Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Comics Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov

trappists

“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

Read more…

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