It’s times like these that Merton’s idea of being a hermit in a remote cell doesn’t sound so bleak. I wonder if he was well stocked in potatoes, TP and hand sanitizer! Though he is speaking mostly of (spiritual) pride, I take this line very literally walking into a Food Lion these days: “Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere than the rest of men?” (49).
Recent chapters have me reflecting on solitude and community, especially in light of our world situation. “Man naturally seeks unity because he is created in the image of God, the one God,” writes Merton (52). Okay, this we know. We are created in relationship for relationship; the Holy Trinity our highest model for God’s intent.
That must be why, even in a global pandemic, people have a hard time separating. Think of all the images we’ve seen from ‘round the globe of the pandemic bringing people together, if physically apart: the neighborhoods and communities where mandatory quarantine cannot quell folks from opening their windows across alleyways and coming out on balconies to greet one another, sing, raise a glass, watch movies projected on apartment building walls, dance, celebrate, commune. That is because we were created to be in community, and our identity is less without it.
Before our class broke for this time of separation, the next term I was adding to our Merton vocabulary was “community.” Because for Merton, in many ways, identity and integrity (becoming that which God uniquely and expressly created you to be) are wholly wrapped in community. In chapter 7, he links his emerging concept of identity with community such that they are inextricable: “I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God, but in others. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.” (p, 51)
And this, which I love: “If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils.” (p. 52). Show me a mom in America today who doesn’t crave a desert of some sort—or doesn’t now fully comprehend what that term “tribe of devils” means, or families who find themselves all in the same house, “grounded,” for what surely seems like forever. They like the idea of solitude!
In times such as these, radical individualism can run rampant, feeding our urge to stay away, to protect what’s mine and ours, trying to secure for me and us something safe, sustaining, and plentiful. According to Merton this response will harm our community ever bit as much as our identity: “Since this is God’s will for everyone, and since contemplation is a gift not granted to anyone who does not consent to do God’s will, contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for others.” (77). Well, if ever there were a time in our lives to “cultivate a compassion for others” and refrain from fear, doom, panic—all indulgences of the individual—then this is it.
Like it or not, even in the most fearsome fear, the scarcest scarcity and the most impenetrable self-protectionism, no man is an island. Have you read the John Donne Poem lately? It goes like this:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Has anything made this reality more terrifying and real than those color-coded world maps and daily news of the virus’ spread? We are connected. And yet, by God’s grace our biological connections pale in comparison with our spiritual ones. As Merton notes, “God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone. We are members of another and everything that is given is given to one member is given for the whole body. I do not wash my feet to make them more beautiful to my face.” (56). Hmmmm, where have I seen this motif—washing feet—before? More on that later. For now, we are meant to be together. We are alive for each other. We become real through and with one another. When they get up and preach that the Trinity is a sign of God in relationship, they mean it. You are a member of an AWESOME Body, that cannot ail, cannot suffer, and will never die.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-16)
Dear Friends in Christ,
Have you been noticing the trees more lately? It's that time of year when we do pay attention to their budding and greening because it is a sign of the promise--and we are usually so sick of winter that we are ready! As in these worrisome times, the Promise is always better than the present.
I have been noticing the trees more because of our class, and because of Thomas Merton's meditation on identity. How, if we can stand long enough and grow true enough, our communion with God will deepen as our identity in him comes alive: “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give Him less glory.” (Ch. 5 p. 29)
It's more than a "bloom where you are planted" mentality. It is a bloom because you are planted. Remember? We are not our own. We knew that even before Merton put it so eloquently: “Therefore each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and inviolable identity, gives glory to God precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His love and His infinite art.” (p. 30). Here is our ten cent word for the day: in·vi·o·la·ble. (inˈvīələbəl). “Never to be broken, infringed, or dishonored. Inalienable. Unalterable. Absolute.“ Perhaps scripture says it more succinctly: “Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves…” (Psalm 100:3).
So, our "tree pose" is a desire and a will to live fully into your identity as you were intended to be. There really is a tree pose. I do one in yoga (badly, as I am always falling over). It is, as you might imagine, the shape of a tree: feet firmly planted, legs and torso held straight, arms reaching upward, all the way to the fingertips. In exercise, the point is to separate the ribs and lengthen the spine, flexing all the shoulder and arm muscles as the movement spreads vertically through you. Spiritually, I take it as a pose of surrender. No, it is not looking down, or kneeling in penitence or contrition. But when I make this body-shaped "Y," I mimic that posture Fr Bill takes to offer us bread broken--in the communion--the response to the breaking of the bread is an instantaneous reaching upward and outward.
Where have we seen tis shape before? If you do it (stand this way) you will know--your body, in the shape of a "Y," resembles a chalice, and a chalice is the most resounding "YES!" that has ever been spoken and ever shall be: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Matthew 26:39 39
It not exactly an Orans Position, but it is close. The “Orans” position is a gesture of pleading and supplication used since ancient times. Early Pagan communities right up to Jewish worshippers used it, and it is depicted in many statues, carvings, and relief artwork: the supplicant standing, with elbows slightly bent and the arms and hands reaching upward. I have to think it’s close to the shape Jesus’ body made in the garden of Gethsemane, though so many paintings show him kneeling (near a ROCK! “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”) In the Middle Ages the pose was abandoned for a more penitential posture and was even forbidden for the laity. Instead, the folded hand prayer posture became more customary, eyes closed and cast downward. Today, the pose is used only by the priest at the height of a Eucharist, or by some of them “funky folks” in more praise-style contemporary worship.
But we might not get so squirrelly standing next to someone worshipping in this fashion if we understood the theology of the pose. Where have we seen this posture before? Standing, arms outstretched, beseeching? “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). It is the pose of the Christ crucified. Total submission and abandonment for pure love. Ready? Plant your feet and try reaching.
So now it is Lent, and we gather with our Creator family now not in body but through prayer--prayer that can, if we practice it, become as strong as physical presence. Stronger, even. There is no virus or other catastrophe that can break the bonds we share united in prayer. It is, in a word inviolable. It’s true, our communion loves an altar—and all the pretty windows, flowers, candles, song that accompany our Sunday morning experience. But our communion is begun, complete, and perfected by the Holy Spirit in prayer and we can receive it now perhaps a little more fully when stripped of the comfy distractions.
Today, when you make your prayers, instead of kneeling or sitting or multitasking (in the shower, in the car, in the many places we hallow with prayer while also doing something else), maybe pause and pose your body into the shape of a tree. Beautiful, up-reaching spring trees, still scraggly and bare, yet filled with promise. Hands upward, eyes on the promise. His promise. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Stand still, tree, and see your body has become a cup. Be still, and let our gracious and loving Father fill you up.
The Yellow Room Class is reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton (1915–1968) was an American Trappist monk, theologian, poet, social activist, ecumenical scholar, and one of the greatest mystical writers of our time. The last time I read him I was a 20-something backpacking around Europe between college and grad school, hopping trains and heightening sightseeing to a sort of self-discovery that is the luxury of the young. His words spoke to me profoundly:
“Our vocation is not simply to BE, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and [children] of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.”
And this: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is identical with him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.”
Huh?? Today, almost three decades later, in what I thought was a pretty faith-filled and aware life, I may as well be reading Greek. (Hey, I could read Greek then, too! Where did that go?). It speaks to me from another planet, a strange, mystical land where truth, simplicity, and time are still as they were created to be, and not dulled, dimmed, fragmented, “ordered” by I, who though I have realized fully in midlife I am not in control of my life, am happiest when I am trying to.
How to even comprehend the “contemplative” life in a modern context – busy days, purposeful moments, multiple distractions, dependents, lists, projects, routines--and all of it further fractured in the last generation by electronic devices. Merton didn’t counsel his followers to join a monastery or to remove themselves from the world. What, then, is a “contemplative” life? Is it simply being quiet? Is it being alone? Must we close a door and “pray to our Father in secret”? Merton doesn’t instruct us to go after God, to please or pursue him really. It’s actually a bit of conundrum: if we are to “work out our salvation” with the God of the universe, who will only indwell the hearts of those who have “emptied” themselves of self, but we are not obliged to DO anything, well then, where’s the box to check on my spiritual to-do list? In the deepest mystery of becoming, it is God who does the transforming!
“Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us….He looks for us from the depths of his own His own infinite actuality, which is everywhere, and His seeing gives us new being and a new mind in which we also discover Him. We only know God in so far as we are known by Him, and our contemplation of Him is participation in His contemplation of Himself.”
I want that! I want to be that known by the God who made me. But I hardly know where to start. As one wise soul in our class pointed out, the “only” thing left to us is prayer. Prayer is the only way. Prayer is the contemplative life. It is our soul’s only way to seek Him without the burden of self. This Lent, practice prayer.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” ― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude