“And in the meanwhile, cultivate an understanding of a bunch of the other things that the best, sanest people on the planet know: that life is long, that people both change and remain the same, that every last one of us will need to fuck up and be forgiven, that we’re all just walking and walking and walking and trying to find our way….”

Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Look up! look up!

I’d tell her, she’d say, “Freedom is a concept, but I will accept it in the place of nothing else. But not the freedom to kill yourself. That is not freedom. That is the ultimate prison. My goodness, young man,” she’d say, “do you not look around you? Do you never say to yourself, Look up! look up! on the chance that you might see a bird or a cloud, something that fills your heart with joy?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Yes, I agree, it passes too quickly. But good heavens, … what is the point if we don’t possess it fully while it lasts? Everything is fleeting. Even ugliness. Even pain. Don’t you know the disservice you do to yourself when you let joy pass you by and hold on to the ugliness and pain?”

— from To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

(Photograph: Falling Leaves, 2005, by Jeffrey Conley. Thank you, Mr. Conley and 1stdibs.)

“Everything changes, falls away, dies, the leaves in the Japanese autumn say, and yet everything comes back again, and change itself is a kind of constancy. Life, as some Buddhists have it, is a ‘joyful participation in a world of sorrows.’ ”

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Hope

“A monk … is one who sees things in the largest light possible, who sees, that is, how much we can’t see, with our limited, partial view, our perspective from our spot in the middle of the flux and chaos. His job, in some respects, is to mix agnosticism with faith: to recall that he knows nothing of what will come tomorrow, and yet to remain confident that it will have meaning and will fit into a larger logic. Hope, as Václac Havel has said, is not the belief that everything will end happily ever after; it probably won’t. It is simply the belief that something makes sense, regardless of how things turn out, and even if that sense is not apprehensible to us.”

Pico Iyer, from The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Vintage, 2009)

(Image by dabacahin. Cover photograph by Manuel Bauer.)

“It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and to find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’ ”

Aldous Huxley, quoted in The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer

“… the way is up to us, the ‘truth’ is often impermanent, and the light comes and goes, comes and goes, until we have found something changeless within.”

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

(Photograph by DeAnn Desilets. Thank you, Ms. Desilets and Lenscratch.)

“The Dalai Lama … often uses the image of medicine, as he did when receiving his honorary doctorate at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, and tells people that there is no ‘right’ religion for anyone, though some find Buddhism helpful, some Christianity, the way some patients choose radiation therapy, some chemotherapy, and some, perhaps, Chinese herbs. Besides, as he told an interviewer in 1989, ‘we have enough religions. Enough religions, but not enough real human beings…. Don’t let us talk too much of religion. Let us talk of what is human.’ ”

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

All intertwined

“Many of the great doctors in history have distinguished themselves and come to inspired diagnoses in part by seeing the connectedness of things, the way a problem in the head may affect the performance of the body, or how what you put in your mouth can alter the acid in the stomach. The body is a single organism in which one push here may have a strong effect there. So it is, too, the Dalai Lama says, with the world—and our very concerns about it are all intertwined, impossible to solve separately. It’s no good offering people peace, he suggests, if those same people lack food and water; and it’s no good offering them food and water if our forests and rivers are polluted. It’s no good, even, to clean up our environment if we’re still polluted within. In short, the solution to all our problems, economic, environmental, political, spiritual, can only be addressed by going back to fundamentals, the change of attitude that can create a change in everything the attitude inspects. Reforms on the surface make no difference whatsoever.”

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

(Photograph: Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, November 1968. Thank you, Shambhala SunSpace and The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.)

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The very best in all of us

JEFFREY: So what—there’s no God? It’s all just random, luck of the draw, bad luck of the draw?

FATHER DAN:  Darling, my darling—have you ever been to a picnic? And someone blows up a balloon, and everyone starts tossing it around? And the balloon drifts and it catches the light, and it’s always just about to touch the ground, but someone always gets there just in time, to tap it back up. The balloon—that’s God. The very best in all of us. The kindness. The heavy petting. The eleven o’clock numbers.  

JEFFREY: But what about the bad stuff? When the balloon does hit the ground, when it bursts?

FATHER DAN:  Who cares? Evil bores me. It’s one-note. It doesn’t sing. Of course life sucks; it always will—so why not make the most of it? How dare you not lunge for any shred of happiness?

— from Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick

(Image: Pascal Lamorisse in Paris, a scene from The Red Balloon, 1956, written and directed by Albert Lamorisse. Thank you, The Vinyl Bridge.)

Better versions of ourselves

[Before I began blogging in sin, I kept a Bible journal. Before I began worshipping Saint Jonathan, Saint Justin, and Saint Jack, I was a member of a community that followed the Rule of Saint Benedict. I don’t mean to make light of my monastic experience. I just don’t know how else to introduce this post without sounding like I’m launching a campaign for retroactive self-beatification. I believe we all have a need for saints, heroes, role models, bodhisattvas, lightkeepers, or better versions of ourselves. My preferred version of me, at least for this month, is that of being catholic with a small “c”—a nonsectarian adjective that means “including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.” I believe that one thing leads to another and that there’s room for everyone in this “awesome journey.”

Hence, this month’s blog posts: beginning with Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality and ending with Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness. From the brilliant atheist who wrote God Is Not Great to the great Catholic who (if there’s any justice left in this world) could be canonized as the Vatican’s Next Top Idol. Sure, the life of Day was not scandal-free. There were those early episodes of  “sexual immorality, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and an abortion,” and even a suicide attempt. She was an activist and anarchist who was allegedly anti-homosexuality. OMG! But, hey, who among us haven’t had those dark nights of the soul, those clueless days of the brain? And who among us have done even a bit of what she did for the poor, the homeless, the oppressed?

So here’s how I discovered Day. As a postulant in a Benedictine monastery, I kept a Bible journal from September 1998 till October 1999. All aspirants, postulants, and novices wrote in their journals Mondays through Saturdays right after None, the 2 p.m. communal prayer of the monks. Sundays, we had other afternoon activities but still related to “ora et labora” (Latin for prayer and work). We the “formandi” (plural of “formandus,” or one being “formed” in monasticism) reflected individually on the day’s gospel. This was part of our “lectio divina” (divine or contemplative reading). Father S., the novice master, read our journals and returned them with his comments the next day. I’m posting here one of my journal entries—in all my pre-Tumblr piousness and wordiness. I’m including the response from Father S. It was in his wise, concise paragraph that I first read the name Dorothy Day.]

 

November 20, 1998
Friday

Luke 19:45–48, “Jesus Goes to the Temple”

Yesterday, a crying Jesus. Today, an angry Jesus. Someone who fights his battles even if that means earning the ire of “the leaders of the people.” These leaders who want to kill him, but (up to this point) “could not find a way to do it.” So there he is: a smart and brave Jesus, who chooses his battles and knows how to fight them.

Life in the monastery is a life of paradox. Silence, solitude, charity, peace, forgiveness, structures and virtues to guide monks in the path of conversion. That’s one side of the paradox. The other side: 24-hour battles galore vs. oneself, one’s brothers, the forces of nature, and God, or one’s conceptions of Him.

I can’t deal with all those battles. I can’t, and I refuse to. I don’t want to end up defending or explaining myself 24/7. I can’t despair over all kinds of slights, accusations, hurts—real or imagined, explicit or implied. I can’t—or I’ll end up strangling or avoiding everyone. 

Instead, I choose my battles. And I pray that I’m making the right choices. I hope that on these chosen warpaths, I’m getting closer to more reconciliations than confrontations, more self-knowledge than self-justification.

How to fight those battles is another story. The more I get to know Jesus, the more convinced I am that he fought his battles by defying the law—the rulers and leaders, the moralizers and oppressors, those structures, attitudes, and practices that were killing the Spirit of God’s law.

Indeed, Jesus was a revolutionary. He meant to overthrow the old corrupt order. And he did it in a way that defied classification. As Hans Kung puts it in The Christian Challenge, Jesus was neither an ascetic monk nor a guerrilla fighter. He was neither priest nor theologian, neither moralistic nor legalistic. But he did fight his battles. He didn’t play safe.

Neither did Hans Kung nor the other men whose books I’ve begun to appreciate more here in the monastery—all of them rebellious, if not revolutionary. Men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teilhard de Chardin, Daniel Berrigan, and Saint Paul.

And how can I forget Thomas Merton? In “Monasticism as Rebellion: Blakean Roots of Merton’s Thought” (American Benedictine Review, June 1988), Michael W. Higgins quotes Merton’s 1963 letter to his friend Daniel Berrigan, SJ. It’s a letter with “a good measure of pique and righteous anger” over the Trappist censors’ position on Merton’s “un-monklike behavior” over the peace issue of the 1960s.

Interesting: Bonhoeffer, Teilhard, and Merton—all 3 waged battles against their respective censors: Nazis, Jesuit superiors, and Trappist superiors. Berrigan, Bonhoeffer, and Saint Paul had enlightening experiences in jail. Berrigan quoted Bonhoeffer and Teilhard as his role models. Teilhard was a certified Saint Paul fan. In the final speech of his life, Merton mentioned Teilhard.  

It is perhaps a corny issue. But I do ask myself: How can monasticism be relevant in the world in the 21st century? Relevant may have become a cliché, a laughable word, not just in monastic circles. And I know the whole point of prayer (or how I value my life as one of prayer) will come into question—or be brought up as the answer. Relevance? Prayer is relevant! Prayer is powerful! Prayer is the monk’s life and task and gift and weapon!

Still, that question won’t be easily dismissed by belittling the relevance of relevance. Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, says “activism” is one of the enemies of the monastic vocation. But I think activism as a label is too simplistic to describe the fire, the anger, or the urgency that drives the heart’s need to find meaning, if not relevance, in life here and now.

I’m not saying I can save the world by marching on the streets, burning effigies, and publishing manifestos. I’m just trying to deal with an issue that has haunted me since Day One in the monastery. What can today’s monk do?  How can he be like Jesus in responding to the world outside the monastery?

Again, I thank God for leading me to the writings of Thomas Merton—and of those who have written about him. Paul Oestreicher, for example, cites Merton in “Christians as Political Dissenters,” one of the articles in The Way’s (April 1988) issue on conformity and dissent. Oestreicher, an Anglican priest and chairman of the British section of Amnesty International, says:

Much more exploration needs to be done in the search for alternative weapons [of political dissent] and some of it perhaps far behind the political trenches, in places where battles of the Spirit can be fought. The name of Thomas Merton should be enough to remind us that such battles are sometimes fought in silent cloisters, though rather too seldom—I suspect—for the good of those whose only weapons are those of the Spirit.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton includes the talk he delivered in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968, the day he died. In this speech, titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” he reflects on his encounter with one of the French revolutionary student leaders who told him: “We are monks also.” They are “also monks” in the sense that they are “also revolutionary.”

Yes, prayer. To keep praying no matter what is also revolutionary. To keep choosing well those battles and the ways to fight. To keep believing that Jesus is our way, his cross our weapon, his death and resurrection our revolution.

_____________________________

 

If God called me to be an “active” person out there on the streets, working for outcasts as Dorothy Day did, or crying out against injustices done to my brothers and sisters, then I should have no problems fulfilling that calling. But if I know that deep within me I’m called to a different kind of life, e.g., the monastic life, then why should I not pursue it? I would be doing “more” by following my call rather than pursuing a course which might be “honorable” and “proper” from the world’s point of view but which doesn’t correspond to what my calling is. The question really is—do we feel incomplete by just remaining inside the cloister? Are we not doing much? Or are we pursuing our real calling in life? God help us. God enlighten us.

— Father S.

Dorothy Day (1897–1980)
“I can write only of myself, what I know of myself, and I pray with St. Augustine, ‘Lord, that I may know myself, in order to know Thee.’ [ … ] I do feel … that I have a right to give an account of myself, a reason for the faith that is in me. But I have not that right to discuss others. Just the same, if I have slighted anyone, if I have failed to give credit where credit is due, if I have neglected some aspects of the work in stressing others, I beg pardon of my readers. I am a journalist, not a biographer, not a book writer. The sustained effort of writing, of putting pen to paper so many hours a day when there are human beings around who need me, when there is sickness, and hunger, and sorrow, is a harrowingly painful job. I feel that I have done nothing well. But I have done what I could.”
— from “Confession,” the first chapter of The Long Loneliness
(Photograph by John Orris [1921–2002].  Thank you, Laura Wood and The New York Times.)

Dorothy Day (1897–1980)

“I can write only of myself, what I know of myself, and I pray with St. Augustine, ‘Lord, that I may know myself, in order to know Thee.’ [ … ] I do feel … that I have a right to give an account of myself, a reason for the faith that is in me. But I have not that right to discuss others. Just the same, if I have slighted anyone, if I have failed to give credit where credit is due, if I have neglected some aspects of the work in stressing others, I beg pardon of my readers. I am a journalist, not a biographer, not a book writer. The sustained effort of writing, of putting pen to paper so many hours a day when there are human beings around who need me, when there is sickness, and hunger, and sorrow, is a harrowingly painful job. I feel that I have done nothing well. But I have done what I could.”

— from “Confession,” the first chapter of The Long Loneliness

(Photograph by John Orris [1921–2002]. Thank you, Laura Wood and The New York Times.)

“When one writes the story of his life and the work he has been engaged in, it is a confession too, in a way. [ … ] Going to confession is hard. Writing a book is hard, because you are ‘giving yourself away.’ But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love.”

Dorothy Day, from “Confession,” the first chapter of The Long Loneliness

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography (Harper & Row, 1952)  

(Image by dabacahin. Cover photograph by Bob Fitch.)

“Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may, at any moment, become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself: ‘What else is the world interested in?’ What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is Love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other… There can never be enough of it.”

Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage