Merton Monday 11 – Memorial Day 2008

But if you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. — My Argument With the Gestapo

I knew May would be a crazy month for my family. Once I finished up class this semester, we were off to Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada for a whirlwind trip to see a couple of friends’ kids graduate; one with an engineering degree and one with a medical degree. And now this week, for the first time in my life I have each of my kids in a different part of the country simultaneously. So, I find it hard to sleep. Not that I’m overwrought with worry; it’s just a parent thing. My mind won’t settle in a solid sleep. I wake up every hour seeing one of their faces, as if there’s something I’ve forgotten to do for them, some way to care for them. Maybe as a parent of young kids you get so used to constantly doing things with and for them, your mind can’t stop feeling like it should be doing so.

I seriously need to find some time to collect my thoughts after the past few weeks, and this week should, in theory, help. With a little time to myself, there should be room for some serious garbage collection in my head. I relish times to do just that. And I’ve been trying this morning. One of the things that never fails to amaze me about such collection is that to a person like me, it always becomes more clear that the things of this life are unclear. What I mean by this is that I’m not a person who likes to slice, dice, divide, label, name and categorize life. I tend to be an integrator. And so, when I say things become more unclear, I don’t mean that they are getting separated further and that I can’t fit them together or find a place for them. Rather, I mean that life becomes more integrated, and all the things begin to blend together. Human life is very grey to me, but not because there is a lack of sharpness and meaning to it. It is simply that all things are connected, and they are connected to such an extent that even the connections cannot be well identified. This may be one of the reasons I admire mystical religion so much; it deals in the realm where “There is what is. What is, is.” (Parenthetically, this is why I believe one of the truly great passages in the Bible is when God sends Moses to lead his people. God declares to Moses, “I am who I am. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.'” I’m not making a claim about the Moses Story, but I am making a claim about the Bible Story. It’s a brilliant presentation. Who is God? God is That Which Is. God is That Which Exists. What else is God supposed to say to explain to a human who/what God is?)

That’s a bit of background to a hundred things going through my mind this morning. I missed last Monday’s Merton quote; I was driving. All day. All night. Into the next morning. And this week I’ve deviated from New Seeds to go back farther into Merton’s life, before he entered the monastery. It seems proper to me to take something from his novel My Argument With the Gestapo (which admittedly wasn’t grand enough as a novel to be published until the Merton name would sell it). It seems fitting because it’s Memorial Day, my oldest daughter happens to be at Arlington National Cemetery today, and, well, because everything is grey and related. But there’s no way I can sit here today and type it all up for a post. This is the problem with seeing all of life as integrated; how do you talk about its little pieces? To give it my best shot for the day, I’ll start with an anecdote.

Some years ago, I was hiking with a friend of mine, one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met. Although we differ in some of our views, we share a deep and abiding faith in God. He’s a good friend, the kind of friend that gives friendship its meaning. I can talk to him about anything. Most of all he’s one of those folks who would give his life and likely his soul for me, and most likely for you, too. I bet he’d make one hell of a soldier, and in fact he was in the first gulf war. So round and round, somehow on this hike we got into a conversation and I ended up saying something, and he’s the only person I’ve said it to who seems to have really gotten it. Which means, he’d already realized it, and was simply agreeing with me once I said it. In so many words, I was talking about faith in God, and about how it is faith that justifies our actions, and that even that faith comes from God, and that nothing is our own. And I said that I’ve known pacifists and I’ve known warriors, and in each case I think some were “wrong” and some were “right.” That what it came down to was the humility and honesty of their faith—or the lack of each— before God that made them right or wrong. “It’s not what side you choose, but why and in what spirit. It’s not the decision one makes, but the faith behind it,” I said. He stopped walking and turned to look at me. He cocked his head, smiled, and nodded. “And it’s the same faith in either case,” he said, his tone of voice sharing with me the wonder of faith.

It’s a hard thing to accept. People who are strongly aligned to action view such a statement as heretical, as situation ethics, as absolutely dangerous. “Well then, I guess you’re saying we can all do just whatever we want, and God don’t mind as long as we do it for Him!” No, that’s not it. It’s about the nature of faith, of God, and of Man together. Either you get it, or your don’t. That’s all the explanation for which I have time today.

But why this matters today is that I believe in peace. I believe war is born of evil. I believe that, as Merton once wrote, it is the suspension of morality. It should always be avoided whenever possible. I know a number of people who would not kill a thug who was killing their own kid, and I admire some of their theology and all of their conviction. Their greatest fear, I venture, is that in the heat of some moment, they would kill to protect another. They would argue, I think, that one cannot say he values life if he is willing to take a life. Fair enough. I admire that. A lot. But I think one of my greatest fears is that I would fail to kill to protect another. You see, it is also fair enough to say that you cannot claim to value life if you will allow it to be taken by the vicious. There are no easy answers, but my claim is that the two views cannot be fully separated, nor need they be: there is room in God for both. It is evil that people die in wars. Evil. But does that make those who do the deed evil? Not always. I imagine my little girl at Arlington today. She is in the midst of some three hundred thousand people who gave their lives in battle; a great many who did so in the same faith that makes me pray for peace. I will say nothing negative in their presence, for she can be there today because they each believed enough to give her a tomorrow. To them and their faith I owe too great a debt. It is Memorial Day. It is a day for them, for their families, for their loved ones. And it is also a day for my daughter, for me, and for you. We are not separate. We are what is.

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