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.

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