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)