universal monk in urban desert
with its stupid politics and insane wars and money gods, and we needed to get away.
We wanted to flee to a desert
and live in a cave and find God and find ourselves.
So I escaped the alien world, and its alienation,
and found a shelter in a rent-stabilized cave in the wilderness of Brooklyn, and I sit in my cell, because my cell will teach me everything,
so I am told,
I sit cross-legged on my futon sofa before sunrise
and stare at the shadow of the candlelit Guadalupe figure we bought,
as it dances on the wall
and contemplate our return to dust,
because it is Lent.
On the Last Day the sun will go supernova and whatever is still alive on this planet will be incinerated,
but that is billions of years away and it’s not my problem.
Global warming might incinerate everything first, but I don’t own a car
so don’t blame me, and that won’t be for a while and it’s not my problem.
My problem is that one of us has already returned to dust, a box of ashes.
Is that you? Art thou that?
I hang my questions on the wall where the shadow dances, because the alien world,
with its stupid politics and insane wars and money gods, is here in this cave,
sitting on the futon sofa,
talking to itself and disturbing the silence.
One day, any day, will be the last day
when the sun in my brain goes supernova and my world is incinerated and I am also reduced to dust.
The candle flame moves and the shadow of the holy mother dances on the wall until sunrise,
when it disappears in the light,
as I will disappear in the light,
as you disappeared in the light, leaving me a box of ashes.
I live in a loft in Williamsburg. I moved in when I got married. I moved my studio into the space that adjoined my wife’s studio and bedroom. I was 52 and she was 47 and neither of us had children. We were the children. When we were kids both of us wanted to be beatniks. We had different spiritual backgrounds and ideas, but we invented our own rituals that centered on our fanciful notions of Guadalupe as a goddess figure.
Lori died of cancer two years ago. She had home hospice care. A hospital bed, oxygen tank and other equipment were moved into her studio, and we put mylar curtains over her big window to keep out the heat of the sun. Many people volunteered to help us in Lori’s last weeks. People brought food, cleaned the studio, and did whatever was needed. After she died, I invited these volunteers, who I called “the sisters and brothers of mercy,” to come to a gathering at the studio. This experience showed me the importance of compassion, the wisdom in compassion, and the need for community.
Last year I came upon a copy of The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton on a bookseller’s table on Bedford Avenue. I’d read it over twenty years ago, during another transitional phase, and I opened it up at random and read about his meeting with the Dalai Lama. I had been reading about Tibetan Buddhist teachings on death and dying and studying Biblical teachings. I thought the observations of this Christian monk on his journey to the East would help me on my own spiritual journey.
In 1968 Merton took his first extended leave from the monastery, his first time out of the country in decades, to attend a conference in Calcutta where he was to speak to persons representing Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhs, about what the monastic traditions of the East and West had in common.
In his talk he went beyond that to extend the concept of “monk” to include people who were not part of established institutions.
Excerpts from Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism:
“In speaking for monks I am really speaking for a strange kind of person, a marginal person, because the monk in the modern world is no longer an established person with an established place in society.”
“Thus I find myself perhaps representing hippies among you, poets, people of this kind who are seeking in all sorts of ways and have absolutely no established status whatever.”
“Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something
“The only ultimate reality is God. God lives and dwells in us. We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God, by the voice of that ultimate being, to pierce through the irrelevance of our life, while accepting and admitting that our life is totally irrelevant, in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is not something we can grasp or possess. it is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift from God and gift from others.”
“And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible.”
“And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
I wanted to do this talk, because I wanted to understand why this passage affects me the way it does, why I felt he was addressing me when he spoke of a marginal person living in the presence of death, seeking something deeper than death and beyond the dichotomy of life and death, but also seeking deeper communication with others, deeper communion, and community. And that is what led me to Original Blessing.
Merton says such communion is predicated on persons being “faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God” — and this seems to me to be the deep meaning of “Bring Your Own Beliefs,” and describes the practice of these people I’ve been associating with this past year.
Like you, I am concerned about perpetual war, global warming, bigotry in all its forms, economic inequality, equal rights, and other social justice issues, and I need to know what I can do, what I am most suited to do, what my vocation is.
I have never made a living as an artist. I have sold very little of what I made, so I supported myself in a series of low paying jobs. I was laid off from my last job in 2009. In the last years of her life, my wife became successful enough with her work to support both of us. Now, at age 63, I am looking for a place in this world, with its stupid politics, insane wars, money gods, but I am also looking for a place among people who look for meaning and value outside the marketplace. I am not planning to become a Catholic monk, or a Buddhist monk, or a Unitarian monk.
Merton’s last talk was to an audience of Catholic clergy in Bangkok. It is more of a sketch for a talk, or notes for a future work. He speaks of the monk as a person who “takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structure” and he examines some of the ideas taken up by the counter-culture back in those days. I believe he was on the threshold of a revolutionary message, had he lived long enough to return home and contemplate what he learned in his journey to the East (he died by accidental electrocution shortly after giving this talk).
“I think we should say that there has to be a dialectic between world refusal and world acceptance. The world refusal of the monk is something that also looks toward an acceptance of a world that is open to change. In other words, the world refusal of the monk is in view of his desire for change.”
“The whole purpose of the monastic life is to teach men to live by love. The simple formula, which was so popular in the West, was the Augustinian formula of the translation of cupiditas (ambition, greed, lust) into caritas (love of humanity, charity), self- centered love into an outgoing, other-centered love. In the process of this change the individual ego was seen to be illusory and dissolved itself, and in place of this self- centered ego came the Christian person, who was no longer just the individual but was Christ dwelling in each one. So in each one of us the Christian person is that which is fully open to all other persons, because ultimately all other persons are Christ.”
I am waiting for X.
The waning supermoon hangs on the sky, a crumbling white disk in the daylight.
It’s a pretty day in an invisible war,
in the Eye of an invisible storm.
It is early in the morning and I am waiting for X
X marks Here or There in my unreliable maps. Here You Are and There is where your treasure is. Your treasure is buried in the abyss.
Your treasure is buried in emptiness.
X holds the fire of creator destroyer
X beats the drum of existence
X says Fear Not, I am unarmed
X indicates the revolutionary situation
X crushes the ideology of power and possession X blows the horn that blasts down the walls
X dances in the temple
X takes a Giant Step into the unlimited
I am watching for X, and I am waiting for X within me, I mean to say within us.
X stands at the Door.