I don’t need a hero who can do no wrong. I never needed anyone like this. I found Jesus when I was a child, and abandoned him, because I thought I didn’t need him, either.
Men are weak and fallible. Women think they are the antidote to the foibles of men, but they make messes of similar proportions out of things in their own uniquely messy ways.
I found that making myself big became a way to keep people from attacking me on all fronts. But, it also made me mean.
I became as wise as a serpent and about as innocent as one, too. So, I made myself small, and became innocent like a sheep, and let myself be as foolish as a sheep.
I’d like to make myself small again, but get my serpent’s wisdom back.
There is a lot of evil coursing through the world right now, and all of us are dancing with it.
I forgot how to pray (or maybe I never learned how to properly). I forgot how to be grateful. I forgot how to lose consciousness of myself and let Jesus take over.
I woke up this morning happy, even though I fell asleep with a frayed mind. However, I fell asleep with the attitude of accepting the knitting that the angels do while we are at rest.
I decided to stop caring about creating a worldly-savvy posture. I no longer love the ones who are fast and clever. I’d sooner love a simple churchgoing man, whose politics sound backwards and misinformed to my citified ears. I want to love the inarticulate and nigh dumb folk who shine from some place deep within. If we educated Christians don’t learn to love them, then the true serpents will gladly accept them into their clans of little monsters.
I dropped the Thomas Merton diary I was reading in disgust. He got a visit from Joan Baez, and sounded like a smitten schoolboy. He was still forming wildly unrealistic plans in his mind over how he could be together with the nurse. He despised his Abbot, and mentioned how the great Joan Baez could see right through the paternalistic, sanctimonious man. And then the last straw — “have no need for a damn dog.”
Halfway through this journal, which takes place less than two years before he died, Merton no longer sounds the least bit Catholic or even Christian in some contemporary spiritual sort of way. He is writing how much he likes the Beatles and Bob Dylan, is getting drunk, and is seeing friends every single week. He is about as far from being a hermit as one can get.
He certainly might have every right to feel and think the way he does about the monastery and the Abbot–but, why not pack up and leave? Priests and monks were doing it all the time in the 1960s. He certainly would have gotten propped up with a following of his own, and could have easily joined the ranks of the other elder statesmen of the counterculture, speaking alongside Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg and Abby Hoffman at rallies, movements and conferences.
The thing is, he was probably too comfortable and safe in his warm little nook there at Gethsemeni, and knew he had a good thing going, even if it was abundantly clear to everyone close to him that he was no longer a monk or priest in spirit or in his actions.
When I began reading Merton, the thing I liked the most about him was how much more mature he seemed about his spirituality than other individuals who opted to be freewheeling Beat poets and folk singers. While he shared a cosmic kinship with these people (which was appealing to my still highly PC sensibilities), he had graduated into a deeper, more permanent place where he dispensed the wisdom that can only come from endless silence and contemplation of God.
Sure, he was always complaining in his journals about how his monastic order wasn’t contemplative enough, and writing letters to his Abbot to consider sending him to new monasteries abroad, but he would return to the same thread he’d started when he made his vows, and he never published these more personal thoughts while living. I had started to read the Asian Journal (which follows the one I’ve been reading presently) a while back, and was struggling to understand how a man who was having a hermitage built, and every request to travel abroad denied was able to convince his superiors to let him visit Buddhist teachers in Asia.
I get that he lived in different times than we do. People like his Abbot were cut from the same cloth that was enabling politicians to keep the US in Vietnam, and keep segregation in the South. To someone with a deep social conscience, the early 1960s folk singers were a breath of fresh air. And, I don’t have anything against Joan Baez. I hardly know anything about her. Her Wikipedia article makes her sound like a decent human being with a deep love for the less fortunate. Or perhaps, an ultra-PC liberal who smugly thinks she’s always on the right side of history. Whatever. My point is that Merton clearly changed in his attitudes about being a Catholic monk and priest from 1956 to 1966. At one point in the early 60s, he writes about going to see Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. By my estimation, this is a classic film, and they rarely make ones like this, anymore. He seemed pretty unimpressed by it, and I read it as the vantage point of someone who has gotten a wonderful outsider’s perspective on our culture, and can look past a lot of the bullshit people of the times are in love with.
So, why the change of heart and the love of Dylan, Baez and the Beatles? Was he just completely fed up with the monastery at this point, and becoming more and more in love with the things of the world? Did his affair with the nurse change him in ways he couldn’t even see? Or was he always just kind of faking it, “playing” at being a monk and priest and good Catholic, while not far below the surface he was looking over his shoulder at the world he’d left behind?
Who knows. At any rate, it’s a turning point for me. I am becoming more conservative, and more in love with old institutions and what they represent: solid foundations and pillars of hard Truth in a present generation whose Joan Baez is probably Lady Gaga. Whatever good the counterculture movements of the 60s brought to our society seems to be largely clouded by the destructive forces they’ve unleashed. The worship of youth who have no substance but plenty of style. The love of so many things of the world that even some of the staunchest Conservatives can’t see how poisonous they are for their souls. I don’t have a clue how all these churchy people at my work can blissfully sing along to Katy Perry’s lyrics about having a menage a trois, and then talk about how much they love Ted Cruz and Chick Fil-a for having great, traditional values.
Of course, the counterculture movements of the 60s aren’t completely responsible for the destruction of our moral fabric. It’s easier to fall in love with a catchy pop tune about an orgy than it is to fall in love with Bach (for most people of a certain age, anyway). It’s easier to fall in love with Harry Potter than it is the baby Jesus (even for a lot of Christians who’d probably rather spend their time watching and re-watching Harry Potter movies than reading their Bibles). Once something is out there in the bloodstream of of our society, it’s an addictive sort of chemical that nobody wants to completely get rid of. These sugar-coated flirtations with evil feel good, and they make the people who deliver them to the bloodstream lots of money. Everyone is feeling like they are winning, so why would they want some old fool to tell them they are most certainly not?
I am no longer in love with much of any of it.
It all reeks of a kind of perfume older women use to cover up all of the odors that are accompanying their final years. Such is our pop and sports culture as it helps us forget how morally and intellectually bankrupt we are. Michelangelo to Damien Hirst. Beethoven to Lady Gaga. Shakespeare to Hip Hop lyrics. The Constitutional Convention to today’s Congress of Tea Party crazies. Are these unfair comparisons because of the contexts and audiences for each?
No. The audiences of Shakespeare were the common folk, and indeed, Shakespeare was criticized in his time for writing lowbrow stuff. Hip Hop lyrics are given critical attention in the NY Times as if they were the latest chapbook of poems by a nobel laureate. Beethoven and Shakespeare were once happily consumed in the homes of people who could afford a piano or victrola and little else to keep them entertained. As long as the annointed purveyors of high art deem Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst, Hip Hop, etc., worthy of receiving as much attention and critical examination as any so-called high art of the past five centuries, they are most definitely worth being compared against each other. And, the argument for relativity based on the context from which these artists and their work lived and live–that just bolsters my argument that Western Civilization is in its final death throes before succumbing to utter barbarism.
The will is to make sense of reality when pieces stop seeming to fit.
9/11 may be the greatest cover-up in plain sight, or it is the greatest accomplishment of Muslims who hate Western ways.
Those who sought substance over style, even if they never completely found it, were able to create lasting works that give impressions of substance that transcend the post-modern efforts of artists, writers and musicians, which become inevitably reduced to stylistic motifs.
The post-modern, existentialist rejection of there being any essential Truth beyond appearances has created two-three generations of individuals who do not examine their inner lives.
I can go out into the market and try on the narrative that fits me best, and wear it without questioning it. Just like my choice of clothes, car and decor, my narrative can be a simple, stupid one (even if I am a brilliant engineer, my narrative is still quite stupid), and I can find a tribe that shares the same narrative and congregate and commiserate with them.
When I’m in my high school and college years, I’m faced with an intense pressure of knowing that I will one day have to survive in the world on my own without mommy and daddy (or at least that’s the myth I’m provided with at the time). I’m also under pressure from parents and teachers to make choices that don’t cause me to spend my life scraping by from week to week. In more affluent circles, the horror isn’t one of being left in poverty, but being stuck in a boring, routine office job when I could have been traveling the world like Indiana Jones and going on fast-paced archaeological adventures (or some other sexy, non-boring job that will always get me laid when I mention it to the opposite sex at parties and bars).
With this pressure not to end up ten years out of college scraping by, being boring, or headed down a path where I will die alone, I must begin making my narrative NOW, or one will inevitably be created for me, and I’ll fall into that gray mass of Other Narratives that are Meaningless.
My success depends mostly on how affluent my parents are, but there is also another important deciding factor: the point in life in which the light bulb comes on that I need to stop being a CONSUMER of the narrative and become a PRODUCER or CO-CREATOR. All narratives that are envisioned by a young person within the context of pure fantasy, where the individual gets excited by an imagined future of adventures that has no practical lines drawn back from it to the present, are narratives that collapse into the timeline of the individual’s almost inevitably Other Narrative.
The only time you are successful at anything is when you are producing something. If you are a consumer of cowboy lifestyles, but you sit in an office getting fat and produce balance sheets, then you will inevitably be at least marginally successful at producing balance sheets.
It seems utterly obvious when looked at this way, but there are plenty of less stratified narratives we attempt to create for ourselves when we are ready to deviate from the one we presently find ourselves in. For me, it came as a bit of a shock that most of the career changes I was exploring were simply me envisioning them as a CONSUMER. I was unwilling to make myself face the fact that as a PRODUCER in the role of Art History Professor or Mathematician, my daily routine would have to look drastically different than it currently does.
If I were to realistically expect my writing to be published, I would have to stop being a CONSUMER of the fantasy in which hundreds of thousands of people read what I write, and actually request the services of editors and agents to rip it all to shreds and probably tell me that I’d be better off never typing or writing another word. Of course, after fifty tries, I probably would find an editor-agent pair to work with me, and if I was willing to commit the time to clean everything up and make it pretty for a publisher, I’d then have to agonize for years while they shopped my book around. THEN, I’d have to commit to going and speaking to a lot of obnoxious people to promote it. The other PRODUCER route would be, of course, me actually going back to school to get an advanced degree and pushing out a similar plan of attack via academic publishing channels.
Being a PRODUCER in a way that will foster a true, new and great narrative is exceptionally hard, even if you are born with money to leverage the creation of your narrative.
Being a post modern individual, obsessed more with style than substance, you seek to consume your experience of being a producer even as you produce it. You do things ironically so that nobody can ever find your figurative center of gravity and knock you to the ground. You decide to start an organic farm, and you move in the direction toward being a PRODUCER, but you are always looking over your shoulder at how the world sees you. You want to tell your story on Vimeo. You want people to live vicariously through you, who is having the experience of being a pseudo-farmer–”pseudo” in the sense that you do not have to worry about completely losing everything if your organic farm fails. The same thing goes with any other post modern individual seeking to shift his or her narrative into something that has the look and feel of being more meaningful than the Other Narrative of simply raising a family, driving back and forth to the office every day, and visiting Disney World or the Grand Canyon once a year.
Your sense of personal satisfaction, happiness, and the meaning you derive from your new narrative come from how you appear to the outside world. If you are able to make others, who are your observers, believe that you must be living a more meaningful and happy life than them, then surely this will make you a more happy person. As long as you continue to believe that there is no essence of being beyond the appearance of your being, you can live a life of apparent happiness and satisfaction. If this facade doesn’t hold up well (and it rarely does), then you are forced to reconcile all of the pieces that don’t fit with the narrative thread you manufactured.
This applies to everyone who would attempt to create a truly meaningful narrative thread, even if they don’t go to extremes like throwing it all in for organic farming. We make choices to forego our ill-spent youth of moving from one live music venue to the next in hopes of discovering more meaning in a return to the church, a return to school, or a move across country to start a different sort of life with someone new. The middle-class, suburban, midlife malaise is clearly the more common and talked about one. When the movie American Beauty came out, everyone gushed about how groundbreaking it was with the themes it explored, but the themes have been there ever since a post WWII middle class was established in America.
Very few people have found happiness solely through the creation of an outward appearance that gives others the impression they must be happy.
Very few people have not found utter emptiness inside of them when they break down and go looking closely at what’s inside of them.
What’s past the masks, charades, facades? More of the same, but masks, charades, facades we reserve for our loved ones and ourselves. We who are quite shy become interesting people to those we let into our inner circles. But, those who we let into our innermost areas of being see nothing but emptiness or God’s shining Love, depending on what system of belief we’ve chosen to accept or reject.
Without Jesus, we are, in fact, almost completely empty. No attempt to fill that empty space results in it feeling completely full. The choice becomes one of rejecting it and embracing the post modern viewpoint, which has all but encompassed everyday, secular thought, or embracing a deity to fill that space. Buddhists claim that emptiness is all there is. Other religions have paradigms that beg their followers to seek vengence upon those who wrong their deities. If you take a day to set aside your doubt about the experience you will have when you utterly embrace Jesus, you discover the same kind of renewal that brings back life to the world each spring, and enables us to spring back up to face another day each morning.
But, this path isn’t completely easy, either. If you’ve allowed the devil and his minions to get their tenterhooks inside your very sense of identity, then you will feel uncomfortable for years. Identifying as a Christian after years of walking among those who hate Christ and love the world requires a coping and rehabilitation similar to a recovering addict. It can even be that much worse, because unless you are financially independent, you still have to go out into the world and make a living to survive. And that means you continue to be surrounded by people more completely in love with the ways of the world than Jesus; even many people who call themselves Christians will by all appearances be more concerned with their stocks, their fantasy football, their vacations, boats, cars–their standing or appearance to others in the community. We say “by all appearances” because of course we can’t know how much of these matters they hold close to their heads and their hearts.
Appearances matter. Books, whether you want to admit it or not, always get judged by their covers. Wiser people skip past those kneejerk reactions and look to see if the book is more than its cover. But, nobody maintains for long an appearance that is running completely counter to what’s inside of them. Eventually, either the appearance (if this is still of utmost importance to the individual) will come to change and shape the soul beneath, or the soul beneath (if a person decides this matters more) will come shining forth and re-shape the mold of the mask that was struck during years of innocence and ignorance. Appearances are not to be rejected or dismissed, but simply shouldn’t be the focus or end of the subject.