What goes wrong

We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them; we do not leave them to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good. . . . The only way to find solitude is by hunger and thirst and sorrow and poverty and desire, and the man who has found solitude is empty, as if he had been emptied by death.

He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions left in which he can travel. This is a country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.

That’s Thomas Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1961), which I’m re-reading for the first time in close to ten years. (As luck would have it, Beth at Cassandra Pages has been reading Merton also.) I remember being impressed before, but this time I am blown away. Merton summarizes and synthesizes the Christian mystical tradition like no other author I’ve read. I like being challenged when I read, and this book constitutes the perfect challenge for me right now.

As delighted as I am by the profundity of his reflections, however, I still cannot (yet) bring myself to accept that there is a permanent escape route from existential sorrow and pain. I hope to convince nobody of my views – please, if you are a person of true faith (as Merton defines it), do not let me dissuade you from your idealism! Here’s a passage that exemplifies some of what I have a problem with. I fancy that many of my readers will, in fact, identify strongly with the sentiments here, and wonder why I do not.

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His love we posses all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And thus as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and heaven.

“Short of this perfection, created things do not bring us joy but pain. Until we love God perfectly, everything in the world will be able to hurt us. And the greatest misfortune is to be dead to the pain they inflict on us, and not to realize what it is.

“For until we love God perfectly His world is full of contradiction. The things He has created attract us to Him and yet keep us away from Him. They draw us on and they stop us dead. We find Him in them to some extent and then we don’t find Him in them at all.

“Just when we think we have discovered some joy in them, the joy turns to sorrow; and just when they are beginning to please us the pleasure turns to pain . . . ”

Yep. So?

Back in the early 70s, Doonesbury poked fun at the conservative reaction to the “Me generation” in the person of Mark Slackmeyer’s dad, who once memorably opined that “Life is not meant to be enjoyed. It is meant to be gotten on with!” That’s putting rather too strongly a sentiment I do feel a bit myself. The funny thing is, I remain a social and political idealist: there’s nothing inherently difficult about building just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable societies, in my view. This strikes me as being well within our capacities as human beings.

I don’t even have a quarrel with the truth claims in the preceding passage. As regular readers of Via Negativa have probably noticed, I’m simultaneously attracted to and repelled by religious utopianism – the comic worldview. On the other hand, a great deal of existence strikes me as inescapably tragic. On the third hand (oops, shades of Hinduism!) it is barely possible that, in rejecting the appeal of what seems most attractive about religion – joy, freedom from pain, personal salvation – I may be setting myself up for some kind of authentic religious experience. But I doubt it.

More likely I have simply entered what Molly Ivins calls “dour old fartitude” a little prematurely. Alternatively, I may actually be more cheerful than the average person, more easily sustained by whatever scraps of truth and joy happen to come my way.

I mentioned Harry Humes the day before yesterday. Here’s a poem of his that might have some bearing here, I think. This is from his book Butterfly Effect (Milkweed, 1999). My only quibble with it is that he doesn’t make the occasion quite clear enough: is he describing something he saw on TV, read in the papers, or heard from a friend? But I like the way he tries to ground the news in his own experience through synchronicity. This makes the concluding question more personal, more urgent.

by Harry Humes

Before she crawled into her sleeping bag,
she ate a cold supper,
had no small fire for comfort,
hoisted her pack into a tree,
did not wash her hands or face,
did not hum or whistle.

The bear found her anyway,
came quietly down some scree,
crossed the stream,
and took her out of the tent.

This evening, only a few hours past
the winter solstice, I wonder
where I was when the bear lifted
its snout into the sky.
Did I look at first snow over Hawk Mountain?
Or at my daughter?
Did I hear something beyond the blue spruce?

What is it goes wrong with our knowing?
What is it we don’t hear right away,
or ever, that comes fully grown,
silver guard hair brilliant on its shoulders,
not clumsy, but stunning
in its moves, so beautiful
one might love its approach?

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