At the Edge of Civilization, Part 3

Here is the final installment of a three-part series about my recent retreat at Gethsemani […]

Ben Self / 9.18.18

Here is the final installment of a three-part series about my recent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey in rural Kentucky.

A tiny shrew was clinging to the inside of the novitiate screen doors, trapped in the house! I took her up and she ran a little onto my sleeve and then stayed fixed, trembling. I put her down in the grass outside and she ran away free.

— Thomas Merton, A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965

It’s been a big summer for me. I got engaged, which is awesome. And if I’m honest, a huge relief. I imagine getting married is slightly akin to entering a monastery—the “bonds” of marriage bestowing the same kind of “freedom” that comes from joining a monastic order, by limiting one’s choices and clarifying one’s obligations. (Don’t tell my fiancée I said that.) It’s also the sort of life-event that reminds me in a big way that I’m one lucky SOB.

Of course, I had had other plans for this summer, most of which didn’t get done. As this was the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death, I’d hoped to write an essay examining what his life and writing still had to teach to us. Perhaps I’ll get to it someday. I have dreamed for years of becoming some sort of writer. Last week I tried to write a poem to submit for the annual Festival of Faiths poetry contest—spent half a day trying to make a decent start at it and just managed to give myself a screen headache. All my ideas came out nauseatingly clichéd, dishonest, or just plain incoherent. If you want to humiliate yourself, have someone else read your poetry.

The good poets, like the good cooks, make it look easy, which subverts the dreams and ambitions of the rest of us. I heard a story on the radio a few days ago explaining how “the advent of food TV has raised the bar and made it that much more complicated and intimidating for people to cook,” which has partly resulted in folks doing less of it. I suppose that makes sense: when I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, I don’t feel particularly inspired to cook up a verse or two of my own. One of the best poets around these days—and a Mockingbird favorite—Christian Wiman, uses two versions of this little stanza to open and close his memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this.

I love that. But I wonder if he didn’t just crank it out in about ten minutes—his language comes across so loose and free, not overworked. It’s a work of grace more than effort, but with power. I want to write like that someday.

A few times in my life I’ve also dreamed of becoming an Episcopal priest, although my parents have cautioned against it. I mostly share their caution: a big part of me is terrified to hitch my life to an institution—and religion?—that may ultimately go the way of Zoroastrianism. And I’m ashamed of my fears. O me of little faith! As if the will of God—God of the cosmos, Lord of the starfields, Ground of all being—somehow depended on the survival and cultural relevance of our quaint little institutional churches. But someone must keep a candle lit in the window, even after night comes falling from the sky. And Someone will. If not a priest, then the priesthood of all believers, or of all creation. If not them, then Someone else. The silent healing Word resounds through the ages, without our help.

The thing is: I’m not even very good at my present career. In my fourth year as a teacher, I’m woefully mediocre. I struggle to keep up with planning, grades, and paperwork, and there are plenty of days when I still stagger into my classroom arrayed in full battle armor with all the tender mercies of a seasick crocodile. God forgive me. Perhaps our dreams like our plans are the source of more frustration and discontent than anything else, vain distractions more than cosmic anointments. Some days we ought to say to hell with them. The Good News is that whatever I ultimately “make of myself”—by the world’s standards or my own—just doesn’t matter all that much. The silence here at the Abbey reminds me of that. “Once more I come to the edge of all I know…”

I went out last night waiting for my fiancé to call me back and sat in the dark a couple hundred yards from the monastery, on the asphalt, which was still surprisingly warm from the heat of the day. I leaned back looking up at the stars, and realized how sick I felt. Every time I come back here and dip my toe into its ocean of silence, I suddenly become aware of that—how strung out, hungover, shell-shocked I feel from all the noise and striving and consumption in my life. The silence works like a mirror to show you who you are and what’s really going on inside, which probably makes some folks uncomfortable. But it’s what makes this place so precious: its stark contrast to everything else, to the frenzied bazaar of preoccupations we navigate by day, to the high-tech pleasure palaces most of us gleefully inhabit by night. Part of the reason I feel this wistful attraction to the monastic life is that I like myself better when I talk and fret and do less, when I take myself less seriously, when all the “knowing” that normally occupies my thoughts melts into the “cloud of unknowing”. I wish to God I could carry this place with me—its extravagant minimalism, its glorious unclutter.

I’m not a naturally optimistic person, but I think Christianity can free folks from the pessimism that comes from feeling like you have to try to control what’s happening in the world. We Christians have the luxury of not having to live in fear or worry (though we do, and will). And not because bad things won’t happen to us or because the end of the world is inevitable (so why bother?), but because the beginning of a new one has long been in motion, inaugurated at the Resurrection, perhaps at the dawn of creation. Hope always endures our despair, transcends us even as it beckons us into acts of healing. We are not responsible for summoning the hope of the world.

Our lives already matter, independent of what we achieve. God has made it so in Christ. God has robed our simple, sometimes nasty, sometimes brutish, lives with the splendor of His presence, and redeemed them! God is the “immortal Witness” we need, who gives it meaning, who blesses us through faith with this insane optimism that flies in the face of all the pessimism we feel when we try to bear the terrible weight of history. Even in our suffering and dying we are immersed in what Merton calls the “festival” of the “present moment”. We are like those quails he describes hearing after the rain, with “their sweet whistling in the wet bushes.” As he explains, “Their noise is absolutely useless, and so is the delight I take in it. There is nothing I would rather hear, not because it is a better noise than other noises, but because it is the voice of the present moment, the present festival.”

Of course, there aren’t a lot of practical reasons to be optimistic about our common future. Civilization as we know it, as we’ve come to trust it—may well be doomed. There are plenty of crises pulling at the seams even now. Take climate change again: most of us feel utterly helpless to affect the changes needed at the national and global level, and yet the things that most of us can do in our own lives to “make a difference” are the very things we are disinclined to do. From Popular Science: “[T]he four actions that create the most bang for your emissions-reducing buck are ones most of us avoid: having fewer children; living without a car; avoiding transatlantic flights; and eating a plant-based (mostly vegetarian) diet.” Like I said, there aren’t a lot of practical reasons to be optimistic.

And yet I feel hope because I believe in God more than I believe in people—in Christ’s life moving, pulsing through us and all of creation, the eternal power of resurrection amidst desolation. That’s the Gospel to me. God, Who so loved the world that He gave us His Son, is not done.

If I were ever able to write that failed poem I had in mind last week, or if I could convince someone like Christian Wiman to write it for me, I think it would be about this: the joy and hope of a man eating broiled fish on the beach with his friends a few days after their lives had fallen apart. It would be a cascading series of images of what God will be doing in the world after the world-as-we-know-it has ended, of new life breaking through desolation. It’s not a post-apocalyptic vision. It’s just the future, just another chapter in the story of creation being unfurled through the millennia—the story of a world in perpetual recovery, perpetual need of saving, like an addict. Alyosha says in The Brothers Karamazov, “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.” I know that God is with us come what may, busily at work and play in this world, and that His Kingdom of Love is ever-unfurling.

I believe that at the edge of the world, at the edge of civilization, when all of our beloved institutions at last have unraveled and failed us, when the center cannot hold, there will still be a precocious 10-year old boy peering over concrete barricades, trying to get a better look, wondering why someone would firebomb a church or a school or a home. Or shoot up a country music concert. Or lay waste to the earth. I believe that someone will still be there wielding a broom against the backdrop of disaster, sweeping up the fragments from a neighbor’s shattered windows. And that someone else will be doing the dishes, or patiently teaching a child how to read in the next room.

I believe a young couple will be there breathlessly clutching hands at a makeshift altar, ready to be married. And that folks will still gather to sing hymns of hope in dimly lit rooms. And that others will still sit out on porches in the evenings, savoring the last golden hour of the day, waving halfheartedly at passers-by. I believe that at the edge of all we know a spectacular dappled appaloosa will still be patiently swishing flies with its tail as it chews grass in the thick afternoon heat of summer, pretending not to notice you. And that nature’s great rhythm section—its crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, cicadas, all of which I struggle to tell apart—will still reverberate through the crisp night air. And that somewhere a jackrabbit will just make it out of the way in time.

Perhaps this monastery will still be here too, whether its church survives or not. I hope so. Because we will always need it. I believe at the edge of civilization a monk will still be somewhere praying the rosary or singing vespers or silently preparing blocks of fudge for guests. Or listening to the rain from a shack buried deep in the woods.

The world-as-we know-it will end someday, but all will not be lost. Perhaps nothing is lost. God will still be there saving us even as we destroy ourselves. And at the edge of worlds, a new one will always be waiting to be born. St. Paul writes that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” The next century will be a chaotic and probably violent one. Perhaps it will feel apocalyptic. But God has given us the healing Word of reconciliation, has made us messengers of Good News to a race poor in spirit, the world’s “Rainy Day People” (to borrow Gordon Lightfoot’s phrase). Bidden or unbidden, God is not done with us, and always close at hand. And that’s true, even if we wreck this blessed earth, even amidst our inescapable grief. As Merton writes in “The Sowing of Meanings”:

More than a season will be born here, nature,
In your world of gravid mirrors!
The quiet air awaits one note,
One light, one ray and it will be the angels’ spring:
One flash, one glance upon the shiny pond, and then
Asperges me! sweet wilderness, and lo! we are redeemed!

For, like a grain of fire
Smoldering in the heart of every living essence
God plants His undivided power —
Buries His thought too vast for worlds
In seed and root and blade and flower,

Until, in the amazing shadowlights
Of windy, cloudy April,
Surcharging the religious silence of the spring,
Creation finds the pressure of its everlasting secret
Too terrible to bear.