A poem for travel and exploration

I would be traveling to far of lands right now…If I wasn’t stuck at the fogged out airport with a cancelled flight. In the meantime, here is some Billy Collins for ya:


All of Paris must have been away on holiday
when Pascal said that men are not happy
because they are incapable of staying in their rooms.

It is the kind of thought that belongs in a room,
sealed off from the vanities of the world,
polished roadsters, breasts, hunting lodges,
all letdowns in the end.

But imagine Columbus examining the wallpaper,
Magellan straightening up the dresser,
Lindbergh rearranging some magazines on a table.

Not to mention the need for everyday explorations,
the wandering we do, randomly as ants,
when we rove through woods without direction
or allow the diagram of a foreign city to lead us
through long afternoons on unpronounceable streets.

Then we are like children in playgrounds
who are discovering the art of running in circles
as if they were scribbling on the earth with their bodies.

We die only when we run out of footprints.
Then the biographers move in to retrace our paths,
enclosing them in tall mazes of lumber
to make our lives seem more complex, more arduous,
to make our leaving the room seem heroic.

On love and secrecy

Merton says some interesting things here:

Secrecy and solitude are values that belong to the very essence of personality. A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is a solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which most makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. A love that breaks into the spiritual privacy of another in order to lay open all his secrets and besiege his solitude with importunity does not love him: it seeks to destroy what is best in him, and what is most intimately his.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.15 Sec.3

Several thoughts come to mind. One is that there is a certain amount of personal space that is necessary for even the closest relationships. When you other person tries to invade it, it isn’t love and closeness anymore. I think this is because of the fall. It is impossible in our fallen state to really know and commune with each other personally. I think in glory (in the new heaven and new earth) we will be. That is why there is no marriage. There is no death.

Thinking in terms of the larger limits of humanity, I can’t help think of Neon Genesis Evangelion. No, you shouldn’t take anime too seriously, but one of the themes in the show is that all human beings have an “AT Field” (Absolute Terror) field that protects our inner most heart/soul and allows it to have form. The bad guys (kind of) are trying to take humanity to the next stage in it’s evolution and merge everyone into one essence ala “Childhoods End”, Arthur C. Clark style. Anyway, but when that happens, nobody is distinct anymore. We all lose our identity. In the end, our protagonist refuses to enter in, asserts himself, and causes the collapse of the evolution. He and the female lead in the story are left as the new Adam and Eve to start over. Eh, hard to explain. That and the 14-hour mini-series + movie is still mostly about fighting robots. That’s just a front for this love thing though. OK. Time to go to bed.

Everyone can speak in tongues! (kind of)

The church is full of those who won’t touch glossolalia with a ten foot pole. Sometimes it’s a twenty foot pole. The apostle Paul asks, “Do all speak in tongues?”, with the rhetorical answer being of course, “No”. And of course some do not. A position that states that NOBODY can is hokey. The traditional pentecostal position that everyone MUST I also find equally hokey. But listen to what Merton has to say about praying to God in words that cannot be uttered:

When what we say is meant for no one else but Him, it can hardly be said in language. What is not meant to be related is not even experienced on a level that can be clearly analyzed. We know that it must not be told, because it cannot. But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.16 Sec.2

Pentecostals would call this a “personal prayer language”. Some scoff at the term, but I think it’s not too problematic. Other traditions acknowledge this very phenomenon, they just don’t classify it as tongues proper.

I believe that if you use the above definition (what Merton is talking about), any Christian with a prayer life and in some level of personal communion with the holy spirit actually can, and does speak in tongues. It might be inaudible. It’s not meant for anyone but the Lord anyway. Taking these “words”, raising the volume and making it a membership requirement (as it is in the Assemby of God, Foursquare, and other denominations) in my opinion misses the point and is unnecessarily exclusive.

On the other hand, I am not a cessastionist. I think speaking on tongues (of the out-loud corporate variety) is still a very possible spiritual gift that God may choose to give someone. If he/she has received, then they should speak. But if we’re talking about the unutterable words of communion between us and God himself, that is actually something else. Confusing these two has been, I believe, a major source of chaos and misunderstanding between Christian traditions in the past century.

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We think we’re smarter than advertising

Merton on America and advertising:

Americans have always felt that they were protected against the advertising business by their own sophistication. If we only knew how naive our sophistication really is! It protects us against nothing. We love the things we pretend to laugh at…Sincerity becomes impossible in a world that is rules by a falsity that it thinks it is clever enough to detect. Propaganda is constantly held up to contempt, but in condemning it we come to love it after all. In the end we will not be able to get along without it.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.10 Sec.6

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Can’t abstract love to “society”

Merton’s brilliant section of loving “society”:

Do not ask me to love my brother merely in the name of an abstraction – “society,” the “human race,” the “common good.” Do not tell me that I ought to love him because we are both “social animals.” These things are so much less than the good that is in us that they are not worthy to be invoked as motives of human love. You might as well ask me to love my mother because she speaks English.

We need abstractions, perhaps, in order to understand our relations with one another. But I may understand the principles of ethics and still hate other men. If I do not love other men, I will never discover the meaning of te “common good.” Love is, itself, the common good.

There are plenty of men who will give up their interests for the sake of “society,” but cannot stand any of the people they live with. As long as we regard other men as obstacles to our own happiness we are the enemies of society and we have only a very small capacity for sharing in the common good.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, (forgot the ref.)

Don’t watch yourself live

At the end of Merton’s long passage on happiness and contentment:

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the “one thing necessary” may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.

It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.7 Sec.3

God made you special…blah blah blah (Actually, it’s true)

Merton on being defined by who you ARE, not what you DO. I don’t know if this problem bites women as hard, but it’s a serious problem for most men.

When a man constantly looks and looks at himself in the mirror of his own acts, his spiritual double vision splits him ijto two people. And if he strains his eyes hard enough, he forgets which one is real. In fact, reality is no longer found either in himself or in his shadow. The substance has gone out of itself into the shadow, and he has become two shadows instead of one real person.

Then the battle begins. Whereas one shadow was meant to praise the other, now one shadow accuses the other. The activity that was meant to exalt him, reproaches and condemns him. It is never real enough. Never active enough. The less he is able to be the more he has to do. He becomes his own slave driver-a shadow whipping a shadow to death, because it cannot produce reality, infinitely substantial reality, out of his own nonentity.

Then comes fear. The shadow becomes afraid of the shadow. He who “is not” becomes terrified at the things he cannot do. Whereas for a while he had illusions of infinite power, miraculous sanctity (which he was able to guess at in the mirror of his virtuous actions), now it has all changed. Tidal waves of nonentity, of powerlessness, of hopelessness surge up within him at every action he attempts.

Then the shadow judges and hates the shadow who is not a god, and who can do absolutely nothing. Self-contemplation leads to the most terrible despair: the despair of a god that hates himself to death.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.7 Sec.2

On finding your true vocation (hint: it’s probably not being a rock star)

Wow. Does this not describe myself and about half the people I know?

The value of our activity depends almost entirely on the humility to accept ourselves as we are. The reason why we do things so badly is that we are not content to do what we can. We insist on doing what is not asked of us, because we want to taste the success that belongs to somebody else. We never discover what it is like to make a success of our own work, because we do not want to undertake any work that is merely proportionate to our powers. Who is willing to be satisfied with a job that expresses all his limitations? He will accept such work only as a “means of livelihood” while he waits to discover his “true vocation.” The world is full of unsuccessful businessmen who still secretly believe they were meant to be artists or writers or actors in the movies.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.7 Sec.5

Concerning the last line, I think what we should rather shoot for is to be SUCCESSFUL businessmen who also still nurture our interest in music, art, and writing because we find joy in it regardless.

On technical excellence versus? spirituality

How many times have you heard really sincere, heartfelt music in church that was emotionally and spiritually significant to the one performing it… and it sounded awful. Then you visit a different worship service and the music is glorious, you see the heavens open up! But these guys are paid professionals. Heck, they’re not even from the same denomination and I think the bass player isn’t even a Christian. Anyone confused?

Merton mentions this in passing:

It is important, in the life of prayer, to be able to respond to such flashes of aesthetic intuition. Art and prayer have never been conceived by the Church as enemies, and where the Church has been austere it has only been because she meant to insist on the essential difference between art and entertainment…One can be at the same time a technical expert in chant and a man of prayer, but the moments of prayer and of technical criticism do not usually coincide.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.3 Sec. 7

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