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.

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