We come now to what I think is, for some, the most problematic part of the Merton poem we have been unpacking for several weeks now, but I think it is possibly the most powerful stanza of poem. Click here to read the poem in its entirety. Last week I dealt with the first part of this stanza but left off the last line. Here is the complete stanza:
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
Merton was not a young man when he wrote this poem. He had experienced his share of both success and disappointment and was, at this point in his life, living alone in his hermitage in the woods near the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. And, in that setting, he wrote this poem of loss; of reduction, of lightening the physical, mental, and spiritual load until he was left with only the barest essentials.
And in that place of mental and spiritual simplicity he wrote of God living in his new found poverty and emptiness like an affliction. When I have taught this poem in retreats someone always reacts negatively to this likening of God to an affliction; as if God needed to be defended. I have to admit that I do not know exactly what Merton was trying to convey when he wrote of God as an affliction, but I do understand what that line has meant to me.
I was sitting, cross legged on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. I was on day 27 of a 40 day fast. My tent lay behind me and some books and my journal were in a backpack at my side, untouched. Binoculars to watch seabirds were half buried in the sand beside me, unused. I had had many plans about what I would do with this long awaited time away. That morning my intent had been to start a time of prayer with silence at dawn after which I had a lot I thought I wanted to say to God about all that was on my mind and heart. But, as the sun rose out of the sea, the silence went on and on. And it wasn’t just that I was refraining from speaking out loud, my thoughts had grown still as well. I was weeks beyond hunger so my whole digestive tract was still and quiet. For maybe the first time in my life I was truly empty; empty of activity, of thought, empty of emotions, completely still. And in that profound inner quiet I became aware that I wasn’t alone.
I had the sense of a presence which was far deeper and much less wordy than the usual surface chatter of thoughts and emotions. Time seemed to stand still. I felt wordless sensations that only later would I be able to put roughly into words. I sensed that I was known, accepted, loved but not in any transactional way.
As human beings we conduct almost all of our relationships on a transactional basis. If you . . . than I . . . If you love me, I will love you. If you cook supper I will clean up. If you betray me I will leave you. Our relationships are complex negotiations. And when we come to our relationship with God, the negotiations become even more complex and transactional. We mistake covenant for contract.
But what I felt, that day on the beach was something different. I sat in silence with nothing to accomplish, no deal to make, no sense of success or failure, no negotiation; just stillness and no energy for more. And there, in that emptiness, God was like an affliction in the sense that I had done nothing to cause the encounter. God was “happening” to me, unanticipated and unwelcomed. Unwelcomed? Becoming aware of that divine presence did not cause me to then get chatty. I didn’t burst forth in worship. I didn’t whip out my list of needs. I didn’t bow either physically or metaphorically. I am not saying that any of those responses would have been bad, but each of those responses would represent my efforts to fill the emptiness with me; my worship, my prayer, my adoration. Again, it is not that worship, prayer, or adoration are in any way inappropriate, but it occured to me later, as I drove home, that what allowed me to have that sense of the presence of God was the absence of “me”. And so I sat, God filling my emptiness, like an affliction. Then I saw my shadow.
I don’t meant that metaphorically. My shadow stretched out long and dark before me which was startling since, at dawn on the Gulf of Mexico, it should have been stretching out behind me. Stiffly I turned around to see the sun setting in the west. With sluggish realization it became apparent that I had been sitting in that spot all day, from sunrise to sunset. I had spent a day in the presence of God without recognizing the passing of time. That scared me. I stumbled to me feet, loaded my things into my truck, and drove straight back home. Several years later, when I came across the Merton poem and the line we have been talking about today, I instantly thought about that day at the beach. I thought about non-transactional love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
What if our relationships with each other and with God could be a little less transactional, a bit less negotiated? What if we came to believe that we are simply loved by God and that God is there, beneath or behind all of our surface chatter of mind and emotion, all the time. What if our relationship with God is, after all is said and done, not something that we are responsible for creating or improving? What if, as the Bible says, Jesus really is the author and perfecter of our faith – and not us? How would that change things for you? What if we are all, always, in the presence of God who loves us without condition or negotiation or transaction. If we could, even a little, come to accept that; I wonder if we could then allow our other relationships to proceed without so much tedious mental and emotional accounting. Next week we will finish the poem.