A Desert of Compassion

After his appointment as Master of Scholastics at Gethsemani Abbey in 1951, Thomas Merton wrote of his “new desert,” namely, compassion.

There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid, and so fruitful as the wildnerness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.

I’m not sure I completely grasp what the monk is saying here and in its context. Merton waxes poetic and romantic over taking Compassion as his “lady” and “Queen of hermits.”

My own sense of compassion is far different. Where Merton had his younger brother monks in his care, I have a single child. He lived in a cloister. I inhabit a place with a foot in the world and a foot in the church. Perhaps in his own desire for solitude and contemplation, he feels the same as I do, wandering the fringes of an unexplored wilderness. It’s all rather suited to the Advent season.

I was reading Merton in the dentist’s chair last week. The numbing agent was spreading to the corner of my eye, to my ear, and down to my neck. And I was struck by that word “compassion,” as I made something of a Lectio experience from Merton’s journal. My wife has had by far the lion’s share of dental experiences in our family. In her presence, one dentist referred to me as “Mr Perfect Mouth,” and asked why couldn’t her teeth be as healthy as mine. Heh. Like that sort of thing is determined by marital relationship. Or proximal osmosis.

I wasn’t concerned about my first root canal as I was about the feeling of growing older with my teeth in particular, and my body in general. How do I feel about knowing I’ll never run as fast, jump as high, endure as long, or even chew my food quite like I used to? And how do I respond to people who are older than I? Have I journeyed enough in the desert to be a real companion with them? Or am I like a bird of prey circling above them, like a schoolyard bully with antennae fully extended sniffing fear, relishing that someone else is suffering while I fly high above it.

Isaiah 35 returned to my consciousness last night, as I was connecting with an old friend who had a line of a song in her head, “Let the desert sing and the wasteland flower, for the glory of God in its light and power …” It was actually a text by the Anglican hymnwriter Michael Perry, and I set his paraphrase of that Scripture to music twenty-three years ago. Here are the first two verses of the chapter:

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

Isaiah 35 is a great text for Advent. God demonstrates his own brand of compassion. I would do well to imitate it more closely.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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