This afternoon I returned to Mount Irenaeus for the first time in over three months. It’s been the longest absence in the past twenty plus years of my life. It was Sunday March 8, 2020 when I last walked the grounds here. That Sunday was the first time that we didn’t share a hug at the sign of peace and when we began social distancing. How quickly the pandemic progressed as quickly moved into shelter in place and then life as we knew it began to recede. Today fully three months later I was able to return to one of my favorite haunts as a I walked the Mountain Road.
Three months ago the ground was covered with snow. Today the snow is gone and I was surrounded by green grass and a forest canopy of leaves. There was a quickness in my step as I moved along the trail praying the Franciscan Crown Rosary that I had begun this morning at home in Franklinville. A deer darted out of the woods to my right as I walked this familiar trail that took me eventually to a clearing and the hermitage of La Posada.
Much has changed in three months besides the beautiful flora. We’ve lost over one hundred sixteen thousand of our fellow citizens to the ravages of Covid-19. I’ve emerged from an episode of depression in the early days of the pandemic. There was a time I had given up hope. Despair tugged at me. From early March until now there is one constant and that is the daily recitation of the Franciscan Crown Rosary. The daily rhythm of this mantric prayer sustained me and kept just enough hope in me to press on. There were times when I doubted it was doing any good and questioned my recitation. Along the way I’ve come to believe that there is power in recitation of the prayers and an effect on my world and the world around me that I’m frequently unable to fathom.
Today while I walked along this trail in the woods I thought of the words of Thomas Merton. “My Lord God I do not see the road ahead.” Along the road there has been the deadly pestilence that has not come near me. Globally there have been the ugly horror of racism and and a reaction to it that seems to be bringing change. Just yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ Americans can not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. That’s a huge win for many folks. In the midst of this pandemic there has been light and hope. For that I’m grateful.
We are deeply flawed and broken. Our racism and bigotry are on full display for the world to see. White folks who don’t want to wear masks storm state capitols with assault rifles and other paraphernalia. Yesterday police in riot gear answer a protest by black Americans angry over the brutal murder of a black man stopped for a traffic infraction.
Is there a path to redemption? I’m not sure. We’ve allowed the cancer of racism and xenophobia to brood and fester for too long. We even have national leaders who promote it. We are not true to our founding documents but then we never were. Pundits and preachers say we’re a Christian nation while turning a blind eye to systemic racism.
The sin of the white man is to be expiated, through a genuine response to the redemptive love of the Negro for him. The Negro is ready to suffer, if necessary to die, if this will make the white man understand his sin, repent of it, and atone for it.
Earlier today I saw a clip where Franklin Graham attributed the coronavirus pandemic to the sinfulness of the world. According to him God is capricious and looks for ways to inflict pain and sadness on us. This reminded me of a chapter in Thomas Merton’s, New Seeds of Contemplation, which was published many years ago.
“The devil has a whole system of theology and philosophy, which will explain, to anyone who will listen, that created things are evil, that men are evil, that God created evil and that He directly wills that men should suffer evil. According to the devil, God rejoices in the suffering of men and, in fact, the whole universe is full of misery because God has willed and planned it that way.”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
This runs counter to my own experience of God. It even runs counter to what Jesus said in the Gospels, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” I have to feel sorry for folks who’s image of God is like that of the harsh businessman waiting to exact revenge for transgression.
One of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.” That’s certainly true now in this global pandemic. What should I be doing? How much distance do I put between me and the virus. Am I washing my hands enough. Have I touched a surface where the virus is living? I did my best to avoid people today and that took on a different walking route than I have been on in a number of years.
Today I found myself walking along the railroad tracks in our village. These tracks were once a part of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Now the tracks are part of the Western New York and Pennsylvania Rail Road. There’s the main north and south track and a siding which today was occupied by tanker cars. Looking south the tracks approached the horizon and invited me to think of what lay beyond.
What does lay beyond this present moment that we are living in? The world is already different than it was just thirty days ago. We are living in a way that none of us have every lived before. Will this be the new normal? I dare say we will never return to what was.
My Dad told me that when he was a boy in the 1930’s the King and Queen of England came through Franklinville on this road bed. I’m sure the tracks have been replaced since then. If these tracks could talk what would they say.
To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.
Thoughts in Solitude – Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton is my favorite mystic. This particular quote resonated as I read it today. I find the divine in the silence. I long for the silence of the woods near my home. I bring as much silence into my life as I can find each day. I enjoy times of laughter and community. I watch very little news. I receive an email from Governor Cuomo who provides a clear concise and coherent message without sensationalism nor self congratulation. I close each day in prayer. Sometimes it’s Mass and other times it’s listening to Gregorian chant or Taize prayer.
Earlier today I took a canoe onto the lake where we are staying and maybe it’s because I had ridden in motorized craft a lot this trip, but it was very refreshing to be paddling along in a still cove. I think there is a lot more to solitude than prayer or maybe it’s that contemplation leads to an awareness or state of mind that begets solitude and that solitude begins to infuse all that I am. It’s more than interior silence. It’s a state of being. As Ii paddled I began to recite, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
Solitude as act: the reason no one understands solitude, or bothers to try to understand it, is that it appears to be nothing but a condition. Something one elects to undergo, like standing under a cold shower. Actually, solitude is a realization, an actualization, even a kind of creation, as well as a liberation of active forces within us, forces that are more than our own, and yet more ours that what appears to be “ours”. As a mere condition, solitude can be passive, inert and basically unreal: a kind of permanent coma. One has to work at it to keep out of this condition. One has to work actively at solitude, not by putting fences around oneself but by destroying all the fences and throwing away all the disguises and getting down to the naked root of one’s inmost desire, which is the desire of liberty-reality. To be free from the illusion that reality creates when one is out of right relation to it, and to be real in the freedom which reality gives when one is rightly related to it.
Thomas Merton. Learning to Love, Journals Volume 6, Christine M. Bochen, editor (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997): 320-321.I used to
Today I applied to St. Bonaventure University Graduate School. Though I’ve never been a Bona student before, I’ve been connected to St. Bonaventure and Franciscans most of my life. Last night I attended an informational session about graduate programs at St. Bonaventure at Hilbert College, another nearby Franciscan college. I spoke with a representative of the University who happened like me to have connections to both the University at Buffalo and State University College at Fredonia. How does a guy who almost retired a month ago apply to a graduate program in educational leadership? Daily, my thoughts are of what God’s will is and most of the time I marvel at the direction my life takes. I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s quote about the road ahead.
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. –Thomas Merton
It’s only a step on the journey and God only knows where it will lead, but today I’ve done something very Franciscan, I’ve followed my heart.
Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith… It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts.
Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being; for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and re-sounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One…
Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Press, 1962: 1-3.
Loving their own noise. Tonight’s presidential debate seemed like a lot of noise to me. I listened to perhaps thirty-five minutes and then I turned it off. Debates usually lack substance and this one seemed more devoid than others. It was like Senator Obama was debating a five year old. Same rhetoric of the last thirty years. Drill-drill-drill is how we solve global warming. Bomb-bomb-bomb is how we solve global terrorism. Deregulate-deregulate-deregulate is how we provide health care. It’s just noise. It’s meaningless. Wall Street dropped another five hundred points today and that’s just illusion. Only silence is real. Only stillness is real. The rest is just noise.
Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.
I came across this very good TED Talk by Phillip Zimbardo and it reminded me of the writings of both Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh. We all have within us the seeds of good and evil. Good and evil reside within us all. They are not external forces acting upon us.