August 21, 2008

Merton's "the Vision in Louisville"

Below is a quote -- a whole short section, really -- from Trappist monk Thomas Merton's 1966 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that I found by way of a snip in Bad Buddha, the blog of ebwrite's (aka, Ed). I understand, from further research, that the quote below is a rather well-known bit of Merton's writing, later dubbed by fans "the vision in Louisville."

The realization that Merton experiences is as pure a demonstration of Plotinus's path to spiritual awakening as I could ever have hoped to find. Again,
from my earlier post on the Roman philosopher, here is Ken Wilber's pithy statement of Plotinus's Path that Merton fulfills: Flee the Many, find the One; having found the One, embrace the Many as the One.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

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 that 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.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them—and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed …I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

Again, that expression le point vierge (I cannot translate it), comes in here.* At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Several things that I have learned from my dive into Christianity these last few months I find in Merton's words here.

Merton tells us his "seeing" is unteachable or unmapable -- it's a gift. Paul wrote about the gift of love in
I Corinthian 13. Paul, much like Merton, wrote of the delicious future event when men might no longer "see through a glass, darkly," but instead see each other "face to face," knowing each other, completely, likening it to how we are known by God.

Merton uses the phrase "shining like the sun" to refer to what people really are like. This
comes from the books of Matthew and Revelation and is used in one of the so-called 'extra' stanzas of Amazing Grace, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Here, the line from Matthew that describes Jesus:

And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.
And here, Stowe's stanza of Amazing Grace:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining like the sun,
We've no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.


* A few pages earlier in his book, Merton wrote, "Massignon has some deeply moving pages in the Mardis de Dar-es-Salam: About the desert, the tears of Agar, the Muslims, the 'point vierge' of the spirit, the center of our nothingness where, in apparent dispair, one meets God -- and is found completely in his mercy."

August 17, 2008

Flyer to be circulated at Loaves and Fishes

Your Time Has Value
Your Life Has Meaning

Last Friday morning, a few people, focused solely on their own wants or needs, rushed into Friendship Park after the gates opened, oblivious to safety considerations. It was the ill-thought determination of Park or L&F management that the park should then be evacuated and closed and that it (and other L&F services, such as Men’s Washroom) should remain closed for a period of thirty minutes.

This “toddler’s time out” imposed upon all the “guests” of the Park is demonstrative of a nanny-management philosophy in place at Loaves that treats the adult users of its services as irresponsible children.

Solely because of the big-hearted generosity of Sacramento-area individuals and businesses, Loaves & Fishes exists – as a facility to promote the well-being of people who have fallen on Hard Times. These individuals and businesses provide Loaves & Fishes with over $5,000,000 each year to improve the lives of displaced people like you and me.

By closing the park for thirty minutes, in an act of impetuosity, L&F imperils the ability of people to get to work or meet court dates or make it to other appointments or to otherwise achieve something or get full measure from their day. While no one doubts there is compassion at the heart of Loaves of Fishes, one has to wonder if the people in charge are enough aware of the implications of their acts and how fantastic and amazing and worthy of ‘a break’ the people they serve are. Basically, Loaves has abundant heart, but inadequate head; compassion, but not wisdom.

Regular users of Loaves’ services are greatly appreciative of what they receive and view what they receive as life-saving. Absent Loaves and Fishes, many of us would go hungry, left on the mean streets with a foul body odor, in misery and despair. But while this is true, it is fair to ask if the Loaves and Fishes operation is nearly as good as it should be and if it is getting enough “bang for the buck” from the donations it receives.

Loaves and Fishes operating culture believes in lines and queues, like the welfare office; a parent-to-child transactional mode, like the welfare office; punishing all for the “misbehavior” of a few, like kindergarten teachers and Nazis in Poland. If there was greater appreciation for poor people’s lives, on high, I think there would be motivation to fix these very evident flaws of operation.

Life is a process of ‘becoming,’ a combination of
states we have to go through.
Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state
and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
-- Anais Nin


August 16, 2008

Life is a process of 'becoming'

Life is a process of ‘becoming,’ a combination of
states we have to go through.
Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state
and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
-- Anais Nin in 1932

August 11, 2008

Two Men Down in the Mission Dorm

Dawn came, cold and clear.

It would be fifteen minutes until the sixty of us would be allowed to leave the dorm room at the rescue mission, but with early-morning light coming through the windows, I could now see the man to the right of me who had been wheezing for many hours, keeping me from being able to sleep. Actually, there was only a caucasian foot of his that I could see. The rest of him was covered by a blanket, pink in a print of scattered small-child’s toys. The blanket rose and fell, gently, as the man inhaled and exhaled, noisily.

My brothers in this room, crowded with bunk beds, were starting to awaken: a man nearby was talking quietly on his cellphone; the bathroom door was getting pushed open, flashing the room’s bright light on us, and then slamming shut. I felt the need to piss.

I began the process of putting myself in order – to use a urinal, shave, brush my teeth. I made my bed, a lower bunk, #46, a necessary act to reserve it for my next night’s slumber.

Other men began moving around, getting themselves ready for the new day: hopping down from upper berths; slipping past each other in the narrow spaces between beds; straightening sheets and snapping blankets into place. Morning greetings, conversation and laughter overcame the snorting, breathy sounds of men still sleeping.

The man in Bed 48 continued to wheeze.

At the moment designated in the rules read to us each night, Richard, whom, unlike us, is in The Program, a work and religious-education intensive, entered the room, rattling the cowbell in his hand, releasing us to go downstairs to dress and get breakfast and leave. I pointed out my suffering neighbor. “This man’s down,” I said. Richard rang the bell close to the fellow’s head.

On Saturday mornings there’s no bus that stops in front of the Union Gospel Mission, so I carry my heavy duffel bag down Bannon Street and east on North B. A wailing fire truck passes me headed the other way. It’s followed shortly by a wailing ambulance.

The next evening, in the period before ‘lights out’ in the dorm, the man who had the bed to the left of mine, J.B., was a few beds away talking with Milton. On J.B.’s bottom-bunk bed, numbered 44, sat a guy breathing with some difficulty. The guy’s reserved bed was some yards beyond, but it was at bed 44 where his energy flagged and he stopped to sit. Michael, who’s in The Program and formerly worked as a nurse, was with the sick fellow.

“Do you have emphysema?” Michael asked. The guy nodded. “Do you need an ambulance?” The guy was unsure. The mission’s night manager, Bill, was summoned and arrived with his cellphone. “Do you want an ambulance?” The guy nodded. Bill started to dial. The guy changed his mind. Rest is what he needed, he believed. Only some sleep. Michael aided his charge at lying down on his side.

J. B. was disgruntled to lose his lower bunk, but quickly reconciled himself to the situation and took his blanket and moved to the upper bunk that had been reserved for this new, sick guy.

I told Michael the sick fellow now needed a blanket. Michael said he didn’t need one right now – in the still-warm dorm room – but would get him one later when he checked in on the fellow. I asked where Michael could be found if something should happen. He said, “Probably out back, lifting weights.” Fine.

At 10 o’clock, when the lights were switched off, I vowed to try to sleep lightly, to be aware if the sick fellow made any sound of distress. But if he made a sound, I didn’t hear it. I fell into a deep, selfish sleep and only awoke around 2am to find my sick compadre just as he had been: breathing deeply as if his breaths were consciously forced. I got up and gave the poor fellow my yellow cotton blanket. “Rest as best you can, my friend,” I said. I doubt that I was heard.

Without my blanket, I could not keep from being cold in the dorm, but his allowed me to stay alert to anything awry from my neighbor.

At about 4am, the man stirred and I went over to ask if he needed to go to the bathroom. He motioned that he did. He summoned more energy from within himself than I expected and walked and did his business with only directional guidance from me. But when I got him back to his bunk, he collapsed and it took some effort on my part to get his bedclothes aright such that he might rest, warmly.

My neighbor continued with his uneasy sleep as later I and my dozens of brothers did those things to get us out of there and into the brisk day’s air. After a hardy breakfast, walking east on North B, I could see the flashing lights and hear the wails of a fire truck and ambulance coming toward me.

That night, Michael would tell me that he’s seen people in the emphysema-suffering man’s condition in his duties when he was employed as a nurse. The man wouldn’t be alive for long, he told me. “The important thing is that his soul be saved.”

Tom Armstrong is homeless and has been staying at the Union Gospel Mission most nights for the last three months. He is Buddhist.

An ambulance is called to 400 Bannon at a rate of perhaps 50/year. Men get sick at the mission, but most often the emergency calls relate to fights just outside the premises. On the sidewalk just outside the gate, every night there are perhaps forty people sleeping or partying.