What Merton Saw

Over sixty years ago about this December time of the year, I recall standing outside my childhood home in that moment before the hall door was opened as people searched for keys. It was following our return from what we then called ‘Saturday Night Confessions’. Looking up I was struck by the beauty of the night sky. It was a frosty night and the stars glistened in their pristine splendour hanging above the dark outline of a distant mountain. A frisson of awe ran down my spine and an intense joy filled my little childhood self. I understood then what it all meant. Christmas was near. Baby Jesus would be born in the stable and would appear soon in the splendid crib of our local church, the best Nativity Crib in our whole area. Santa Claus would be riding across the sky and all would be right with my little world.

It was easy to believe in the joy of Gaudete Sunday then. Now, in my later years, it’s not so transparently obvious.

The Melancholy of Time

Where is joy to be found in a world where everything is subject to the erosion of time? T. S. Eliot’s poem, Burnt Norton, explores this question of living in the flux of time.

Time present and time past.
Are both perhaps present in time future.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind.
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future.
What might have been and what has been.
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Eliot seems to be evoking a sense of a timeless, eternal now in which something is present, something we cannot bear, a reality we cannot perceive, a mystery so dazzlingly real that we cannot bear its sight.

So much Reality we cannot Bear

This Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, is traditionally focused on rejoicing in the anticipation of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour. Mind you, it is distinctly difficult to rejoice in these days as we learn daily of the passion of Aleppo, now in the final days of a Syrian, Russian and Iranian assault on the city. The lands where once emerged the great narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are undergoing brutal destruction and slaughter. And there are few hands innocent of this crime.

There is indeed much reality in our present time that we cannot bear with ease. Suffering, mass dislocation of peoples, cynical displays of military power, insane religiously-motivated violence, monstrous distortions of even the most ordinary truths, have all contributed to a sense that our wold is spinning out of control.

People ask: what does the future hold? Will peace, humanity, joy ever return? The readings of this Third Sunday are also focused on this question. But also seek to assure us that better days lie ahead. The blind will see, the lame will walk, the crops will once more grow, cities will be rebuilt and will enjoy a new flourishing.

We need the comfort of time future, however uncertain it may be. We hunger for our utopias . And if they are slow in coming, we do our best to imaginatively construct them. Or we go in search of them in a great odyssey of adventure like Gilgamesh, the forerunner of all who seek escape decline, decay and death. And like the Ithaca of Cavafy’s poem, our utopian dreams often disappoint.

The Dazzlement of Godness

A newsletter from a Christian Brother in India arrived in my mailbox this week-end. It was a reflection on his own faith-journey, the movement away from what he calls ‘the props of tradition’ to a more inclusive understanding of God, the gods, the universe, the ‘whole thing’ as he would name it. He says:

One gets blinded by the sheer profligacy of Godness, that this God from whom this Godness emanates dazzles us with Its dimensionlessness. We retreat to our minimalness, “I’m only human”, and feel good to be less than dazzled, to be in fact as blind as we choose to be so as to be freed from the relentless urge within us to aim ever higher. Sorry, deeper. Sorry, wider. Sorry, more cosmic. Sorry, more more.
Brother Brendan Mac Cárthaigh cfc, Kolkata, India

The Mystery

And to quote Eliot again, "the end of all our striving will be return to the place from which we began and know it for the first time." The striving is over, the relentless urge released, and something like peace has come. My writer friend describes it in terms of a new knowing, of facing towards the reality we cannot bear. Somewhere within this experience we encounter what Rahner calls ‘the Mystery’.

Perhaps, it is in the emergence of insight and the attainment of wisdom, like Gilgamesh, like Jesus, like Paul, that we come to the joy we celebrate in this Third Week of Advent.

In that wonderful little book, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, the compiler provides us with a beautiful reading from Karl Rahner where he reflects on the sadness that descends upon us in late Autumn has we walk among the dead leaves.

Time, Rahner says, disappoints us, time future as much as time present and time past. Instead, we look more to what is really real, the eternity out of which time came. He says: “Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith: ‘Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time.'”

In what can we Rejoice

The deep down Good News is that we live in God’s eternity. As Richard Rohr might put it, this is what the perennial wisdom teaches us. It is the mystery that is hidden from us. The apostle James, in the Sunday reading, calls it ‘the seed that is secretly growing’. We are living in the Now of God’s eternity. Rahner again: “A ‘now’ of eternity is in you. And this ‘now’ has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself” (Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 1964).

Thomas Merton understood this way of seeing. He experienced it in that moment, standing on the street in Louisville, Kentucky, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut when the ‘now’ of God’s eternity dazzled him with an intense mystical light. Of this moment he says:

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Here lies the joy of this Third Week of Advent, the realisation that we are not condemned to remain the victims of the ‘stupidities of the human condition’, that something lives in us that is utterly indestructible, that is not subject to the passage of time or the apparent oblivion of death. We are all of us bathed in that mystic light of Fourth and Walnut.

Someone this week described to me Advent as a progress from darkness to light. Perhaps now we can say that we live always in the light, bathed in all the light we cannot see.

For a Moment of Meditation

Enjoy a quiet moment of reflection on Advent. Reflect on how we can engage in soulful ways with bringing Advent Light to our immediate world of family and community.


Comments are closed.