Friday, December 31, 2021

December 31: Poor Men Who Labor, New Year's Eve, Burning Dumpster Heap

The end of Merton . . . 

That is the only reason why I desire solitude—to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowledge of them, for they remind me of my distance from You. They tell me something about You: that You are far from them, even though You are in them. You have made them and Your presence sustains their being, and they hide You from me. And I would live alone, and out of them. O beata solitudo! 

For I knew that it was only by leaving them that I could come to You: and that is why I have been so unhappy when You seemed to be condemning me to remain in them. Now my sorrow is over, and my joy is about to begin: the joy that rejoices in the deepest sorrows. For I am beginning to understand. You have taught me, and have consoled me, and I have begun again to hope and learn. 

I hear You saying to me: 

“I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way. 

“Therefore all the things around you will be armed against you, to deny you, to hurt you, to give you pain, and therefore to reduce you to solitude. 

“Because of their enmity, you will soon be left alone. They will cast you out and forsake you and reject you and you will be alone. 

“Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand away in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things. Then you will be all alone. 

“Everything that can be desired will sear you, and brand you with a cautery, and you will fly from it in pain, to be alone. Every created joy will only come to you as pain, and you will die to all joy and be left alone. All the good things that other people love and desire and seek will come to you, but only as murderers to cut you off from the world and its occupations. 

“You will be praised, and it will be like burning at the stake. You will be loved, and it will murder your heart and drive you into the desert. 

“You will have gifts, and they will break you with their burden. You will have pleasures of prayer, and they will sicken you and you will fly from them.

“And when you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you shall begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth. 

“Do not ask when it will be or where it will be or how it will be: On a mountain or in a prison, in a desert or in a concentration camp or in a hospital or at Gethsemani. It does not matter. So do not ask me, because I am not going to tell you. You will not know until you are in it. 

“But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end and brought you from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani: 

“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”


So Merton ends his book with the Latin phrase:  "SIT FINIS LIBRI, NON FINIS QUAERENDI."  Translation--"This may be the end of the book, but not the end of the quest."  The conclusion is not a conclusion, but a new beginning.  Merton takes his final vows.  Becomes a Trappist monk.  Renounces all the things of the material world that distract him from God.  

It is New Year's Eve.  Almost 2 a.m. as I type this.  I may not finish this post before I need to go to sleep.  At the end of 2021, I wish to put an end to this burning dumpster heap of a year.  I want this night to be the last page, and I'm not sure I want to continue the book of 2021.  Yes, some wonderful things have happened to me--new job, NEA grants, an award for Arts Advocate of the Year.  But, on the flipside, the first chapter of 2021 started with COVID quarantine, and the last chapter comes full circle.  COVID quarantine again.  My mother died.  This morning, I woke up sick.  I'm pretty sure it's COVID.  Went to get tested, but the Health Department testing center is closed for the holiday.  And, to top it all off, Betty White died today.

Like I said, pour some gasoline on 2021 and light a match.

To try to salvage this last day of 2021 for my son, I ordered from Pizza Hut for lunch.  Then I took him to a huge Christmas lights display tonight.  Let him run around with our puppy.  Took pictures.  When we got home, we played some board games, watched a couple movies. Counted down the last seconds to midnight.  Blew some horns.  Raised a glass and let my son give a toast.  

He talked about his grandma, grandpa, Aunt Sally, and Uncle Kevin in heaven.  About getting and staying healthy.  Loving his parents and sister and puppy.  In short, my son gets it.  He knows what's important.

At midnight, I sent text messages to everyone I love.  My daughter, who's staying at her boyfriend's parents' house to avoid infection.  My sisters.  My sisters-in-law . A couple of my closest friends.  Because that is what's important.  The people in my life.  Pretty much everything I do in my life is for them.  Period.

So, as I say goodbye to Thomas Merton after this two-year journey, I am ready for this quest to end and a new one to begin.

Tomorrow, I start a new book.  Something simpler.  But beautiful.  The big reveal to happen in my first post of 2022.  As Merton says, ". . . and I have begun again to hope and learn."

Saint Marty is ready for a little hoping and learning, starting tomorrow.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

December 30: The Heat of Harlem, New Variant, COVID Positive

Merton encounters the realities of racism in Harlem . . . 

It was a hot day, a rainy day, in the middle of August when I came out of the subway into the heat of Harlem. There were not many people on the streets that afternoon. I walked along the street until I came to the middle of the block, and saw one or two stores marked “Friendship House” and “Bl. Martin de Porres Center” or some such title in big blue letters. There did not seem to be anyone around. 

The biggest of the stores was the library, and there I found half a dozen young Negroes, boys and girls, high school students, sitting at a table. Some of them wore glasses, and it seemed they were having some kind of an organized intellectual discussion, because when I came in they got a little embarrassed about it. I asked them if the Baroness was there, and they said no, she had gone downtown because it was her birthday, and I asked who I should see, so they told me Maryjerdo. She was around somewhere. If I waited she would probably show up in a few minutes. 

So I stood there, and took down off the shelf Father Bruno’s Life of St. John of the Cross and looked at the pictures. 

The young Negroes tried to pick up their discussion where they had left off: but they did not succeed. The stranger made them nervous. One of the girls opened her mouth and pronounced three or four abstract words, and then broke off into a giggle. Then another one opened her mouth and said: “Yes, but don’t you think...?” And this solemn question also collapsed in embarrassed tittering. One of the young men got off a whole paragraph or so, full of big words, and everybody roared with laughter. So I turned around and started to laugh too, and immediately the whole thing became a game. 

They began saying big words just because it was funny. They uttered the most profoundly dull and ponderous statements, and laughed at them, and at the fact that such strange things had come out of their mouths. But soon they calmed down, and then Maryjerdo came along, and showed me the different departments of Friendship House, and explained what they were. 

The embarrassment of those young Negroes was something that gave me a picture of Harlem: the details of the picture were to be filled in later, but the essentials were already there. 

Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with nothing to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron, inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry are stamped down and left to boil with the dregs of an elementally corrupted nature, and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed by vice and misery and degradation, obliterated, wiped out, washed from the register of the living, dehumanized. 

Things haven't changed all that much since Merton's visit to Harlem in this section.  African Americans are still struggling against institutional racism.  Sadly, the years of Trump really highlighted how much the United States still suffers from this blight.  Of course, Trump supporters didn't discriminate against discrimination.  They embraced it all--racism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny.  Once the pandemic hit, they even embraced the hatred of pure science.  The result?  Hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.  People refusing life-saving vaccines and opting for horse medication instead.

And now, a new variant is raging across the country.  In my little corner of the Upper Peninsula, hospitals are overrun, understaffed, and woefully ill-prepared.  I've heard horror stories of people contracting the virus while waiting for treatment in emergency rooms.  Relatively young people dying because of the politicization of medicine.

If I sound a little angry, I am.  My family has been very careful throughout this pandemic.  Yet, last December, COVID struck our household.  And, today, COVID struck again.  My wife thought she had a bad cold.  She woke up with a runny nose and scratchy throat.  She wasn't going to get tested.  However, because of our plans to get together with my sisters for New Years, I talked her into getting a rapid test, to be on the safe side.  You see, my sister, Rose, who has Downs syndrome, is severely immunocompromised.  Asthma.  Alzheimer's.  

My wife's test came back positive.

So, my son and I got rapid tests, as well.  Both of our tests came back negative.  So, we end 2021 the same way we began it--in quarantine.  As I sit on the couch typing this post, my wife is coughing in our bedroom.  I'm watching Rudolph's Shiny New Year and contemplating how shitty the last 365 days have really been.  Facemasks.  Social distancing.  Viral surges.  The death of my mother.  

Like everybody else, I am COVID weary.  Ready for things to return to "normal."  However, I think the normal we used to know is a thing of the past.  Facemasks are the new normal.  Variants and isolation.  We all need to accept that this is how we will define "normal" from now on.

So, tomorrow night, I will not be celebrating New Year's Eve with my family.  It will be my son, my wife, and myself.  My daughter is at her boyfriend's house, isolating from us to avoid possible infection.  I will make crescent weenies.  A parmesan artichoke bomb.  We have a fruit tray.  A huge meat-and-cheese tray.  Two pounds of M&Ms.  The three of us will ring in 2022 with games and movies and lots of junk food.

And I will be monitoring myself for signs of illness.  We've all been vaccinated.  My wife and I have had our boosters.  We've done it all.  Followed the science.  That's why we're still alive.  That's why my wife is still sleeping in our bed instead of in an ICU on a ventilator.  We are lucky.  This year could have been so much worse.

Yet, Saint Marty will be glad when 2021 is in his rearview mirror.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

December 29: Pure Franciscan Ideal, Creative Urge, Poetry Reading

Merton meets someone living a real Franciscan . . . 

When she was working in that laundry, down somewhere near Fourteenth Street, and sitting on the kerbstone eating her lunch with the other girls who worked there, the sense of her own particular vocation dawned upon her. It was the call to an apostolate, not new, but so old that it is as traditional as that of the first Christians: an apostolate of a laywoman in the world, among workers, herself a worker, and poor: an apostolate of personal contacts, of word and above all of example. There was to be nothing special about it, nothing that savored of a religious Order, no special rule, no distinctive habit. She, and those who joined her, would simply be poor—there was no choice on that score, for they were that already—but they would embrace their poverty, and the life of the proletariat in all its misery and insecurity and dead, drab monotony. They would live and work in the slums, lose themselves, in the huge anonymous mass of the forgotten and the derelict, for the only purpose of living the complete, integral Christian life in that environment—loving those around them, sacrificing themselves for those around them, and spreading the Gospel and the truth of Christ most of all by being saints, by living in union with Him, by being full of His Holy Ghost, His charity. 

As she spoke of these things, in that Hall, and to all these nuns and clerics, she could not help but move them all deeply, because what they were hearing—it was too patent to be missed—was nothing but the pure Franciscan ideal, the pure essence of the Franciscan apostolate of poverty, without the vows taken by the Friars Minor. And, for the honor of those who heard her, most of them had the sense and the courage to recognize this fact, and to see that she was, in a sense, a much better Franciscan than they were. She was, as a matter of fact, in the Third Order, and that made me feel quite proud of my own scapular, which was hiding under my shirt: it reminded me that the thing was not altogether without meaning or without possibilities! 

So the Baroness had gone to Harlem. She stepped out of the subway with a typewriter and a few dollars and some clothes in a bag. When she went to one of the tenements, and asked to look at a room, the man said to her: 

“Ma’am, you all don’t want to live here!” 

“Yes, I do,” she said, and added, by way of explanation: “I’m Russian.” 

“Russian!” said the man. “That’s different. Walk right in.” 

In other words, he thought she was a Communist.... 

That was the way Friendship House had begun. Now they were occupying four or five stores on both sides of 135th Street, and maintained a library and recreation rooms and a clothing room. The Baroness had an apartment of her own, and those of her helpers who lived there all the time also had a place on 135th Street. There were more girls than men staying with her in Harlem. 

When the meeting was over, and when the Baroness had answered all the usual objections like “What if some Negro wanted to marry your sister—or you, for that matter?” I went up and spoke to her, and the next day I ran into her on the path in front of the library, when I was going, with an arm full of books, to teach a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy. These two times were the only chance I had to speak to her, but I said: 

“Would it be all right if I came to Friendship House, and did a little work with you, there, after all this is over?” 

“Sure,” she said, “come on.” 

But seeing me with my arms full of all those books, maybe she didn’t believe me.

Merton's been struggling with his call.  Eventually, he will become a Trappist monk.  However, the Baroness Catherine de Hueck is a Franciscan in every sense of the word.  Living with the poor.  Serving the poor.  Sacrificing everything with a pure heart, guided not by any human law.  Following the whisper of the Holy Spirit in her heart.

I use the word "whisper," but for a person like the Baroness or Mother Teresa or Saint Francis, the Holy Spirit's voice was probably more than a quiet breeze.  It was a blizzard roaring in their ears.  Something that couldn't be ignored.  Certainly, Merton can't ignore it.

I'm not sure that I've every heard the Holy Spirit that loudly in my life.  The closest I come is when I'm writing something--usually a poem or essay.  When the creative urge overtakes over my mind, I can't think of anything else until I'm done with whatever I'm working on.  It's nothing like caring for AIDS sufferers in Calcutta or the poor in the streets of Harlem.  However, I know that the words I write come from some source other than myself.

Tonight, I gave a reading at the library in my hometown.  I grew up in this building.  Spent many a summer day there, combing through biographies and poetry collections and novels.  Every time I give a reading there, I feel that magic again.  I'm always surrounded by friends and family.

This evening, I read, among other things, the essay I wrote about my mother for Christmas.  As I read, I could actually feel my mom there with me.  I know that she was always proud of my accomplishments as a writer.  I remember her in the front row at the first poetry reading I ever gave.  She sat there, beaming.  Nodding and laughing.

I know a poem doesn't put food in the mouths of the hungry.  An essay doesn't clothe the naked.  But I like to think that my writing does fill a certain emptiness that exists in the human spirits I encounter.  Perhaps that's ego talking.  But there's nothing, for me, more fulfilling than making someone smile or laugh.  Maybe brush away a tear at the memory of a lost loved one.  I like to think that's my gift.  My version of multiplying loaves and fishes.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of words in his life.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

December 28: Holy Ghost Dwelling Constantly Within, Poetry and Music, Wine and Irish Whiskey

Merton is confronted with Catholic complacency . . . 

One night there came to those nuns and to those clerics and to St. Bonaventure in general and myself in particular, someone sent from God for the special purpose of waking us up, and turning our eyes in that direction which we all tended so easily to forget, in the safety and isolation of our country stronghold, lost in the upstate hills. 

It was right, of course, that my interior life should have been concerned first of all with my own salvation: it must be that way. It is no profit for a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul, and anyway, one who is losing his own soul is not going to be able to do much to save the souls of others, except in the case where he may be giving out Sacraments which work, as they say, ex opere operato, without any intrinsic dependence on the sanctity of the one dispensing them. But now it was necessary that I take more account of obligations to other men, born of the very fact that I was myself a man among men, and a sharer in their sins and in their punishments and in their miseries and in their hopes. No man goes to heaven all by himself, alone. 

I was walking around the football field, as usual, in the dark. The Alumni Hall was full of lights. It was not the night for movies. There was some speaker there. I had not paid much attention to the list of speakers that had been invited to come and stand on that platform and tell the clerics and Sisters all about some important topic. I knew there would be one from The Catholic Worker, and that David Goldstein, who was a converted Jew and ran an organization for streetpreaching by laymen, was invited to speak, and I knew Baroness de Hueck, who was working among the Negroes in Harlem, was also going to come. 

As far as I knew, this night was the one listed for David Goldstein, and I hesitated for a moment wondering whether I wanted to go and hear him or not. At first, I thought: “No,” and started off towards the grove. But then I thought: “I will at least take a look inside the door.” 

Going up the steps to the second floor of the Hall, where the theater was, I could hear someone speaking with great vehemence. However, it was not a man’s voice. 

When I stepped in to the room, there was a woman standing on the stage. Now a woman, standing all alone on a stage, in front of a big lighted hall, without any decorations or costume or special lighting effects, just in the glare of the halllights, is at a disadvantage. It is not very likely that she will make much of an impression. And this particular woman was dressed in clothes that were nondescript and plain, even poor. She had no artful way of walking around, either. She had no fancy tricks, nothing for the gallery. And yet as soon as I came in the door, the impression she was making on that room full of nuns and clerics and priests and various lay-people pervaded the place with such power that it nearly knocked me backwards down the stairs which I had just ascended. 

She had a strong voice, and strong convictions, and strong things to say, and she was saying them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned. You could feel right away that most of her audience was hanging on her words, and that some of them were frightened, and that one or two were angry, but that everybody was intent on the things she had to say. 

I realized it was the Baroness. 

I had heard something about her, and her work in Harlem, because she was well known and admired in Corpus Christi parish, where I had been baptized. Father Ford was always sending her things they needed, down there on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. 

What she was saying boiled down to this: 

Catholics are worried about Communism: and they have a right to be, because the Communist revolution aims, among other things, at wiping out the Church. But few Catholics stop to think that Communism would make very little progress in the world, or none at all, if Catholics really lived up to their obligations, and really did the things Christ came on earth to teach them to do: that is, if they really loved one another, and saw Christ in one another, and lived as saints, and did something to win justice for the poor. 

For, she said, if Catholics were able to see Harlem, as they ought to see it, with the eyes of faith, they would not be able to stay away from such a place. Hundreds of priests and lay-people would give up everything to go there and try to do something to relieve the tremendous misery, the poverty, sickness, degradation, and dereliction of a race that was being crushed and perverted, morally and physically, under the burden of a colossal economic injustice. Instead of seeing Christ suffering in His members, and instead of going to help Him, Who said: “Whatsoever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me,” we preferred our own comfort: we averted our eyes from such a spectacle, because it made us feel uneasy: the thought of so much dirt nauseated us—and we never stopped to think that we, perhaps, might be partly responsible for it. And so people continued to die of starvation and disease in those evil tenements full of vice and cruelty, while those who did condescend to consider their problems, held banquets in the big hotels downtown to discuss the “Race situation” in a big rosy cloud of hot air. 

If Catholics, she said, were able to see Harlem as they should see it, with the eyes of faith, as a challenge to their love of Christ, as a test of their Christianity, the Communists would be able to do nothing there. 

But, on the contrary, in Harlem the Communists were strong. They were bound to be strong. They were doing some of the things, performing some of the works of mercy that Christians should be expected to do. If some Negro workers lose their jobs, and are in danger of starving, the Communists are there to divide their own food with them, and to take up the defense of their case. 

If some Negro is dying, and is refused admission to a hospital, the Communists show up, and get someone to take care of him, and furthermore see to it that the injustice is publicized all over the city. If a Negro family is evicted, because they can’t pay the rent, the Communists are there, and find shelter for them, even if they have to divide their own bedding with them. And every time they do these things, more and more people begin to say: “See, the Communists really love the poor! They are really trying to do something for us! What they say must be right: there is no one else who cares anything about our interests: there is nothing better for us to do than to get in with them, and work with them for this revolution they are talking about....” 

Do the Catholics have a labor policy? Have the Popes said anything about these problems in their Encyclicals? The Communists know more about those Encyclicals than the average Catholic. Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno are discussed and analyzed in their public meetings, and the Reds end up by appealing to their audience: 

“Now we ask you, do the Catholics practice these things? Have you ever seen any Catholics down here trying to do anything for you? When this firm and that firm locked out so many hundreds of Negro workers, whose side did the Catholic papers take? Don’t you know that the Catholic Church is just a front for Capitalism, and that all their talk about the poor is hypocrisy? What do they care about the poor? What have they ever done to help you? Even their priests in Harlem go outside and hire white men when they want somebody to repaint their churches! Don’t you know that the Catholics are laughing at you, behind the back of their hands, while they pocket the rent for the lousy tenements you have to live in?...” 

The Baroness was born a Russian. She had been a young girl at the time of the October Revolution. She had seen half her family shot, she had seen priests fall under the bullets of the Reds, and she had had to escape from Russia the way it is done in the movies, but with all the misery and hardship which the movies do not show, and none of the glamour which is their specialty. 

She had ended up in New York, without a cent, working in a laundry. She had been brought up a Roman Catholic, and the experiences she had gone through, instead of destroying her faith, intensified and deepened it until the Holy Ghost planted fortitude in the midst of her soul like an unshakeable rock. I never saw anyone so calm, so certain, so peaceful in her absolute confidence in God. 

Catherine de Hueck is a person in every way big: and the bigness is not merely physical: it comes from the Holy Ghost dwelling constantly within her, and moving her in all that she does.

Sadly, the truth that Merton is confronted with in this passage is still a truth today.  A lot of people who say the are Christians or Catholics do not want to get their hands dirty with the true work of being Christians or Catholics.  Instead, they just want to sit in a church pew, listen to pretty music, say "amen," and walk out the doors into their comfortable lives.

The realities of our current world are this:  racism and social injustices are rampant; hatred of people because of who they are becomes church doctrine; the divide between rich and poor is becoming a Grand Canyon; and illness rages because politicians (in my country, at least) have chosen to make simple and true science a partisan issue.  And people are suffering and dying because of these realities.

If you feel indicted by these statements, I'm not going to try to convince you that you're not guilty.  Because we are ALL guilty.  We all travel through our lives, associating with people who think, look, and act just like us.  Because it's easier.  I live in a community where racial diversity is non-existent.  I associate with people who love poetry and music and art, and who think that Donald Trump is the second coming of Adolf Hitler.  (He is, by the way.)  I have little patience for racists or homophobes or xenophobes.  If you don't believe in vaccines as a way to end or control the pandemic, please remove me from your contact list.

You see, we all exclude and isolate when we should include and embrace.  That's what Jesus Christ talked about over 21 centuries ago.  If you are a Christian and don't believe this, you aren't reading the same Bible that I am.  Love is love.  Black.  White.  Muslim.  Jew.  Gay.  Straight.  Transgender.  Whatever.  If we all lived by that credo, the world would be a much better place.  And the words of Jesus Christ wouldn't just exist on the page.  They would live and breathe and sing and dance.

Tonight, I attended a small Christmas party at the rectory of my church.  I read poetry and a short story and an essay.  There were vocal performances.  A piano and cello duet.  A sing-along.  And everybody had a wonderful time.  Nobody was worried whether those in attendance were Catholic or Buddhist or straight or gay or Republican or Democrat or Rastafarian.  There was just love and acceptance.  Plus a lot of wine and Irish whiskey, which probably helped with the sing-along at the end.  

The world should be like that.  Everyone loving and sharing and welcoming.  That would be the Holy Ghost dwelling constantly within, as Merton says.  It would be one big party, with everyone helping everyone else.  Nobody left in the dark alley, hungry and alone and bereft.

That's the vision of Saint Marty for tonight.

Monday, December 27, 2021

December 27: Innocent and Unsophisticated Taste, Final Budget, Dreaming

Merton contemplates on a contemplative life . . . 

In the cool summer nights, when the road behind the powerhouse and the laundry and the garages was dark and empty, and you could barely see the hills, outlined in the dark against the stars, I used to walk out there, in the smell of the fields, towards the dark cow-barns. There was a grove along the west side of the football field, and in the grove were two shrines, one to the Little Flower and the other a grotto for Our Lady of Lourdes. But the grotto wasn’t complicated enough to be really ugly, the way those artificial grottos usually are. It was nice to pray out there, in the dark, with the wind soughing in the high pine branches. 

Sometimes you could hear one other sound: the laughter of all the nuns and clerics and Friars and the rest of the summer school students sitting in Alumni Hall, which was at the end of the grove, and enjoying the movies, which were shown every Thursday night. 

On those nights, the whole campus was deserted and the Alumni Hall was crowded. I felt as if I were the only one in the place who did not go to the movies—except for the boy at the telephone switchboard in the Dormitory building. He had to stay there, he was being paid for that. 

Even my friend Father Philotheus, who was editing fourteenth-century philosophical manuscripts, and who had taught me St. Bonaventure’s way to God according to the Itinerarium, and with whom I had studied parts of Scotus’ De Primo Principio, even he went to the movies in the hope that there would be a Mickey Mouse. But as soon as all the comedies were over, he left. He could not make anything much out of all those other dramas and adventures. 

Oh, the gay laughter of the Sisters and the clerics in that old firetrap of a redbrick building! I suppose they deserved to have a little entertainment—at least the Sisters deserved it. I know that many of them got some severe headaches from the course I was giving in “Bibliography and Methods of Research.” The traditional way of teaching methods of research was to throw out a lot of odd names and facts to the class, without any clue as to where they came from, and tell them all to come back the next day with a complete identification. So I asked them things like: “Who is Philip Sparrow?” “What Oxford College has on its coat of arms a Pelican vulning herself proper?” To find out these things—which I only gave them because I already knew them myself—they had to break their heads over all kinds of reference books, and thus they got practical training in methods of research. But the Sisters always came back with the right answer, although they sometimes had circles under their eyes. The clerics had the right answer but no circles, because they had got the answer from the Sisters. In the back of the room sat a priest who belonged to some teaching Order in Canada and who seldom got the answers at all, even from the Sisters. He just sat there and gave me black looks. 

So, on the whole, it was good that they should relax and laugh, and sit in those rows of ancient and uncomfortable chairs indulging their innocent and unsophisticated taste for carefully selected movies. 

I walked along the empty field, and thought of their life—sheltered and innocent and safe. A number of them were, in many ways, still children— especially the nuns. They looked out at you from under various kinds of caps and coifs and blinkers and what not they had on, with round, earnest eyes; the sober, clear eyes of little girls. Yet you knew they had responsibilities, and many of them had suffered a lot of things you could only half guess: but it was all absorbed in quiet simplicity and resignation. The most you could observe even in the most harassed of them was that they looked a little tired: perhaps some of the older ones, too, were a trifle too tight-lipped, a trifle too grim. But even then, some of the old ones still had that little girl simplicity in their look, not yet altogether extinct. 

Their life was secure. It was walled in by ramparts of order and decorum and stability, in the social as much as in the religious sphere. But they nevertheless all had to work hard—much harder than most of their relatives outside in the world. Most of the Sisters had long hours in their schoolrooms and then other things to do besides that. I suppose they had their fair share of cooking, and washing clothes, and scrubbing floors when they were in their proper communities. Yet even then, was not the relative comfort of their life apt to make them impervious to certain levels of human experience and human misery? 

I wondered if they were aware of all the degrees of suffering and degradation which, in the slums, in the war zones, in the moral jungles of our century, were crying out to the Church for help, and to Heaven for vengeance against injustice. The answer to that would probably be that some of them were, and some of them were not: but that they all sincerely wanted to be doing something about these things, if they could. But, it was true, they were sheltered, protected, separated, in large measure, from the frightful realities that had a claim upon their attention if they loved Christ. 

But then, why should I separate myself from them? I was in the same condition. Perhaps I was slightly more conscious of it than some of them: but all of us were going to have an occasion to remember this paradox, this accusing paradox that those who are poor for the love of Christ are often only poor in a purely abstract sense, and that their poverty, which is designed among other things to throw them into the midst of the real poor, for the salvation of souls, only separates them from the poor in a safe and hermetically-sealed economic stability, full of comfort and complacency. 

This is a record for me this year.  A new blog post three days in a row.  My goal is to continue this trend until the beginning of the year, when I leave Thomas Merton behind after two years and move on to another book, which will be . . . revealed on January 1, 2022.  New year.  Fresh start.  Hopefully, I will feel like those nuns that Merton writes about in the above passage--surrounded by a world at war (suffering and loss and genocide), but still able to approach the world with a kind of innocence.

I think that's what most good writers and poets do.  They are able to see the world with eyes that somehow retain a sense of childlike wonder.  Tonight, as I sit on my couch, it is almost midnight.  I hear a neighbor's dog barking outside my living room window.  In response, my little puppy groans and huffs in her cage.  My son is in bed.  My daughter is not home tonight.  She's at her boyfriend's parents' house.  

I spent today working on a big report for my job at the library.  To be more specific, I was putting together the final budget on a grant I wrote.  Excel spreadsheets and lots of numbers.  I was a computer science and math minor as an undergraduate.  I've taken classes in artificial intelligence and abstract algebra.  I labored on this budget for over six hours, to the point where the figures simply weren't making sense to me anymore.  It was not fun.

I much prefer days where I'm dreaming up programs--concerts and readings and workshops and film series.  I like to dream.  To create something out of nothing.  It's sort of like when I was in grade school and the art teacher would hand me construction paper, scissors, glitter, paint, and a glue stick, without giving me specific instructions.  I loved those moments.  And the art teacher never made me count how many sheets of purple or red paper I used, or ration my gold sparkles.

I think the world would be a much better place if there were more dreamers in it.  We all need to dream.  Scientists and plumbers and accountants and Walmart greeters.  Dreaming is as vital, I believe, as water or food or oxygen.  Those latter things feed the body.  Dreaming feeds the mind and soul.

So, tomorrow, when I go to work, I will finish that final budget up, with the help of the finance person at the library.  Because she dreams with numbers.  Then, I will set out to write some things.  In the afternoon, I will rehearse for a poetry reading I'm giving in a couple days.  In the evening, I will participate in an evening of wine, music, and poetry at my church.

I get paid to dream.  That's a pretty big privilege.  Yes, I have to also deal with budgets and numbers and spreadsheets, as well.  Things that give me pain behind my eyes.  It comes with the territory.

The neighbor dog is barking again.  The furnace just kicked in.  The colored lights on the Christmas tree across the room are slowly pulsing.  In a moment, after I type the period after the last sentence of this blog post, I may read something.  Start a new poem in my journal.

Or Saint Marty may just close his eyes and see what dreams come his way.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

December 26: Absorbed in this Work, Day after Christmas, Joy

Merton returns to his life and writing, haunted by God . . . 

The weeks went on, and the weather began to show signs of summer when John Paul suddenly arrived at St. Bonaventure’s, on his way back from Mexico. The back seat of his Buick was full of Mexican records and pictures and strange objects and a revolver and big colored baskets, and he was looking relatively well and happy. We spent a couple of afternoons driving around through the hills, and talking, or just driving and not talking. He had been to Yucatan, as he had planned, and he had been to Puebla, and he had just missed being in an earthquake in Mexico City, and he had lent a lot of money to some gent who owned a ranch near St. Luis Potosi. On the same ranch he had shot, with his revolver, a poisonous snake some six feet long. 

“Do you expect to get that money back?” I asked him. 

“Oh, if he doesn’t pay me, I’ll have a share in his ranch,” said John Paul without concern. But at the moment he was heading back towards Ithaca. I could not be sure whether he was going to go to Cornell summer school, and finally get his degree, or whether he was going to take some more flying lessons, or what he was going to do. 

I asked him if he had kept in touch with this priest he knew there. 

“Oh, yes,” he said, “sure.” 

I asked him what he thought about becoming a Catholic. 

“You know,” he said, “I’ve thought about that a little.” 

“Why don’t you go to the priest and ask him to give you some instructions?” 

“I think I will.” 

But I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was as indefinite as he was sincere. He meant well, but he would probably do nothing about it. I said I would give him a copy of the Catechism I had, but when I went to my room I couldn’t find it. 

And so John Paul, in the big shiny Buick built low on its chassis, drove off at a great speed, towards Ithaca, with his revolver and his Mexican baskets. 

In the gay days of early June, in the time of examinations, I was beginning a new book. It was called The Journal of My Escape from the Nazis and it was the kind of book that I liked to write, full of double-talk and all kinds of fancy ideas that sounded like Franz Kafka. One reason why it was satisfying was that it fulfilled a kind of psychological necessity that had been pent up in me all through the last stages of the war because of my sense of identification, by guilt, with what was going on in England. 

So I put myself there and, telescoping my own past with the air-raids that were actually taking place, as its result, I wrote this journal. And, as I say, it was something I needed to write, although I often went off at a tangent, and the thing got away up more than one blind alley. 

And so, absorbed in this work, and in the final examinations, and in preparation for the coming summer school, I let the question of the Trappist vocation drop into the background, although I could not drop it altogether. 

I said to myself: after summer school, I will go and make a retreat with the Trappists in Canada, at Our Lady of the Lake, outside Montreal.

The day after Christmas is always a little melancholy.  Two months (sometimes longer) of decorating and shopping and baking and wrapping and planning.  One day (two if you're lucky) of lights and family and laughter and presents and relaxation.  Then, life returns to its normal grind, "Silent Night" fading into memory as fast as Santa on his way to Jamaica for some post-Christmas Eve downtime.

Of course, Jesus is still in the manger.  The magi are still on their way.  There are still twelve more days in this Christian season of light.  Kwanzaa just began.  Today is Boxing Day in Britain.  And Auld Lang Syne still hasn't been sung.  I have always believed, as Dickens via Scrooge says:  “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

I will be honest.  Christmas joy has been elusive this year, which is unusual for me.  Most people who know me will vouch that I am Mr. Christmas.  My decorations go up right after Halloween, and they don't come down until well after Candlemas.  This year, however, I find myself dwelling more on Christmases past.  My mother's Christmas hams.  My sister's piles and piles of presents for my kids.  My father sitting in his chair, watching Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" with Danny Kaye.  

Here's the lesson I want to pass along tonight--joy doesn't go away.  It's always there, like God.  Merton learns this.  God simply won't let go of Merton.  I've found moments of joy these last few days.  This evening, for instance, I went to a good friend's house to sing Christmas carols.  Outside, masked, and distanced.  It filled my heart, which has been fairly empty for most of Advent.  

So, music gave me joy tonight.  Music and friends.  That's what I have to pass along.  Joy takes many forms, many faces.  Like God.  Merton learns this.

Saint Marty learned it tonight, too.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

December 25: A Genuine Answer, Christmas Day, "How Lovely Are Your Branches"

Merton looking for a sign from God . . .

I looked, and the answer practically floored me. 

The words were: “Ecce eris tacens.”  “Behold, thou shalt be silent.” 

It was the twentieth verse of the first chapter of St. Luke where the angel was talking to John the Baptist’s father, Zachary. 

Tacens: there could not have been a closer word to “Trappist” in the whole Bible, as far as I was concerned, for to me, as well as to most other people, the word “Trappist” stood for “silence.” 

However, I immediately found myself in difficulties which show how silly it is to make an oracle out of books. As soon as I looked at the context, I observed that Zachary was being reproved for asking too many questions. Did the whole context apply to me, too, and was I also therefore reproved? And therefore was the news to be taken as ominous and bad? I thought about it a little, and soon found that I was getting completely mixed up. Besides, when I reflected, I realized that I had not put the question in any clear terms, so that, as a matter of fact, I had forgotten just what I had asked. I did not know whether I had asked God to tell me His will, or merely to announce to me what would happen in the future in point of fact. By the time I had got myself completely tied up in these perplexities, the information I had asked for was more of a nuisance, and a greater cause of uncertainty than my ignorance. 

In fact, I was almost as ignorant as I was before, except for one thing. 

Deep down, underneath all the perplexity, I had a kind of a conviction that this was a genuine answer, and that the problem was indeed some day going to end up that way: I was going to be a Trappist. 

But as far as making any practical difference, there and then, it was no help at all. 

I continued to walk in the woods, in the pastures, and in the old tank lots at the wood’s edge, down towards the radio station. When I was out there alone, I would go about full of nostalgia for the Trappist monastery, singing over and over Jam lucis orto sidere on the ferial tone. 

It was a matter of deep regret to me that I could not remember the wonderful Salve Regina with which the monks ended all their days, chanting in the darkness to the Mother of God that long antiphon, the most stately and most beautiful and most stirring thing that was ever written, that was ever sung. I walked along the roads, in Two Mile Valley, in Four Mile Valley, in the late afternoons, in the early evenings, in the dusk, and along the river where it was quiet, wishing I could sing the Salve Regina. And I could remember nothing but the first two or three neumes. After that, I had to invent, and my invention was not very good. It sounded awful. So did my voice. So I gave up trying to sing, humiliated and sorrowful, and complaining a little to the Mother of God. 

Merton is looking for some kind of definitive answer from God about his vocation (or non-vocation).  He asks a question and then jabs a finger into the Bible to find an answer.  It's sort of like using the Bible as a Magic 8-Ball--that childhood oracle in the shape of a black ball filled with liquid and a tiny icosahedron die imprinted with 20 possible answers to a Yes or No question.  Of course, God doesn't yield up answers that simply.  Merton learns that.

Life isn't a series of easy answers.  At least not in my experience.  Since I was very young, I have been bouncing from question to question.  Answers weren't even on my radar.  In fact, I'm not even sure I wanted to know the answers to the questions that were driving me.  Perhaps if I did have the answers, my life would have been easier, although I doubt.  I would simply have found more questions.

It is Christmas Day, and I've been absent for a very long time from this blog.  I think I've been looking for some answers, but I'm not really sure what the questions are.  When you think about it, the Christmas narrative is full of questions.  Joseph questions how Mary got pregnant.  The shepherds question why angels appear in Bethlehem skies.  The magi question where the star is leading them.  Herod questions the magi about a newborn king.  And Mary questions what she has done to deserve to be the mother of God's son.

The big difference with the Biblical narrative is that the answer was born in a manger 21 centuries ago.

This Christmas, I have been struggling for most of the Advent season with feelings of darkness.  Because of the death of my mother.  Because of all the loss and struggle of this pandemic.  Because Donald Trump is still a free man.  Because my sister, Rose, has Alzheimer's and is almost non-verbal now.  Because I haven't won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize.  Because people think getting a vaccine is a political choice instead of a medical necessity.  Because good people get sick.  Because death sometimes comes in a snowstorm two days before Christmas, and it just doesn't make sense.

On top of all that, I have not been a good blogger this year.  My life has seemed out-of-control, verging on chaos, and my writing life has suffered because of that.  I have written some poems.  I released two spoken-word albums.  I won an award for arts advocacy.  In short, I've been pretty busy in very good ways.  However, every night, I find myself exhausted by about 9 p.m., and when I get home, I can barely summon up enough energy to change into my pajamas.

So, the answers I seek range from the practical to the metaphysical.  How can I eliminate stress from my life?  What is the meaning of my life?  You get the idea.  Small things--how do I carve out time to write every day?  Big things--why do human beings seem to thrive on hatred and intolerance?

I guess we're all magi, in a way.  Seeking out answers every day of our lives.  Following our own stars.  We may be 21 centuries removed, but, in a lot of ways, things haven't changed all that much since that first holy night.  The world is still full of flawed creatures who haven't learned anything about love and tolerance.  

As many of you know, I lost my mother this past October, a few days before Halloween.  My mother knew a few things about the cruelties of the world, having raised a child with Down syndrome at a time when most doctors recommended institutionalization and abandonment.  She followed her own star for her whole life.  My annual Christmas essay was a tribute to her . . . 

How Lovely Are Your Branches

by: Martin Achatz

This is a true Christmas story, or it isn’t. It was told to me by my mother 65 or 70 years after it occurred or didn’t occur, at a time when my mother’s memory was a silver trout slipping downstream in the rush of winter thaw.

Memory is like that. It runs away from us like a swallowtail in a field of goldenrod or a toddler chasing waves on a lakeshore. The swallowtail keeps plucking the air with its wings, forever searching for some old song sung by kids in Sunday school or hummed in the ear of a lover on sticky summer nights. The waves keep rolling to a distant, unseen Canada.

My mother was born in 1931 in the Motor City on a late June day. It may have been one of those city days where the streets seem to sweat, or it may have been gray, full of Detroit River mist and auto factory smoke. Second oldest of four sisters, she grew up in the time of the New Deal and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” She was eleven when her father, my Grandpa Edgar, died of stomach cancer. Near the end, she would bring him bowls of chicken broth or vegetable barley, tell him, “Mommy says you need to eat.” He would spoon down the soup for her, kiss her, possibly tell her she was a good little nurse. When she carried away the empty bowl, she would hear him throwing up in the bucket beside his bed. When she told me this, 50 years later, I could see in her face that she still heard that sound in the anvils of her ears.

But that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about Christmas trees.

Come November and December, Grandpa Edgar sold Christmas trees in his front yard. At least that’s where I imagined he sold them. I remember my mother telling me this detail 15 or 20 years ago. So this is a memory of a memory of something that may have happened. Evergreens sold from a makeshift forest in front of my mother’s childhood home on Hilger Street, walking distance from the Detroit River’s industrial waters flowing from Lake St. Clair down to Lake Erie.

In the 1940s, at the start of World War II, Christmas trees were in short supply. No men to harvest greens. No space on trains to ship them. I don’t know how Grandpa Edgar got his trees. Perhaps he had a buddy with a truck who picked them up at the rail yard. Or maybe he drove out of the city to some farm with that buddy, where they spent the day sawing trees and sipping schnapps. But I’m sure my mother remembered the smell of pine in her bedroom at night. Maybe dark sap in the creases of her dad’s knuckles.

I would guess Grandpa Edgar didn’t sell trees in the last years of his life, when sugar and rubber and gasoline were as scarce as snow in July. No, the story I’m about to tell you happened before the London Blitz and Pearl Harbor, after the shanty towns and soup kitchens of Black Thursday. My mother was probably old enough to buy penny candy by herself at the corner store, young enough to believe her father would live forever.

I assume it was the late 1930s, when trolleys still plied Detroit streets and platoons of factory workers marched by my mother’s childhood home mornings and evenings on their way to and from work. And my mother probably smelled smoke from their Luckies, heard them complain about sore backs and the price of a bottle of Goebels.

I also assume it was a couple days prior to Christmas, when Grandpa Edgar’s trees were discounted from their seasonal price of 75 cents to “Make Me an Offer.” There may have been ice on the ground, frost etched on glass. Or it may have just been a December of cold, dry air, the kind that makes nostrils bleed after 15 seconds.

I like to think Grandpa Edgar had just sat down to a plate of boiled cabbage or liver and onions. Something that filled the house with an effluvium that could be smelled from the front porch. His little girls were probably sitting around the table with him, forking at their dinners with the enthusiasm of the condemned. Maybe Grandpa Edgar said something about starving children in China or India, and my mother imagined tiny faces pressed against the dining room windows, licking the panes.

I’ve only seen one or two pictures of Grandpa Edgar, ten or so years ago. Before that, he was the ghost of a memory, spoken of only when family trees were assigned in grade school. His branch remained fairly bare of buds or shoots, as if his entire line had been raked up and burned with the leaves of autumn. Going through an old photo album, my sister found him, standing in a field of dirt rutted with tire tracks. Behind him, what looked like the wreckage of a spaceship and a silo or well. He was dressed in dungarees, work boots, and a denim shirt. It looked as though a pack of cigarettes sat in his breast pocket. His hair was dark to black, his face weathered and craggy like a marble bust of Jefferson or Hamilton.

Perhaps there was a knock on the front or back door. Maybe a voice called out from the porch, “Mr. Edgar?” Or maybe my mother had been assigned lookout duty in the tree lot, in case any customers showed up while Grandpa Edgar ate dinner. My mother never really said. But, at some point, someone showed up, looking for a tree. Or maybe someones, though I doubt it. Because this narrative makes more sense to me if it was just one man or woman in a thin winter jacket standing on his doorstep.

Let’s say it was a man with sunken eyes, bristled chin. Let’s also say he was holding a worn fedora in his hands, wringing its brim with his fingers. He had the look of a man who hadn’t eaten for a couple days, or who had divvied up his portions between his children (maybe a boy and girl with chronic colds) because he could tell they were slowly starving. These details are all imagination because my mother never said whether it was a man or woman, alone or with children. And, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that it was December twenty-something in nineteen thirty-something. Times were Depression lean, and Christmas dreams were simple as oatmeal.

Grandpa Edgar met the man (or woman—again, it doesn’t matter) at the door. Edgar was probably wiping his mouth with a napkin, the cabbage or liver floating around him like a vision. He squinted at the man as if he was staring into the sun. Let’s say he knew the person in front of him because he knew everyone in the neighborhood. Let’s also say he greeted the person by name because I like to think that’s the kind of guy Grandpa Edgar was.

“Henry,” Grandpa Edgar nodded at him. I choose “Henry” because I like the name, and it seems like the name of a man who would be tree shopping a couple days before Christmas during the Depression. “What can I do you for?” Grandpa Edgar might have said.

The man probably stood there, unable to speak. He knew what he had to say, but the words sat on his tongue like ice, cold and heavy and pressing behind his eyes like a headache. Maybe he opened his mouth and closed it again. Perhaps he did this a couple times and then simply nodded at the remaining Christmas trees, dark and green, leaning against the house.

And Grandpa Edgar nodded back at him. A small nod, not so much affirmation or permission as understanding. An unspoken exchange from one father to another.

Henry went and picked out a tree. Not the biggest or tallest. Not one with cones still nestled in its limbs. He picked one that he could imagine in his home, its needles filling the pot belly heat of the rooms with the promise of light and coming spring.

He nodded at his choice, and Grandpa Edgar nodded back.

Henry picked the tree up in his arms, swung it onto his shoulders, and stumbled off into the darkness of night and memory.

When my mother told me this story so many years later, I never questioned it. Even though she couldn’t remember my name, knew me only as the nice man who fed her pecan pie and tapioca pudding, I could tell this memory was as vivid as stained glass to her. That she could still feel her father reaching down, picking her up as Henry disappeared into the December shadows. Or moonlight.

A month or so ago, just before All Souls Day, my mother slipped into memory. Her last day, I sat by her bed, held her hand, mapped its papery skin, knobs of bone with my thumb.

I think she did the same thing with her father that night so many Decembers ago. She pressed her fingers into the palm of his hand, felt its callouses and splinters. She held on and on, not really understanding why she didn’t want to let go, not understanding the physics of memory. How it floats down river, vanishes for a lifetime, and then blazes forth again.

Like a Christmas wreath in a winter window, a shadow that may be your father or grandfather or mother standing behind it, or not standing behind it. On the threshold between what we know and what we remember.

Here is what I know: in her last moments, my mother sat straight up in bed, as if hearing a knock on the door. Here is what I remember: she drifted back into her pillows, her face glowing like a candle in the green boughs of Henry’s tree.

Saint Marty wishes you all blessed and merry Christmas, full of wonder and starlight.