When he considered the vastness of the cosmos, the French philosopher Blasé Pascal wrote that its “infinite spaces” terrified him. The stars humbled his existence. In their light he was nothing. Even as a young man I transposed Pascal’s anxiety to describe my own. It wasn’t the infinite spaces but the “infinite faces” that scared me. All those billions of human beings who have come before me, and the billions that exist now, who am I in the light of the infinite variety of their stories and individual existences?
As a corollary to my primal fear, my grammar school self at Sacred Heart of Jesus in New Orleans refused to conceive of heaven as a huge hall with all “the just” surrounding the Lord’s throne and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” for all eternity. Not only did this not strike me as fun, but I asked myself how all those “Egyptians” [I don’t know why I zeroed in on them] would crowd around the throne. Would there be room for me?
Yet why should the cosmos of seemingly infinite human existences, flowing out from and passing into one another, be a source of sadness and dismay? Why could not I choose to rejoice that I have been bestowed a “gift” to be part of this great parade, this never ending pilgrimage of humanity coming to fruition and dying as fertile seed for more life? Do I have the choice to not view my life as just a road to inevitable sadness and, instead, consider myself fortunate to have been blessed with “one wild and precious life” [Mary Oliver]?
In his journals Merton highlighted his choice in the decision placed before him to choose death or life: “Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and praise. Beyond all and in all is God. “Perhaps the ‘Book of Life’, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and, if one has lived nothing, he is not in the Book of Life. “I have always wanted to write about everything. That does not mean to write a book that covers everything–which would be impossible. But a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of nothing. That has its own life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a “book.” [Journals 3, July 17, 1956]
Over and over in his journals Merton urged himself to realize that his life, just as it was in all its particulars, constituted “God’s will” for him. To accept “God’s will” was to accept the parents who bore him, the monastery he had entered, his adopted country America just as it was, “bomb and all”. Merton’s lived mysticism and theology was to identity God’s love for him as inextricably connected with all his life’s relations: the people whom he loved and in turn loved him, the places where his life’s most significant moments were enacted, the culture of the societies of his time, the art, music and literature that most turned him on.
I turn on my sequentially new bunk beds on El Camino de Santiago, often being awake at 3:00 AM with no where to go without disturbing the thirty people sleeping with me in the dorm, wondering through the night what might be the “final significance” of my life. I admit all the blessings that have come my way. I realize that I have not suffered uniquely. My few accomplishments have been satisfying but limited. I am still the son of Irwin and Florence and no more precious a plant than one of the thousands of strange varieties that New Orleans breeds in abundance. I suspect that my dreams of receiving the Palme D’Or at Cannes for Best Actor in a Supporting role in a Comedy, with everyone tearfully on their feet to award me an unstoppable standing ovation, will probably not materialize. I doubt that there will be a movement for my beatification once I’m dead. I’ll get my fifteen minutes of “Poor Jonathan”, and then everyone will go over to Diana and Wesley’s for beer and pizza. And that will be a wrap.
A certain gospel story has always made me uncomfortable. It’s the moment when Jesus is preaching in a follower’s house. Someone comes to the door, and interrupts him to inform him that his mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. Jesus then responds, “Who is my mother? Who is my brother except those who do my Father’s will?” I have always wondered if and how he could get away with voicing that question. If Mary had an ounce of “New Orleans mother” in her, I imagine that, when Jesus finally came out of the house to greet her, she showed him the back of her hand. “Don’t you ever, young man, ask “Who is my mother?” when I’m standing ten feet away from you outside, waiting patiently for you to finish your honeyed words. I didn’t say my “Yes” to the angel Gabriel, to bear your holy ass into existence, so that I could hear you insult me in front of people who don’t know our family. Are you getting my drift, Jesus bar Joseph? You have a lot of book knowledge, son, but no common sense.”
At that moment Jesus had a choice. He could have bowed his head and accepted an illuminative lesson in humility, but no, he had to think himself extraordinary. He just couldn’t bring himself to abandon his starring role in his latest delusion of grandeur: “Woman,” he responded,” don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” [Bam! Slap! “I didn’t mean it, mama”. Whomp!]. Jesus had to learn his truth the hard way: you place yourself in spiritual, and even physical, peril when you go around preaching theologies your own mother can’t understand.
Mary Oliver’s poem “Answers” speaks beautifully to the tension between “mere learning” and a “wisdom” that stays close to the ground that bore you into life and will always bear you forward to where you really want to go:
If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.
That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of trees.
My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooked and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.
New and Selected Poems, Volume One: 235
We have spent two days in the mountains before coming down to Ponferrada. The ascents were hard, but the descents were even harder, the paths down were steep, full of jagged slate and large rocks. Descents are always harder, but you need to negotiate them eventually to land where you really need to go.