There are some writers who become companions on your road. It didn't start out that way. Just that one day you picked up the book and in reading it you heard a voice that you liked, recognised tone and demeanour that was friendly, felt the kind of ease and trust that only comes when you know, you just know, here is someone who would be good company. And once you've walked the length of that book, there is a kind of Emmaus moment, a reluctance to let this companionship on this journey end. Because your heart burned within, the conversation brought healing, understanding, possibility of newness, opened up a different future, and the friend we met on the way is one we now want to spend more time with. And we have the feeling we didn't meet him - he met us, he drew near, at just that time and in just that place.
That's as near as I can describe my first encounter with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, seeker of solitude, peace activist, inveterate journal and letter writer, and mercifully fallible human being. Few of his books are sustained argument, constructive theology, or innovative spirituality. Most of his writing is informal, occasional, meditative. The best of it reads as distilled thought, not concentrate that is dense, but a cultivated lucidity, with sentences that have extracted from long thought and experience an uncluttered clarity, and confident humility. He is someone who has shared several decades of my inward journey, a writer to whom I've looked at crisis or pivotal moments, and been glad of his company, his conversation, his opening up of a truth I needed to hear. I'm reading him again.
Here is one of his long sentences, formatted as a prose poem, a constructive piece of spiritual theology that says so much about what is so about the life we each have to live.
Therefore each particular being,
in its individuality,
its concrete nature and entity,
with all it own characteristics
and its private qualities
and its own inviolable identity,
gives glory to God
by being precisely what He wants it to be
here and now
in the circumstances ordained for it
by His Love and His infinite Art.
(New Seeds of Contemplation, Shambala Library ed. page 32)
Love and infinite Art - to see our self as the cherished product of such purposeful creativity is as near to coming to terms with God, our life and ourselves as we can properly expect. I guess it would take love and infinite art to make something worthwhile out of the bundle of contradictions and cluster of insoluble enigmas that is the human being in all the glory and mystery of human living. When those reverberating questions of meaning and purpose and what makes for our happiness shake the foundations of our self, Merton quietly mentions the ultimate fundaments of human fulfilment - "His Love and infinite Art".
That's the kind of key that unlocks chains and doors. The life I live is sometimes glad and sometimes sad, at times exciting and at times exhausting, determined by my good choices and bad mistakes, touched by love and wounded by hurt, but nevertheless my life, the only one I have. Faith in God is the recognition that in that limited and constrained existence, His Love and infinite Art are what confer worth, affirm identity, and make possible the living of a life that is good, generous, joyful and ever capable of newness and surprise.