A Year With Merton

2019 is the year of Encouragement.
(I wrote about it here.)

2019 is the year of No Snark.
(I decided this after laboring over a response to an upset swim mom in December. She had been rude and unreasonable, so the first things I thought about saying were on that level. Then I went snarky. Then I wrote a reasoned response. I thought, I need to train myself so that the reasoned response comes more readily. So I’m setting snark aside.)

2019 is the year of Merton.
(Thomas Merton, that is. I realized that I’ve read essays and quotes but never a whole book of his. I’m going to start and keep going to see how many Merton books I can complete in one year.)

I finished my first Merton book today — Ishi Means Man. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. I don’t think it’s one of his better known works.

Honestly, I thought I had grabbed Seeds of Contemplation. That sounded like a nice way to begin the year. But when I settled in my chair on the morning of January 1, I saw that I must have pulled off the shelf the book next to Seeds of Contemplation. 

Chapter One — The Shoshoneans. Merton comes out with guns blazing. Literally. He goes back to the days of our country when the Native Americans were called Indians and considered a problem. We found a solution.

In putting the Indian under tutelage to our own supposedly superior generosity and intelligence, we are in fact defining our own inhumanity, our own insensitivity, our own blindness to human values. In effect, how is the Indian defined and hemmed in by the relationship we have imposed on him? His reservation existence… is as close to non-existence as we can get him without annihilating him altogether. I fully realize that this will arouse instant protest.The Indian is not confined to his reservation: he has another choice. He is free to raise himself up, to get out and improve his lot, to make himself human, and how? Why, of course, by joining us, by doing as we do, by manifesting business acumen and American know-how, by making money, and by being integrated into our affluent society. Very generous indeed.

Was Thomas Merton just snarky?

In another chapter, Merton tells the haunting story of Ishi, the last of the Mill Creek, or Yana, Indians in California. I always thought that genocide was something that happened other places — Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia. But we annihilated an entire tribe. I can’t read the story without feeling sick inside.

Honestly, one of the things that has bothered me about Germany’s holocaust is the question of what the people who lived on the other side of the death camps did. How can someone live on one side of a wall enjoying warmth and food and relative prosperity, while on the other side people are being slaughtered? I never want to be the idle bystander.

What would I have done if I lived in turn-of-the-twentieth century California?

What will I do in 2019?

Ishi Means Man seems an inauspicious beginning to 2019. A little foreboding.

But Seeds of Contemplation seems to be missing now from the shelf and I’m not sure where to go.

How about here?

 

Unwrapping

Every man, however matter-of-fact and prosaic, likes to receive his presents wrapped… He hesitates to cut the string; he prefers to untie the knot, to unfold the paper, and so to come slowly upon the fond surprise awaiting him. The contents element he will be able to enjoy for months, perhaps for years; the parcel element he can only enjoy for a few blissful seconds; he therefore lingers over it that he may taste its drawn out sweetness to the full.  It is part — and a striking part — of our human love of mystery.

Like so many other things that are pregnant with romance, brown paper and string look commonplace enough; yet, in reality, they embody all the wistfulness, the tenderness and the sacredness of Christmastide.

… I have an old hymnbook in which the words [to a classic Christmas hymn] are rendered:

“Wrapped in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity!”

Wrapped in flesh! It is the phraseology of the parcel! The child’s eyes sparkle as he catches a glimpse of the present through the paper. Human eyes have been entranced as they have beheld the unspeakable gift ‘wrapped in flesh‘ — the Deity Incarnate!

From My Christmas Book, by F. W. Boreham

I read that passage the other morning and immediately thought of my mother. She could unwrap carefully with the best of them.

Below is a post I wrote in 2013 about my mom unwrapping a Christmas present.

“Mom, the suspense is killing me,” I told my mother yesterday.  She took, oh, I don’t know, close to twenty minutes to unwrap a single gift.

My mother has always been a careful unwrapper.  I would blame it on our Scottish heritage, except that’s my father’s side of the family.  Are the Danish thrifty too?  For as long as I can remember, though, she has carefully peeled the tape off packages so as not to tear the wrapping paper.  It can be reused, don’t you know.

Alzheimer’s hasn’t taken that trait away from her.  Old age has slowed her down.  When you combine the two, well, let’s just say, it can take a painfully long time to unwrap a gift.

“Here’s a gift from Donabeth,” I said, placing it in her lap yesterday.  She looked at me with watery eyes.  I wasn’t sure she understood.

“Open it, Mom.  Let’s see what’s inside,” I said.

She held it on her lap for a long time.  I suggested, cajoled, encouraged, prodded, goaded, urged.  Nothing seemed to work.  Finally I said the line about suspense.

“That’s the name of the game,” she said. “Suspense.”  Maybe she was more aware than I gave her credit.

She turned the package over and began picking at the tape.  Did I mention that this was a slow process?

So slow, in fact, that she fell asleep while doing it.  Fortunately it was just one of the doze-y little catnaps that lasts only a few minutes.

Once the pretty paper was removed we found that my sister had the nerve to also wrap the gift with a layer of bubble wrap.

I began the same “encouragement” process, but Bud came over and simply removed the bubble wrap.  None of this waiting around stuff.  The suspense was killing him, too.

Inside was a music box that played “Amazing Grace.”  My mother listened to “Amazing Grace” over and over.  When I thought she had lost interest, I put the music box on the table.  I went to do something else and heard it playing again; my mother had retrieved it and opened it again.  Over and over.

Music still touches something deep inside.

I’d say she liked it.

Merry Christmas, Mom.

Boreham’s Introduction to Advent

I hate the saying “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

And yet… I’m going to do that.

If F. W. Boreham was alive, by all means, I would ask. “Could I please, please, please, put your introduction to My Christmas Book on my blog? I promise to give you credit and direct people to where they can buy the book. It’s just so relevant to today.”

 

But he died in 1959, before I was even born.

I wish I could remember how I stumbled across Boreham. I read one of his books earlier this year — A Bunch of Everlastings.

Then I did that other thing that I hate for people to do. I bought something for myself that was on my Christmas wishlist. I bought a second Boreham book — My Christmas Book: A Handful of Myrrh, Aloes and Cassia.

I was going to wait for Advent to start reading it — but I couldn’t. Since reading the intro about a week ago, his hope-filled words have been running through my mind.

From Boreham’s “My Christmas Book”:


By Way of Introduction

A Child is Born! That is Forever and Forever
The Message of Christmas.

A Child is born!  In the early days of the nineteenth century, men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting with feverish impatience for the latest news of the wars. And all the while, in their own homes, babies were being born. Just think of some of those babies. Why, in one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! During that year, 1809, Mr. Gladstone was born at Liverpool; Alfred Tennyson drew his first breath at the Somersby rectory; and Oliver Wendell Holmes made his initial appearance in Massachusetts. On the very self-same day of that self-same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury and Abraham Lincoln in Old Kentucky. Music was enriched by the advent of Frederick Chopin at Warsaw and Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg.

But nobody thought of the babies. Everybody was thinking of battles. Yet, viewing that age in the truest perspective which the years enable us to command, we may well ask ourselves which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809. When a wrong wants righting, or a work wants doing, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. This is why, long, long ago, a Babe was born at Bethlehem.


You may not agree with his list of heroes, (or the comment about “opening continents”) but you get the gist.

Hope is here. It’s born every day. An echo of the ultimate Hope born in Bethlehem.

 

Treasure

At church on Sunday, the visiting pastor asked people to share “God moments” during a time when people usually share prayer requests. I knew exactly what I would say if only I were brave enough.

My God moment had started at the end of September, when my anxiety was at an all time high. I received an unexpected package in the mail that contained a t-shirt and coffee. Coffee is one of my love languages — and the t-shirt, soft and gray, with a rabbit and the rhythm of a beating heart, was perfect. I pressed it against my cheek and thought of the dear friend from Indiana who had sent it.

wearing the shirt at Hutchmoot (photo credit Lisa Eldred)

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. … Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”

In that moment, my far-away friend was Christ to me, soothing my anxieties and reminding me that I was loved.

A few days later, another Indiana friend unexpectedly pressed a little package into my hand — a tiny clay rabbit she had made for me. Rabbits are another my love languages.

In the weeks that followed, as I dealt with a lot of interrupted sleep because of my father, my husband being quite ill with what we now know to be Lyme’s Disease, and my youngest daughter suffering a concussion, other packages showed up at my house.

A hand-crocheted hat and scarf.

Mary borrowing my new hat.

A mug to replace one I broke years before and never thought I would hold another like it.

A FreeWrite — a portable smart typewriter that I had off-and-on looked at wistfully for a couple of years.

The packages came from Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

On a day when I was feeling overwhelmed, one would arrive.

I sat one morning drinking good coffee from my new mug, feeling very rich indeed, and a story came flooding back to me. It was a Dr. Purple story that I stumbled across when I was researching this 19th century physician from the village of Greene.

In 1826, Dr. Purple has acted as clerk for a trial in the village of Bainbridge, a nearby town. Joseph Smith (yes, that Joseph Smith) was on trial. He claimed to have a stone that could reveal to him where treasure was buried. For a fee, he would tell the landowner where to dig. When the man started digging, the treasure would recede and never be actually found. The landowner would be disappointed. Until, of course, Joseph Smith with his seer stone claimed to have found the treasure again in a different spot on his land. For a fee, he would tell the landowner where to dig.

I thought about the disappointment of that treasure that could never be grasped — and the depth of the treasure I held in my hand in the form of a mug sent by the generosity of a friend.

All that ran through my head when the pastor asked for a God moment — I had had a whole month of God moments, and then some.

The riches we have in Christ are riches indeed.

Sometimes they come in the form of rabbits and hats and typewriters.

And sometimes it’s a mug full of coffee.

Yes, definitely coffee.

Flowers and Weeds

Monday was not a great day.

I had taken my father to meet with his brother.

It was great to see my uncle and my cousin. While my father was so happy to see his brother, I was struck by my father’s struggle to engage in conversation.

A few months ago, at a doctor’s visit, his doctor asked him social questions about the family and his daily activities. When he didn’t answer immediately, I jumped in to help supply the answers. She looked at me and said, “I’m interested in the family and all, but this is also part of my assessment.”

She actually said it much nicer than that, but that was the gist of it. Stop answering for him. I need to get a handle on what he’s able to comprehend.

Since then, I’ve very consciously placed myself on the outskirts of his conversations.

At lunch with his brother, the conversation floundered.

Uncle Stewart: So, Don, what books are you reading these days?

Dad: Oh, I don’t know, a little of this, and — I guess I don’t read many books.

I stayed out if it. Nearly every day my father pulls new books off the shelf and starts reading them. Out loud. I put away eight books yesterday.  Everything from Outlander to the Book of Occasional Services to Murder at Fenway Park to Scotland Forever Home.

My uncle also tried talking to my father about the Red Sox.

Uncle Stewart: Who’s your favorite player on the Red Sox, Don?

Dad: Favorite player? Uh…

My father couldn’t come up with any names, so I jumped in. “How about Mookie Betts?”

He smiled broadly. “Yes, I like Mookie Betts.”

I felt sad afterwards — grieving a loss that was in progress, like watching a thief steal valued possessions and not being able to do anything about it.

Maybe that led me to my action later that day. You see, I broke one of three rules I have for dealing with a person who leaves unkind comments on my blog.

My rules are simple:

  1. Don’t engage. This includes responding in any way or acknowledging anything.
  2. Document everything. This is based on legal advice.
  3. Don’t change. This is also based on a discussion with my lawyer. I asked him, “Should I stop blogging?” “Absolutely not,” he said. “Don’t change your life to comply with a bully.”

I wrote a since-deleted password-protected post that bordered on engaging (Rule #1). Mostly the post bemoaned the lack of civility in our engagement with others. Still, I deleted it.

Yesterday, as I tended the flower garden, I found myself marveling at the way the more I cut the flowers back, the more blossoms they produce.

Daisies!

Look at all the daisies yet to come!

I moved to another garden where I’m in my third year of trying to eradicate Japanese Knotweed. I use a combination of Round-Up and hand-weeding. Surely, it will eventually die out. It’s so persistent, though.

As I prayed while weeding, one of Sunday’s scriptures came flooding through my mind.

“…a thorn was given me in the flesh, … to harass me … Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” … For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (from 2 Corinthians 12)

It’s all a gift. The weeds, the thorns, the pruning, the losses.

The first dahlia of summer opened last night and I’m content.

 

Morning Hymn

I bought this book a few years ago. It has been waiting patiently for me.

Songs of Three Centuries, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier.

I didn’t go looking for it. The book found me.

Things I like about the book:

  • Marbled book boards. Isn’t it pretty?
  • Inscription — I’m a sucker for inscriptions, especially really old ones. 140 years ago, MHW suspected that Emma would love the poems inside and gave her the book for Christmas. She held it in her hands and leafed through it, knowing she would come back to some of the poems over and over again.
  • Poems — I really love the language of older poetry.

About a month ago, I started reading a poem (or two) a day from it.

Then I got stuck on this one.

Go ahead. Sing it out loud to the tune of Old 100th. It’ll be stuck in your head, too.

Morning Hymn
by Thomas Ken

Awake, my soul! and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

Wake, and lift up thyself, my heart;
And with the angels bear thy part,
Who all night long unwearied sing
High praise to the eternal King.

All praise to Thee, who safe hast kept.
And hast refreshed me whilst I slept:
Grant, Lord, when I from death shall wake,
I may of endless life partake.

Lord, I my vows to thee renew;
Disperse my sins as morning dew;
Guard my first springs of thought and will,
And with thyself my spirit fill.

Direct, control, suggest, this day
All I design, or do, or say,
That all my powers, with all their might,
In thy sole glory may unite.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

You’re welcome.

Communion Bread

A few months ago, one of the ladies asked me if I could help with communion, setting it up three or four times a year. I would be replacing a woman  who had been showing signs of dementia.

I had my first turn this last week. One of the ladies showed me where the supplies were kept — the chalices and plates, the pretty linens, and a six-pack of bottles of grape juice.

It seemed pretty straight-forward.

Until I asked about the bread.

“You can get any bread,” the woman told me.

“Any bread?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter.”

It mattered to me.

I angsted over communion bread all week. I couldn’t get just any old bread. This was the body of Christ, for crying out loud.

Our church offers communion by intinction. The pastor tears a chunk off the loaf of bread (yeast bread) and offers it to the communicant, who then dips it in the chalice.

I know that some churches use matzoh, or unleavened bread, because that’s what Jesus would have used during His last Passover supper. Others use leavened bread, a reminder of new life and a new covenant. Some churches use wafers and believe in transsubstantiation.

Some churches use individual cups. Others use chalices. Some churches use wine. Others use juice.

Some celebrate the Eucharist weekly, others monthly, and still others yearly.

However it’s done, all Christians unite in this mystery that goes beyond time and space and a morsel and a taste of juice.

The body of Christ broken for you.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

I struggled with what to bring for the communion bread. I prayed about it. I wrestled with in my heart. I looked at bread at the grocery store and at the local bakery. Then I prayed some more.

Finally, I decided to try to make the bread. I pictured myself kneading the dough and praying for the people in our congregation.

I got a recipe from another church, but it didn’t call for kneading. I messaged the woman who sent me the recipe — “Do I really not knead it? Just punch it down?”

She answered, “I think the mixing is enough. I never kneaded it. Yes, just punch it down. No worries.”

“This is an act of faith for me,” I told her, “in more ways than one.”

Before I removed the baked bread from the pan, I laid my hands on the loaf and prayed, “O Lord, please be honored with this bread. Bless the people who partake of it.”

I brought the bread to church in a brown paper bag. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had made it. Bud helped me set everything up on the altar.

The moment in the service came when Pastor Tom lifted the bread for all to see.

“This is Christ’s body, broken for you,” he said, as he broke the loaf in half.

As luckfateGodcoincidencechance would have it, Pastor Tom asked me to stand beside him for communion and hold the chalice.

I watched him tear off chunk after chunk of bread. I tried to focus on my words — “The blood of Christ shed for you” but the bread was so distracting. The pieces got larger and larger.

One woman laughed as she received a piece so large that she had to tear it in half to dip in the chalice.

I laughed, too. It was comical.

After the service, she came up front to talk with the pastor.

“You got your whole lunch there,” I said to her, nodding towards the communion trays.

Tom said, “I was trying to pull off small pieces but I couldn’t!”

She said, “You were very generous, pastor.”

Tom said, “No, God is very generous.”

We all agreed.

Isn’t that the crux of communion — a God so generous that He gave His son.

The woman said, “I didn’t mind. That bread was so good!”

The bread wasn’t perfect — but then, neither am I.

And God honored the bread.

Generously.