lives and eats and breathes sports. The entire town convoys downstate when a team makes it to the finals. And they return home, honking their horns, escorted by firetrucks with sirens blaring, at one or two o'clock in the morning. I have never been a part of that scene, as a student or adult.
I think that's why I enjoy endurance sports. Marathons. Triathlons. In high school. the only sport I participated in was cross country. Never won a race. Never even came close to winning. It was just about finishing. Here's my favorite Olympic moment ever:
Gabriela Andersen-Schiess from Switzerland running the inaugural women's marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles summer Olympics. The day was brutally hot--90 degrees. Andersen-Schiess was in trouble. Suffering from dehydration. Stumbling into the stadium at the end of the race. She was dragging her legs, weaving along the track unsteadily. But she never gave up. When she finally crossed the finish line, she collapsed into the arms of the doctors waiting for her. She was carried off the track as the crowd gave her a standing ovation.
That is what I'm talking about. Perseverance. Getting out of bed. Facing an impossible day. Stumbling across that finish line despite everything that's against you. That's real courage. Real grace.
Saint Marty is running a marathon right now. He's not coming in gold or silver or bronze. He's just looking to finish.
Sunday, July 18, 2021
July 15-18: Greenest Shamrock, Surrender, "On Your 60th Birthday"
Wednesday, July 14, 2021
July 14: Filled with Peace, Reality Check, At Sea
Merton finds real peace of mind and heart . . .
It was a late, cold afternoon. The frozen piles of snow lay along the swept sidewalks, in the gutters, in front of the small, one-story buildings on State Street. Presently Bob O’Brien, the plumber at the Olean house, who lived in Alleghany, and who used to fix the pipes when they went wrong up at the cottage, came by in his car. He stopped to give me a ride.
He was a big, jovial, family man, with white hair and several sons who served as altar boys at St. Bonaventure’s Church in Alleghany, and as we passed out of town on the wide road, he was talking about peaceful and ordinary things.
The country opened out before us. The setting sun shone as bright as blood, along the tops of the hills, but the snow in the valleys and hollows was blue and even purple with shadows. On the left of the road, the antennae of the radio station stood up into the clean sky, and far ahead of us lay the red-brick buildings of the College, grouped in an imitation Italy in the midst of the alluvial valley. Beyond that, on the side of the hill were the redder buildings of St. Elizabeth’s convent, past the high bridge over the railroad tracks.
My eyes opened and took all this in. And for the first time in my life I realized that I no longer cared whether I preserved my place in all this or lost it: whether I stayed here or went to the army. All that no longer mattered. It was in the hands of One Who loved me far better than I could ever love myself: and my heart was filled with peace.
It was a peace that did not depend on houses, or jobs, or places, or times, or external conditions. It was a peace that time and material-created situations could never give. It was peace that the world could not give.
There are some times in your life when you experience what Merton is writing about in this passage. A peace that has nothing to do with wealth or health, possessions or people. A peace that doesn't come from anything the exists on this little rock of a planet.
I apologize for my extended absence this last week. My last few posts were certainly not about peace of mind or heart, that's for sure. I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by certain aspects of my life. Choices I didn't want to make, but also couldn't avoid.
Then, God stepped in. Gave me a reality check.
My wife found a lump in her breast last Monday. She had a doctor's appointment and a biopsy on Tuesday. Wednesday, she spent the day in bed, nauseated with chills and a low-grade fever. Thursday, she had a COVID test, even though she is fully vaccinated. Friday morning at 2 a.m., she woke me up to take her to the local ER. Her incision site was red and hot and hard. The doctor diagnosed her with an infection and prescribed an antibiotic. Friday, she was supposed to get the results of both the COVID test and the biopsy. She got neither. Saturday, she wasn't feeling better, and the infection looked as if it was spreading. Back to the ER.
Finally, at about 5 p.m. on Saturday, we find out that she didn't have COVID and that her breast biopsy came back negative. And she had a MRSA infection throughout her body. She was admitted to the hospital Saturday evening and spent three days there on IV Vancomycin. She was discharged yesterday and is recuperating at home, taking oral Bactrim and changing her dressings twice a day.
So, here I sit on my couch at almost midnight. Everyone else in my house is asleep. I'm tired after a full week of medical chaos. I'd like to say that I've found the peace that Merton is talking about. Peace that the world cannot give. I haven't. I'm still at sea about a lot of things.
However, there have been some blessings these last six or seven days, as well. I spent a lot of time with my twelve-year-old son. He wrote some poems. Went to an Open Mic poetry night with me. My daughter and I bonded over hating the ending of a movie called The Florida Project. We had a family game night of Jeopardy. And one particularly bad situation was completely avoided because of my wife's illness.
As I said, God put things into perspective. Showed me who's really in charge.
And it ain't Saint Marty. Perhaps there's some peace of mind in that.
Thursday, July 8, 2021
July 5-8: Peace Settled in my Heart, Difficult Decisions, Schrodinger's Cat
Merton becomes a non-combatant objector in World War II . . .
Towards the beginning of March, I wrote to the Trappists at Gethsemane asking if I could come down there for a retreat during Holy Week. I had barely received their reply, telling me they would be glad to have me there, when another letter came.
It was from the Draft Board, telling me that my number was up for the army.
I was surprised. I had forgotten about the draft, or rather I had made calculations that put all this off until at least after Easter. However, I had thought out my position with regard to the war, and knew what I had to do in conscience. I made out my answers to the questionnaires with peace in my heart, and not much anticipation that it would make any difference to my case.
It was about eight years since we had all stood under the banner in the gymnasium at Columbia, and the Reds had shouted and stamped on the platform, and we had all loudly taken a pledge that we weren’t going to fight in any war whatever. Now America was moving into position to enter a war as the ally of countries that had been attacked by the Nazis: and the Nazis had, as their ally, Communist Russia.
Meanwhile in those eight years, I had developed a conscience. If I had objected to war before, it was more on the basis of emotion than anything else. And my unconditional objection had, therefore, been foolish in more ways than one. On the other hand, I was not making the mistake of switching from one emotional extreme to the other. This time, as far as I was able, I felt that I was called upon to make clear my own position as a moral duty.
To put it in terms less abstract and stuffy: God was asking me, by the light and grace that He had given me, to signify where I stood in relation to the actions of governments and armies and states in this world overcome with the throes of its own blind wickedness. He was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His Truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel, as an individual, as a member of His Mystical Body. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do.
For a war to be just, it must be a war of defense. A war of aggression is not just. If America entered the war now, would it be a war of aggression? I suppose if you wanted to get subtle about it, you could work out some kind of an argument to that effect. But I personally could not see that it would be anything else than legitimate self-defense. How legitimate? To answer that, I would have had to be a moral theologian and a diplomat and a historian and a politician and probably also a mind-reader. And still I would not have had more than a probable answer. Since there was such strong probable evidence that we were really defending ourselves, that settled the question as far as I was concerned.
I had more of a doubt on the question of whether it was really necessary or not. Did we really have to go to war? A lot of people were asking themselves that question, and argument about it was rather hot among some of the Friars at St. Bonaventure’s. As far as I could see, it was a question that no private individual was capable of answering: and the situation was getting to be grave enough for it to be necessary to leave the government to make its own choice. The men in Washington presumably knew what was going on better than we did, and if, in a situation as obscure as this one was, and as perilous, they thought war was getting to be necessary—what could we do about it? If they called us to the army, I could not absolutely refuse to go.
The last and most crucial doubt about the war was the morality of the means used in the fight: the bombing of open cities, the wholesale slaughter of civilians.... To my mind, there was very little doubt about the immorality of the methods used in modern war. Self-defense is good, and a necessary war is licit: but methods that descend to wholesale barbarism and ruthless, indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatants practically without defense are hard to see as anything else but mortal sins. This was the hardest question of all to decide.
Fortunately the draft law was framed in such a way that I did not have to decide it. For there was a provision made for those who were willing to help the country without doing any killing. As I say, I couldn’t tell just how much those provisions would mean in actual practice, but they looked nice on paper, and the least I could do was take advantage of them.
And therefore I made out my papers with an application to be considered as a non-combatant objector: that is, one who would willingly enter the army, and serve in the medical corps, or as a stretcher bearer, or a hospital orderly or any other thing like that, so long as I did not have to drop bombs on open cities, or shoot at other men.
After all, Christ did say: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” I know that it is not the mind of the Church that this be applied literally to war—or rather, that war is looked upon as a painful but necessary social surgical operation in which you kill your enemy not out of hatred but for the common good. That is all very fine in theory. But as far as I could see, since the government was apparently holding out an opportunity to those who wanted to serve in the army without killing other men, I could avoid the whole question and follow what seemed to me to be a much better course.
After all, I might be able to turn an evil situation into a source of much good. In the medical corps—if that was where they put me—I would not be spared any of the dangers that fell upon other men, and at the same time I would be able to help them, to perform works of mercy, and to overcome evil with good. I would be able to leaven the mass of human misery with the charity and mercy of Christ, and the bitter, ugly, filthy business of the war could be turned into the occasion for my own sanctification and for the good of other men.
If you set aside the practically insoluble question of cooperation that might be brought up, it seemed to me that this was what Christ Himself would have done, and what He wanted me to do.
I put down all my reasons, and quoted St. Thomas for the edification of the Draft Board and got the whole business notarized and sealed and put it in an envelope and dropped it in the wide-open mouth of the mailbox in the Olean post office.
And when it was done, I walked out into the snowy street, and an ineffable sense of peace settled in my heart.
When you struggle with a question for some time--like Merton does here with his role in World War II--it can be pretty torturous. But then, when you finally come to a decision, it feels as if a great weight has been lifted off you. As Merton writes, "an ineffable sense of peace settled in my heart" after he decides to become a non-combatant objector. He will serve in the military as a medic or stretcher carrier, doing what good he can for the war effort, without having to fire a gun or drop a bomb.
That ineffable peace is hard won. In my case, I've wrestled with various difficult decisions for months, even years. At the present moment, I'm trying to come to a final decision regarding a huge question that I've been dealing with, off and on, for close to 15 or 16 years. And now, it seems like I'm being forced into making a choice. Because, if I don't, I may be miserable. On the other hand, if I do, I may be miserable, as well. It's pretty much a lose-lose situation. Both options have the potential to create intense sadness in my life for quite some time.
Today, I have some peace of mind. Not ineffable peace, because I haven't really made up my mind about anything. But, I don't find myself obsessively thinking about my options all day long. I can focus on other things, which is better than I was doing two or three days ago. Time and distance have a way of providing not exactly clarity. Maybe objectivity. I can step back right now and look at myself and my life.
What do I see? I see a person who is thinking about the bag of Bugles in his kitchen cupboard. A person who saw his therapist this afternoon. Someone who loves his kids madly and would do anything for their happiness. And, I think, a person who doesn't want anyone to suffer or hurt because of his actions.
That last one is the most difficult. Because you don't always know what kind of butterfly effect you may cause by taking one course of action over another. Throughout my life, that thought has often paralyzed me. I'm sort of like Schrodinger's cat. I exist in all possibilities at once, and, by doing so, harm no one. However, I also help no one, either. Including myself.
At the moment, I'm engaging is something my therapist warns me against doing--thinking too far into the future. But, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you also know that I can't help myself. I try to envision all possible outcomes. But, really, I can't. That is an exercise in playing God. Never a good idea. If I look inside the box, I may discover the cat is alive. Or I may discover the cat is dead. If I don't look in the box, the cat is both alive AND dead at the same time. Both realities exist at once.
Until I make a decision, both realities still exist. Yet, eventually, I have to open the box and look inside. When I do that, something lives. Or something dies. I'm not sure I want to be responsible for either of those outcomes.
I know this whole post is probably frustrating for most of my disciples, because I am talking in the abstract and relying a little too much on philosophy. Who cares about Schrodinger's cat? Most people don't give a rat's ass whether that feline is cold and stiff or ready to claw its way out of that fucking box.
However, when Saint Marty's the cat, waiting for that box to be opened, it matters. A lot.
Sunday, July 4, 2021
July 4: String of My Tongue, Beautiful Ugly, Ralph Macchio
Merton goes through a period of poetic inspiration . . .
The new year came, 1941. In its January, I was to have my twenty-sixth birthday, and enter upon my twenty-seventh, most momentous year.
Already, in February, or before that, the idea came to me that I might make a retreat in some monastery for Holy Week and Easter. Where would it be? The first place that came into my mind was the Trappist abbey Dan Walsh had told me about, in Kentucky. And as soon as I thought about it, I saw that this was the only choice. That was where I needed to go. Something had opened out, inside me, in the last months, something that required, demanded at least a week in that silence, in that austerity, praying together with the monks in their cold choir.
And my heart expanded with anticipation and happiness.
Meanwhile, suddenly, one day, towards the beginning of Lent, I began to write poems. I cannot assign any special cause for the ideas that began to crowd on me from every side. I had been reading the Spanish poet, Lorca, with whose poetic vein I felt in the greatest sympathy: but that was not enough, in itself, to account for all the things I now began to write. In the first weeks of Lent, the fasting I took on myself—which was not much, but at least it came up to the standard required by the Church for an ordinary Christian, and did not evade its obligations under some privilege to which I was not entitled—instead of cramping my mind, freed it, and seemed to let loose the string of my tongue.
Sometimes I would go several days at a time, writing a new poem every day. They were not all good, but some of them were better than I had written before. In the end, I did not altogether reject more than half a dozen of them. And, having sent many of the others to various magazines, I at last had the joy of seeing one or two of them accepted.
I know my last two posts haven't been what you would call uplifting. We all experience those dark nights (and mornings and afternoons). That's all part of being human on this little blue third rock from the sun. The world is a broken place, and sometimes that brokenness can overflow the levees we create to hold it off. That has happened for me recently. And Merton, in this passage, is basking in one of those golden moments human beings also experience sometimes--when everything seems to be going perfectly. Where poetry falls from the sky every day like manna.
When I started this blog over ten years ago, I envisioned it as a place where I could share both the beautiful and ugly things in my life. And the beautiful ugly. Because darkness is defined by light. One cannot exist without the other. I may be experiencing a pretty deep darkness right now, but that means that there's also blinding light on the boundaries of that darkness. I can either focus on the dark, or I can turn my face toward the light. My choice.
It is Independence Day in the United States, a day where everyone pauses to reflect on the origins of our country. Like most nations, I come from a place conceived in blood and battle. Preserved in blood and battle. In the 245 years since this country has existed, we have been involved in war for 217 of those years. That's 92% of the time. Pretty astounding statistic.
So, it's only natural, living in a country that is so steeped in conflict, to be a little reflective on the meaning of discord and disharmony on the celebration of its birthday. If you can't tell, I have been dealing with some personal conflict recently. I'm kind of tired of thinking of all the stupid platitudes that people tell you when you're dealing with difficulties in your life: "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" or "God only gives you what He thinks you can handle" or "Give it up to God" or "No sense in worrying about things you have no control over." I could go on, but you get the idea.
All of those sayings are true. I know that. The things is, when you're on the Titanic and it's going down, the only thing you're really thinking is, "Where's the nearest lifeboat?" Don't tell me to look on the bright side when the ship is sinking. I know that the world is in a much better place than it was a year ago. The United States is in much better shape, too. Last year, no parades or community picnics or fireworks. This year, it was two days' worth of dump truck convoys, kettle corn, and sparklers in the sky.
Here is some light in my darkness tonight--my kids are happy and healthy and beautiful; I watched Ralph Macchio kick some Cobra Kai ass in The Karate Kid tonight; I have a vacation day tomorrow; and the fireworks have finally stopped on my street. Plus, I had a deep-fried turkey dinner with my family tonight. My problems haven't disappeared by any means. They will be there tomorrow morning when I wake up, and I will have to force myself to get out of bed,
Tonight, however, is about freedom and celebration. Saint Marty will return to his normal programming tomorrow.
And a poem for today . . .Waiting for Independence Day Fireworks 2013
by: Martin Achatz
a girl with pink hair
wrestles a pit bull
in the grass as Black Pearl
plays "Stand by Me"
on the bandstand.
The sky touches the ground
with a wide palm
of sun, day clinging
to these last suckling moments,
nursing dusk's green milk.
So much skin and tattoo around,
flesh against flesh.
I smell coconut
from a flock of teenage
girls who whisper and giggle by,
Budweiser and Marlboros
from the boys close behind them.
An old man and woman sit
in lawn chairs to my left,
eat bratwurst, watch
kids loft Frisbees into the darkening
air. When she's down
to her last bite, the old woman
reaches over, feeds it
to the old man, who accepts it,
kisses her fingertips, his lips
smeared with mustard.
Two men appear.
One carries a blanket.
Their hands almost touch
as they walk together.
They spread their blanket
on the ground, the way
my mom and dad
used to spread towels
on the beach in August,
without need for word
or direction, an easy ballet
of arm and hand, crouch,
kneel, an act they'd repeated
so many times it gleamed
like a rock in lake shallows,
polished for years by tides, waves.
Everyone pauses as the men
sit close to each other,
gray heads like twin dandelions
sprouting from a single weed.
They talk, laugh, drink beer
from brown, long-necked bottles.
Soon, we all forget to be shocked
as night overtakes us,
makes us all the same,
one crowd, indivisible,
under stars and moon,
our bodies primed
for the freedom to love
the sky any way we want.