A friend recently gave me an audio tape of Thomas Merton, the celebrated monk, writer and ecumenist, lecturing. In 1964, near the end of his 10 years as novice master, Merton had the young monks read Faulkner's story "The Bear." During that session, Merton probably floored his audience when he said, "To strive to become spiritual is a waste of time." He went on to say that each monk's task would be "to become you, fully yourself."
I am struck by his words, partly because the truth of them is something I’ve rarely heard articulated from pulpits or even in classrooms. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing in 1878, said something very similar in what has come to be known as his “Kingfisher Sonnet”:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells,
Never miss a local story.
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
That is what Merton meant, and, if Merton scholar Thomas Del Prete is correct, “To become a person in Merton’s Christian and contemplative view involves very much becoming aware of one’s fundamental relatedness to others, involves more deeply recognizing that God’s love which is at the heart of our own being and identity unites us to the heart of all being, is the hidden ground of all life. It means learning to act in response to this love, indeed, learning to orient one’s whole life as a response to this love.”
“Learning to act in response to this love” – therein lies the rub. Flannery O’Connor once said her brilliant short stories were all about “the struggle to make love work.” Each of us in our own circumstances, with our own talents and blind spots, must try to serve the common good. Hopkins went on in the poem quoted above:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces.
It isn’t enough for us to study about justice, to read about and understand what is appropriate or inappropriate action. We must do justice.
I have, over the course of my life, been to jail with the farm workers (1973), organized protests, worked with poor, provided shelter for the homeless, offered hospitality to visitors, put on Gandhi marches and lectured on sustainability, but I must admit, I have been comfortable and indulgent for much of my life, content to teach literature and philosophy, play some golf, enjoy a beer. I’m both amused and reproached when I read what the philosopher Imlac said to Prince Rasselas: “Beware of philosophers: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.”
So, I offer you these reflections hoping they resonate with you as we together do our best to be fully ourselves and act for justice as an imperative for our humanity. When we do these things, we will find that we do have an inchoate spirituality.
Poetry helps me “own” my continual becoming, my “flourishing” as Aristotle said and Thomas Merton suggested. I read my poem, “Particularities,” at the Interfaith Works gathering at the harvest sukkah shelter on Sept. 21, 2010. It is my attempt to be me.
The smell of babies,
Salt air, the way one’s eyes
Light up – these unique particularities
Are the very heart of the universal.
How then, having been educated
By things we see and feel,
Do we yet fail to reverence earth,
Loving its every copse and pool,
Its every tremble, tang, and spark?
We long for love and fail to comprehend
Manifold loveliness. Life is in our hands,
But we must explore our heart of hearts
To understand its worth.
Don Foran is a former Jesuit priest and long-time Olympia resident currently involved in an array of educational and community activities, including Holy Wisdom Inclusive Catholic Community, together with his wife, Maggie.
Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.