11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012
5: 50 a.m.
So slow to rise: on this last day this year in Masisi.
In between Vigils and Lauds, listening to songs from Stew & the Negro Problem, I look into the faces of the founders of this monastery, painted from a sitting, possibly from a photo, sometime past, and I see regulated, premeditated presentation of Eurocentric assuredness, and I wonder how much I look like them, act like them, borrow from their legacy. My mother’s family came from Alsace. Br B., the French monk, has heritage also from Alsace.
Butare is blocked from view. So is the sun today. It is late arriving. Both hidden in thick banks of unseasonable fog. There is a sharp chill to the air.
My plastic thermos doesn’t work this year, and early morning instant coffee is an exercise in endurance: tepid caffeinated brown sludge, with a bit of cane sugar stirred in to cut the bitter and to make it go down just that little easier. Nescafé owns mornings in this part of the world, at least amongst the expatriates who insist on cups of coffee before anything else. The locals drink hot lemon or hot milk with gruel. Little tea. Little coffee. They are wired differently.
Yesterday’s English Class: three topics: hard, harder, easiest:
Thomas Merton and his confessional prayer, and his conversional experience in
Louisville that led to great changes in his personal theology and to books like Conjectures
of a Guilty Bystander, and Cold War Letters (both of which I brought to the monastery’s
library the year previous);
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, his early life and Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Nazis
and Zyklon B and “showers” and Kapos and crematoria, Kolbe’s conversion of heart,
his protest work, his arrest and imprisonment, his final salvific act (John 15: 13)
and lethal injection and the Death Penalty and Death Row and my “learning to live”
class in Tennessee and “a woman in priest’s garb” (Matthew 7: 1-5);
The Samsung Tablet and its functions.
It was interesting how little was known of WWII and the works and thoughts of the American monk. Again, separation was underscored. Americans living inside of fictions of their own making, filtering the realness of the rest of the world. And Africans doing the very same. Perhaps fictions are easier: like aliens invading New York City the night before on the television screen. It’s not real, it only has the entertaining illusion of verisimilitude, and in its illusive form it is malleable, shiftable according to our own liking or comfort level. Nothing is required of us. No sacrifice. No challenge to our knowing just exactly who we are, what our lives are about, and where we fit into our perception of the Great Chain of Our Being. And without that requirement of us to evolve to our environment, to sacrifice for the neighbor, the other, there is removed the grace of conversion. Father McKenzie, S.J., wrote from a slightly different view: “The saving act is accomplished through suffering, not through pleasure.”
And the anonymous mystic monk, back in medieval England, penned that: “the great unknown cannot be sought as a known.”
Says Charles Cummings, OSCO: “… first there must be the radical giving and losing of self.”
Sitting here, with my cup of Nescafé, waiting for the caffeine to jostle me out of early morning malaise, waiting for Lauds and the imploding effect of the psalms sung in community, I wonder if we have programmed such unknowing and radical giving out of daily regimens and salvation out of our hopes and aspirations.
The other day, listening to a podcast from the BBC, a reader from Oxford made the observation that the social depravities of the Industrial Revolution distracted the majority of the populus from a earnest faith in religion and its institutions and objectives; and that now, in the Post-Modern Era, the distraction was still as evident, but that it now came from affluence and all that affluence required from the available time in the individual’s daily schedule.
And Merton’s confession keeps pace with this new, unfolding era:
“… I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know
for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself… Therefore I will trust you
always though I seem to be lost…”
7: 10 a.m.
The sun is smushed by thick cloud into a hazy ball of glow above the lake. There is a deadness to today.
Called into Lauds by the clanging bell, I stumble into an inconvenient epiphany during the opening psalm. My mind, freed by fatigue and a touch of Nescafé, slides across the verses, phrased in French, to glimpses of connections to my ponderings in my room moments before. I reach instinctively for my portable Douay-Rheims in English and find Psalm 117 (old numeration), and lock on to the verses in question, and my mind moves into spaces, even as my mouth continues to sing out in French.
Merton calls out from an awareness that he, in his sharpened faculty, is still impotent to know, that he must move through and beyond his own ego-ness, into that unknowing-y adventurous creatively risky spacious trust in the God-action, no matter how foolish, how impossibly impractical, how terminating it may appear to be to human eyes and human intellect. It is a blindness and it is a faith (2 Cor. 5: 7; from today’s second reading at Mass, read also for the morning’s Lauds). It is to glimpse at the workings of a creativity that defies the inclinations of man. For man, in the architecture of his ego, rejects the same stone that God, in his Way, holds up as the crowning cornerstone (Ps. 117: 22-23). And in this difference of value rests everything. This is the ember that gives flame to the courage of Maximilian Kolbe (Ps. 117: 6). It in the powerful sway of this paradigm shift that a man, like Kolbe, can take up his cross wholly, and walk through the limitations of his individual biology, toward the real final moment, that in communion with the Divine (John 15: 13).
Saint Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, distinguishes two faculties of navigation: human sight (trust in the biological) and human faith in God (trust in the supernatural, as defined by the Patristic Fathers). This is the illogical necessity found in Matthew, in Christ’s precept to love enemies (5: 44) against the all-too-human inclination to only love those who love back (5: 43; 46-7), to love only those with ties of blood or tribal interest, to love commonly. It is the motivation that cuts into the heart of Christ’s clear disavowal of judgment on the part of human beings and the institutions they erect (7: 1-5). It is the freeing wisdom in being “not solicitous” (6: 25).
A pattern: for “radical giving and losing of self.”
A call: to consider that which we as humans would deem inappropriate, impractical, without profit.
A call: to not only think but to live outside the boxes of our own design.
The courage of martyrs. The ecstasy of saints. The potential available to all of us: if we choose a shift in the paradigms we use to navigate our way.
Back to the class:
Pushing through the narrative of the Saint Maximilian, we move into the Death Penalty in America, and “death by lethal injection” (as in comparison to the Nazis and Kolbe), and the meaning of “Death Row”. And I present photos, portraits of the death that I taught and mentored, and portraits of the chaplain and of volunteers. And one of the novices shook his head at the sight of a woman “in priest garb”. And this lead straight to Matthew 7: 1-5, and to the story of Christ in the Temple with the scribes and Pharisees and the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8: 2-11), and how He could push through the limitations of Moses and the application of Mosaic law in the self-serving realpolitik that colored theocratic structures of Herod’s kingdom, to take a woman, apparently guilty of the accusation, and to forgive her, remove the infraction, and to tell her: “Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.”
I ask how far each of us is from Christ, from His courage not to convict, to pardon, to risk the other going right back and sinning/fornicating/engaging in criminality? How much do we each worry too much about controlling, and not about giving up control to God?
There are dynamic tensions all along the web that weaves us together into Creation: tensions between individual and communal, between tradition and innovation, between sacrifice and profit, between political and theological, between natural and supernatural, between foreseeable and eschatological, between familiar and stranger, between neighbor and those out to cause us ready harm, between anything and everything human and the invisibly Divine.
How to find any sure footing in the present moment and in the next along the hazy misty path of Merton?
(The presentation of the Samsung tablet, all new and savvy, was a much simpler enterprise. Many short practical questions, all easy to answer.)
8: 20 a.m.
Another cup of morning coffee with fresh, hot milk, and off down the grassy knoll to do the day’s wash, today being the last possible time before Goma.
Mass will be at ten. The gospel will be from Mark. Augustin and André will come down from Kibarizo. The drunk, old professor from the institute in Butare may come looking for Br. B. for a handout. (We have all elected to help him with shoes and pants, and Br. B., who knows the gentleman, has been asked to get proper sizes so that we can go shopping in Goma without a hitch.) And Br. V., the superior and the others should be back midday from Goma, with replacement equipment to sure up the connection here to the Internet.
Another Sunday. My last Sunday. Stew & the Negro Problem give way to The Pine Leaf Boys who in turn give way to Muse. Pop, Rock, and Americana music come serenading eardrums here on the massif. And why not? The sun is out and the cows are climbing the hills across the valley. There is tension everywhere along the web.
Perhaps: today: after all is said and done: after None: I will get to circumambulate the lake in a pirogue with a paddle, like old times. A request has been left with Br. R., Deo volente. Now, for the wash…
9: 37 a.m.
Showered, shaved, wash done and hanging on the line.
More music, whilst waiting for Mass on an “ordinary” Sunday:
“Mystery Achievement” (The Pretenders)
“News Has a Kind of Mystery” (Act 1, Scene 1, NIXON IN CHINA, John Adams)
“Waiting for the End of the World” (Elvis Costello) –
“The legendary hitchhiker says he knows where’s it’s at:
and how he’d like to go to Spain or somewhere like that:
with his two-toned Bible and his funny cigarettes,
with his suntan lotion and his castanets.
He was waiting for the end of the world,
waiting for the end of the world,
waiting for the end of the world…
“Dear Lord, I sincerely hope you’re comin’, ‘cause you really started something!”
11: 42 a.m.
Br. O. and I called André on his cell. They have reached Butare and are descending down to the monastery. I have reconfigured the device for Kibarizo, and will take the two others that need adjusting, and with connectivity tonight and early tomorrow morning, I shall endeavor to right all errors and reconfigure all applications as before. I do not want to cause concern or displeasure with the schools in Butare, but Butare is a mere three kilometers from the monastery, and Kibarizo, with its distance, and with the fact the two schools are willing to share and to work together, in essence to make do and to innovate and collaborate, deserves the first priority.
Ezekiel 17: and the felling of cedars, to invert the standing order, to redress past tribulations, to restore Israel. Much action on the part of God with large visible objects: as compared to the negligible presence of a tiny seed of mustard mentioned in Mark 4. And this little dismissible dot of potential will grow into much the same benefit as the cedar transplanted (“so that the birds of the air may dwell under the shadow thereof.”) In the former, we have mention of this Divine alternative way of signifying and responding (“that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, and exalted the low tree: and have dried up the green tree, and have caused the dry tree to flourish;” Ez. 17: 24), with much manifested. In Mark, we have what seems to be an alternative to the Divine alternative way, or rather a refinement: no longer cataclysms are needed to reverse and make right; just a small mustard seed of faith planted and then nurtured in just the right way.
This is Christ’s way: this is his not coming “to destroy but to fulfill.” (Mt. 5: 17) To us, in our impatient need to have now! – to solve every crisis in the next commercial break, the mustard seen is discarded as ridiculous; the precepts of Christ atop the Mount are checked and tabled in the heat of the modern moment, and loopholes and re-interpretations are employed to pursue more expedient actions (or so perceived, through our eyes and not through faith). But in doing so, in disregarding the singularity of the Incarnation and all of its transfiguring presence, we curse ourselves, much like the kings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and we make deals with devils, and sell our soulfulness to Baal, for the quick fix and the all too easy happy-ending-photo-op, which can then be turned around into fodder for the blog, the advertisement, the solicitation for donations of support. We choose the fast to be “certain” of a profit: a brand: an appeal: an amortization of energy and investment.
But the Divine alternative way of engaging is not set up in our imaging. It works outside our standards and our triage. It takes that which we discard and that which we judge unfavorable, and it shows up our methods, and makes right that which we break and trample upon. The poor, the weak, the persecuted, the victimized-by-the-spoils-of-man, these are the inheritors of God-manufactured grace, made in ways so foreign to our intellect as to be forced into that category of the mysterious. Father Paul Evdokimov hints at this when he notes, “there are ghosts haunting history who conceal, by their illusions and lies, the real forces in history.”
1: 06 p.m.
Breaking for lunch. Visitors eat with visitors. The monks eat in community in the refectory. I am to eat alone in my room, separate from everyone else.
André and Augustin made it. And they get it. And this is that mustard seed that shouldn’t be but is just the same. And this is what makes me come and go, and this makes everything solid.
And they are so happy to have in their device photographs of the prisoners from Tennessee and of the female chaplain. Total appreciation: for the investment and for the connection. And I have watched André explain all of this to his young students. And his drive to make all of this known and taken to heart, this effort of André is the alternative to the conventions of this place. And in the connecting of unconventional individuals into a community, the mustard seed becomes signified.
2: 51 p.m.
It is after None. And the guards are organizing a pirogue for a quick escape onto the lake, before Vespers.
Something to do this last day: just for the pleasure of it. Something I remember from last summer.
After lunch: we reconvened. And we finished our conversation regarding correspondence and regarding my requests concerning what I am interested. But at the end of the day, expectations are little more. And more important than structure is the act of simply keeping the connection. All else can be evolved, morphed, created.
The men from Kibarizo go off to drink café rouge: an aperitif produced by the monks out of fermenting papaya and beet juice.
I walk with Br. O. to take his portrait, and to end up in a discussion with the novices about Kabila, FARDC, M23, the I.C.C., and what do I think it’s all about…
4: 24 p.m.
Those arriving from Goma have arrived.
We went out on the pirogue, but somehow forgot to check that a memory card was in place. Two women were waiting at water’s edge for a lift across to their crying infants. In the end, it worked out: we had no other distractions: the women got across: we all got out on the water: and the rain chased us home.
It is raining.
Tonight there should be connection again with the Internet.
Tonight there will be much drinking: the muzungu leaves tomorrow after Mass. Au revoir leads to toasts and salutations.
I will offer up a prayer during the intercessory prayers. It will be in English. It will be my gentle ‘Thank you.’
Today after Lunch, before None, I took a photo of six people instrumental in fashioning this Post-Modern community: three persons in Tennessee, who serving time in prison; and three persons in Masisi, one choosing to cloister himself from the world. This photo is of hope: at least for me personally. It is one possible answer to the questions Thomas Merton dared to voice during the later years of his life.
And for me: in this moment, as imperfect as it may be: it is enough to use to answer the challenge of the painting of the colons.