I was thinking I needed a companion this Advent. It’s now been a month since my last retreat, and before the routine of everyday life overwhelms my experiences and memories, maybe it would be good to seek some guidance. Thomas Merton is a great one to consider, and earlier today, I returned to his book The Sign of Jonas.
Before he became an American citizen, he mused about the evil of war, the American role in war (the atomic bomb is mentioned), and his own identification with being a monk and a citizen-to-be. I was struck by this reflection:
It would be a grave sin for me to be on my knees in this monastery, flagellated, penanced, though not now as thin as I ought to be, and spend my time cursing the world without distinguishing what is good in it from what is bad.
Wars are evil but the people involved in them are good, and I can do nothing whatever for my own salvation or for the glory of God if I merely withdraw from the mess people are in and make an exhibition of myself and write a big book saying, “Look! I am different!” To do this is to die. Because any man who pretetnds to be an angel or a statue must die the death.
Merton is unwilling, of course, to just be carried along with the “jetsam in the universe.” Can one stand with, yet stand apart? I think so. I think this is also an appropriate reflection for the Advent season. Like the ancient Israelites longing for the Messiah, we align with the Advent themes because we detect the world is not as it should be. The world remains in need of a savior. The world is in dire straits. The world, it seems, is in the same boat as those of us who long for an explicit Messiah. Surely, the unjust suffer as much as the just.
Do Christians poke and point at the world, and cluck at someone else’s blame and sin? Too many commentators, it seems to me, are prepared to do just this. We live not in monasteries in rural Kentucky, but in homesteads and blogs and other enclosures that intend, in part, to wall off some of the world, and keep it at a safe distance. And surely, some aspects of the world are indeed dangerous and should be kept at bay. But it seems to me Merton moved beyond that into an important distinction:
Coming to the monastery has been for me exactly the right kind of withdrawal. It has given me perspective. It has taught me how to live. And now I owe everyone else in the world a share in that life. My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of a human race that is no more (and no less) ridiculous than I am myself. And my first human act is the recognition of how much I owe everybody else.
Christians, certainly, without exception, are called to uncover and discern an appropriate withdrawal. How much distance do we give to be able to listen to God, discern the divine will, and move among our sisters and brothers in duty, solidarity, or however we might describe the relationship? Again, it seems to me that Advent is an appropriate time for a withdrawal of sorts, whether we ponder that sober message of the apocalypse, or we enter the wild zone of John the Baptist, or we engage in a quiet reflection as we think Mary might have done.
Merton’s last reflection on that Lenten day in 1951 struck me most deeply:
I am beginning to believe that perhaps the only, or at least the quickest way, I shall become a saint is by virtue of the desires of many good people in America that I should become one. Last night I dreamt I was telling several other monks, “I shall be a saint,” and they did not seem to question me. Furthermore, I believed it myself. If I do become one–(I shall)–it will be because of the prayers of other people who, though they are better than I am, still want me to pray for them. Perhaps I am called to objectify the truth that America, for all its evil, is innocent and somehow ignorantly holy.
In a faith that embraces Christ as truly God and truly human, why should it be a problem for us to see paradoxes like human beings being at once evil, innocent, and ignorantly holy? Today’s Advent discernment: how much to withdraw to keep a safe distance, and how close to remain to live among the ridiculous?