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To Children of the Present
on history that never was and all that might be
(All block quotes from Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, edited by Kathleen Deignan)
I dream that Thomas Merton said or did something that would be interpreted as racist or misogynistic and get him “cancelled” today – but in the dream I also remember his full-hearted support of Martin Luther King Jr. I remind myself that we are all simultaneously holy and limited, and that none of us is pure.
In the morning I can’t recall how or if I knew this to be true regarding Merton’s alliance with MLK Jr., or if I simply assumed it from their historical proximity to each other. It certainly made sense. Merton was an outspoken and supportive advocate of non-violence, a close friend and collaborator with Thích Nhất Hạnh and a vocal opponent to the Viet Nam war.
I decide to do some deeper research about King and Merton’s alliance, and find a gorgeous and heartbreaking document at The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University I learn that King had arranged to take a long overdue retreat, for prayer and restoration, with Merton at the monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani. Dates were set and confirmed in a letter sent on March twelfth after significant effort by Coretta and a mutual friend to all three of them, June Yungblut.
In twenty-five more days, King would be dead. The retreat never happened.
The two men never met.
Merton writes to Yungblut the day King was killed: He has done all any man can do.
He passes on a letter specifically for Coretta Scott King and offers her lyrics he composed for a celebration to honor King in life to be sung instead at the funeral.
Eight months later, at the end of 1968, Merton would be found dead too, under mysterious circumstances, at a conference in Thailand. The cause of death is assumed to be either a freak accidental electrocution/heart attack/head wound or as is the suspicion of many who knew him and the colleagues who found his body, martyred by a CIA assassination. There was no autopsy, and the official cause of death was not determined.
That these two men, these religious leaders, these activists for justice and peace, these martyrs had come so close but had never intersected or collaborated left me shaken, grief-filled and preoccupied for several days, although it feels hard to articulate why exactly. Why should I suddenly feel my heart pierced by a disrupted meeting of two men who died when I was four years old?
Maybe I mourn because this near miss offered up a glimpse into an alternative timeline, a parallel universe: One where King is offered care and rest in the silence of Gethsemani, where the two men walk the grounds together, discuss the peace movement, strategize about the way the Church in its various forms must take the lead in confronting what Merton called “war-madness” and the American sickness of racism. A world where both men might have accomplished even more than we could imagine over the course of long full lives. Where they might have lived to ripe old ages, served as elders with knowing sorrow and hope in their eyes.
King could theoretically still be with us. Merton might have lived into the twenty-first century. What more might these men have been accomplished or initiated with their skills, writings, visions, faith?
But Merton’s own words correct me:
Be a child of the present. Everything else is an illusion.
Maybe this piece of almost history flooded my heart because of Merton’s words:
“He has done all a man can do.” It is a stance that appeals to me, tempts me and that I struggle against, to play out every card I’ve been dealt out, to do all that I can do. I can’t always feel the boundary, the precise line, the moment when I have done all I can do and should do no more.
An enlightened man is an ordinary man who has nothing left to do.
By this account it seems as if King had his own challenges claiming the rest he deserved and needed in the face a full calendar and a burning sense of mission.
There should be a least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine string and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presences of other men.
I am suspicious of myself on all sides: an inflated notion that my whole effort is completely necessary and indispensable, a fear that I am complacent and have received more than I deserve, the temptation to self-injure by giving more of myself more than is necessary, healthy, or sustainable.
Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?
Have I sacrificed enough? Too much? I have no idea.
Maybe my grief is for a world that kills its prophets and belatedly inflates and glorifies its martyrs, rather than celebrating their gifts, limitations, and humanity while they live.
Maybe I mourn for us, and for who we are and what we do to each other, instead of for them.
You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets.
Or maybe I simply mourn for myself:
Later in the same night I dream that I am told I am dying, and I attempt to strike gentle bargain with the “Powers That Be.” I suggest that I am more than willing to stay on this earth, in this body, for as long as I am able to be of any necessary service.
And this story about these two extraordinary men who died before they ever met shows me how foolish and grandiose it is that I even attempted such negotiations and rationalizations, even in a dream. King and Merton offered far more over the course of their brief, truncated lives than I could ever aspire to over the course of a long and healthy life, should I be fortunate enough to have one.
In my ending is my meaning.
Maybe a glimpse of this world that almost was set off fresh waves of grief because so many that I have loved died too young, too soon, died when there was so much more they could have given, died because oppressive and repressive forces refused to sufficiently protect and keep them. Living and dying do not work the way my dreamworld suggests. So many, too many are struck down before they are done, while they have so much more to give, before they ever even started, after living in a world that suppressed and devalued their gifts.
How dare I imagine I have anything to bargain with.
Life is not accomplishing some special work but attaining to a degree of consciousness and inner freedom which is beyond all works and attainments. That is my real goal. It implies becoming unknown and as nothing.
And this feels strange to say out-loud but sometimes I feel (although I would never say I believe) that those who leave or are taken from us too soon depart because they can offer us more powerful support and sustaining love from wherever it is that consciousness “goes” when it leaves the body behind.
This image comforts and soothes my mourning and does not require that I believe or disbelieve.
And even if I strip all that is beyond-rational away from this vision – I consider how influence of King and Merton continues to unfold, how the mission their lives continue to live and exert influence on this earth and how their voices and visions have been amplified since 1968. Their words and actions still circulate around the world, sometimes elevated, distorted, co-opted, or appropriately honored. Their deaths did not disempower their legacies, but somehow expanded them. The superhuman archetypes these human and fallible men attempted to live up to and contain continue to shape and inspire, teach, and guide those who continue to pay attention.
There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God.
And perhaps the same is true for those of us who live smaller lives. We will never know or encounter all positive and negative effects we have had on the world around us; we will never know what we have set in motion with the smallest, simplest gestures. Who can know what the seeds we plant during our lives will grow into?
For the old world is ended The old sky is torn apart A new day is born… There shall be no more hate And no more oppression The old wrongs are done My people shall be one.
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