Beginning Again

Icon for International Thomas Merton Society Meeting, June 2015
Artist: Sister Donna Kristoff, Cleveland, Ohio

Saint Anthony of the Desert (so-called “father of hermits,” 4th century) is said to have written, “Every day I begin again.” Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 3, wrote that he was always needing to forget the past and keep stretching forward toward Christ. In his journal for November 29, 1952 (Journals, vol 3:25), Merton penned what has been for my life, especially in the decade of my Sixties and now at 73, an important paragraph. The annual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani was ending:

“For my own part, I think much has been done to me in the course of this retreat in emptiness and helplessness and humiliation. Aware that I might crack up at any moment, I find, nevertheless, that when I pray, I pray better than ever. I mean by that I have no longer [a desire for] any special degree of prayer. But simple vocal prayer, and especially the office and the psalms, seems to have acquired a depth and simplicity I never knew before in any prayer. I have nothing but faith and the love of God and confidence in the simple means He has given me for reaching Him. Suspended entirely from His mercy, I am content for anything to happen.”

I suppose I have suffered post-traumatic syndrome since navigating out of my mother’s womb. I have always been melancholic. Even in my twenties I spoke of death often and told friends I would die early. But it was not until my sixties that the Black Dog (what Churchill called his depressions) no longer sniffed outside my window, but snuck into my bed and licked my neck, informing me he might visit frequently. I had tracked his scent for so long he finally found me.

When I returned home in February of 2018 from Baton
Rouge, Louisiana, where my brother Charles had died after ten years in a wheelchair, and shortly thereafter his wife was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer (I accompanied her to her death), the Black Dog visited to mourn with me and promised he would stay awhile. I can use literary images about depression now because of my daily reception of blessed Prozac (40 mg) after eight months of the worst siege against my life I had ever experienced. I got out of bed reluctantly and every day in a daze. I ate little. (I’ve lost 30 lbs, but don’t try this diet). I spent the day hour after hour sitting in one chair conscious of nothing, my eyes closed, only to move to another chair to spend more hours conscious of nothing, waiting for nothing except death. I remember laying on my living room sofa convinced I was in the process of becoming dead within the hour. I did not die. I picked out the belt I could use and tested which banister of the stairs would hold my weight. I frightened my housemates neither of whom would leave me alone. One time they did leave me to shop and I went out into the yard with the belt, thinking hanging from the fence would be less mess. I went back into the house. It began to storm: what a scene that would have been for Robert and Dean once they realized, “Where’s Jon?”

What stopped me? I was not so gone that I could not see how disrespectful of my friends my suicide would be. And given my writing and retreats on Merton, some might be scandalized. I asked the psychiatrist if he agreed with me that those actually killing themselves are either high on a drug or temporarily out of their minds to actually commit the act. He agreed. Even though I put aside alcohol and marijuana, I knew the chance remained, before the Prozac kicked in, to quote Merton, that “I might crack up at any moment.”

There are more ways to commit “suicide” and I have committed facsimiles of the real physical thing. I called producers to cancel up-coming speaking engagements and retreats. I told a publisher that I could not write a book for which I had a contract. This was the second time I had done this to him, the first during a previous depression, and I did not care that he would for certain never take a chance on me a third time. I deleted nearly all of my blogs for some nine years on monksworks.com. I only saved one of my favorite reflections, “The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face” and kept all the blogs/podcasts from my hiking journey in 2012 to Santiago de Compostella with Jim Gravois. I knew Gravois often revisits these blogs to relive his pilgrimage. I didn’t want to deprive him of that. I have most recently thought, however, of just taking down monksworks.com forever or of just putting a photo of Merton and refer anyone visiting the site to The Thomas Merton Center’s www.Merton.org. I have deleted many skype contacts and slashed a chorus of loved acquaintances from my email address book.

I have at this moment been called back from death by the epiphany of Sara Prozak Tonin. The psychiatrist, the first I’ve ever visited in my life, said I must engage her for at least a year and possibly marry her, or serially one of her siblings for the rest of my life. I bow low with gratitude to Prozak’s presence in my body. I realize now how much I’m an unstable mix of chemicals. Let your potassium become imbalanced, Jonnie boy, and you will become another “person.”

I also attribute my current mental health to the prayers of my friends and to the Holy Spirit Herself–all those friends and She who inspires them to keep loving me in spite of myself and in spite of themselves which is, quoting Merton again for me, “a mercy within mercy within mercy.” A young friend in Sweden made me a “Jesus Prayer” rosary when I had presented conferences there in 2015. An Egyptian monk had taught him how to make them. At every knot, one prays, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In my sleepless hours of depression, I could only cling to those beads and pray the only prayer I had to hand. All this is Grace.

I had a significant dream in a past depression. It was the night after a day in which I made an important decision against changing my life at a time I so wanted my life to change. I dreamed that I was Lazarus in the tomb bound up tight and began to chant a mantra to which I eventually woke up: “Only Christ can save me now. Only Christ can save me now.” Whether by means of Prozac or the love of my friends, I choose to believe that Christ has saved me now. Of course, like Lazarus, after Jesus’ miracle on his behalf enjoyed only a temporary reprieve. He would one day die again after Jesus ascended to the Father and was seen in Bethany no more. So I’m cognizant that the Black Dog remains at large and available, capable of kissing my mouth again.

Why confess all this? Isn’t this just another way of committing suicide by killing my “image” in the eyes of my friends who don’t know me deeply enough, like I don’t know them. Will this confession preclude my ever appearing on television with Oprah Winfrey? I would love that, a chance to brighten her eyes and win a lottery of notoriety, but I can’t afford fame. It would take five minutes on a computer for some interested soul to find out who I am when I think no one is looking. To quote Chuang Tzu, achieving fame would be the beginning of failure. My achievement of having five minutes with Oprah on national television would be the beginning of my disgrace. I have a standard way of ending my retreats by saying, “There is one thing I’ve learned from Thomas Merton. One can write and speak beautifully about the “spiritual” life without being able to lead a beautiful spiritual life. So as you leave this room, I ask that you pray for me so that someone who dares to speak to you of such important and deep things might not himself be lost.”

This new blog is a signal that I am going to write here again. I have a lot of narrowly published and unpublished reflections on Thomas Merton. I might gather them here for whatever they might be worth. I’ve thought of an e-book but why make anyone pay? But such a project is proof that I have not obeyed the injunction of the Prophet Mohammed, blessed be he, and learned to “die before I die.” If I am to live in Christ, I must die to my “self.” Sara Prozac Tonin has only provided a false hope that my mind will never go dark again. She has provided a temporary respite from the necessity of packing all my false selves (they are a chorus) in. She is only allowing me to get stronger so that I can embrace the Black Dog when he returns, let him wound my thigh and then tell me his secret, his wisdom only transmitted when I without calculation entrust my spirit into the hands of God.

Resuscitating this blog again is proof I’m not ready to die. I am actually finding myself ready but not willing. Maybe tomorrow “I’ll begin again.” Perhaps continuing a blog and archiving my crap is a weapon to make the Black Dog keep his distance. This too is a delusion. I know he’s thinking of me right outside my window as I type. “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, old man. Spilling your guts transparently could really turn me on.”

And as to “fame,” that Merton achieved and would like with most of my heart, my entrails know the truth of Marcus Aurelius’ remark in his Meditations: “In the future, you will forget everything and everyone will have forgotten you. Marcus was wrong about himself but not about me.

To write about all this without shame but not thinking about a future fortune if I bet on a horse named Public Catastrophe would be a last and final grace. Merton in his journals once prayed, “Not to be seen, not to be heard.” He didn’t get his wish. Fighting this reality every step of my way, I’m certain to get mine. “Thank God Cokey’s funeral was brief. Let’s go get a beer and eat some fried oysters at Mandina’s. Tomorrow is another day.”

Jonathan Montaldo 12/23/2018

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One Response to Beginning Again

  1. John J. Callahan, Jr. says:

    Jon: I am “beginning again” your wonderful “A Year With Thomas Merton.” Thank you for this continuing gift. As its penultimate entry, you selected not a journal excerpt, but the very warm counsel Merton offered by letter to his dear friend Tommie O’Callahan on the loss of her mother. I have no doubt that he would offer the same to you on the loss of your brother and sister-in-law. I offer my sincere condolences to you as well.

    I wish you abundant blessings in this new year. Your work has been a blessing for me and so many others.

    John C.

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