Of Mystics and Chickens

I’ve read enough Thomas Merton over the years that I can’t always remember where I read certain words of his. Somewhere, while speaking about the insatiable nature of human desire, he talks about “[a man stuffing his belly with fried chicken]” in gluttonous pleasure. If you were a new reader of Merton and you knew he was a monk, you would probably tend to think that he plucked this example out of thin air, that he could have picked steak or lobster or hamburgers just as easily and still made his point. And, I suppose, he could have. But those foods would have been much less real choices for Merton.

I guess you’d say I’m a Merton fan. I’ve been to the monastery where he spent the second half of his life. I’ve talked to an aged monk who knew him (which would make a great post in its own right). I’ve stood at his grave and thanked him for his life. I’ve even been to the “vault” where his original writings were stored in the monastery. (Although his writings are no longer stored there, a kindly nun snuck me through the monastery to see the room. One of my fond memories will always be an old nun winking at me, and telling me to keep quiet and stick close by her while we sneaked where a non-Catholic should fear to tread.) And once, years ago, I sat and visited with an old priest who was a friend of Merton. To make a long story short, imagine the light that dawned on me when, having already read Merton’s fried chicken example, I listened to the priest mention in passing that he would sneak fried chicken into the monastery because Merton disliked the monastic diet but “loved fried chicken” and “could eat a whole bucket of it” all by himself. To this day, the thought of it makes me smile.

Merton was an exceptional human being, one of history’s most brightly shining examples of a blend of intellect and spirit. But, as I’ve written before, the greatest thing about him was that he was, indeed, a human being. I’ve learned that his writings on greed, lust, gluttony, anger, addictions, passions, arrogance and pride were not the observations of a supra-human soul who sat in a monastic tower and looked down upon us mortals. He was a human being who understood what it meant, in the best and worst of ways, to be human. Merton once said that when a person finds their true self, they find God, and/or vice versa. And so I tend to think that perhaps Merton would not mind my saying that the mystery of him which persists in my own mind is: did he know God so much more intimately than the rest of us, or did he know Man more intimately than the rest of us, or in the end, in the very deepest core of the matter, where almost nobody ever dares to go, does the difference matter?

I got sidetracked for a few sentences. Back up a moment. Today I mention Merton in these ways because I want to make it very, very clear that the things I write in this blog, if any of them be considered wise, are born of my own humanity—in all of my own weaknesses. I was thinking today about needing to write this post, because after I published last night’s post I got to thinking, “Well, that sort of makes me seem quite a bit more mature than I am.” My default tendency, throughout the normal hustle and bustle of the day, is to selfishly want to be loved on my own terms, as often as possible, as much as possible. The fact of the matter is, I only remind myself of higher roads once in a while; in the still and quiet moments of life. I hope 2008 brings more of them.

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