"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

31 January 2006

On Being Dust Jackets

Thanks to LuCindy, I just got Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island, and am having trouble getting past the introduction -- he makes one think long and hard at least every paragraph, often every sentence.

The focus of the Introduction is on finding meaning in life. A person needs, Merton says, the "fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God." And a little later, he defines proper self-love as "desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others. [. . .] It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but others."

One knows this: "Love God; love your neighbor." But I like the particular reminder Merton's words give. This loving of God and loving of neighbor is not a kind of self-erasure. Rather, it is where God can make us into exactly the unique individuals He created us to be, offering the one thing, whatever it is, that no one else can -- at least in quite the same way, quite as "perfectly," in this place, and in this time. It is self-effacement, in the sense that one does not think of oneself or desire recognition, but too often we seem to think that means that the self is somehow not valuable, to be despised. But despising the self is not the opposite of wrongly loving the self. Humility does not mean, as C. S. Lewis has said in The Screwtape Letters, regarding oneself as worthless but rather not thinking of oneself at all because one's focus is on God and others.

Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, creates a group of people who have been memorizing books in order to preserve knowledge in a society where books are burned because of their power to make people think. My students noticed the seemingly contradictory statements of the group's leader -- he kept saying that they were not important, but that they needed to take great care of themselves. But of course it isn't contradictory at all. They were not personally important as the people of their society considered individuals important -- "oh, look at me, love me, give to me, see how wonderful I am" -- but rather they were important because of the unique gifts they held in readiness to serve others. "We're just dust jackets for books," he reminds the others.

Towards the end of the Introduction to No Man is an Island, Merton writes, "Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ."

This is where I long to live, in the freedom of not thinking of myself but living the self that I was created to be. And every day I fail so completely . . . and yet He does not stop lifting me up, teaching me, guiding me, reminding me.

"I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" (Ps. 27:13-14)


Cindy said...

"in the freedom of not thinking of myself but living the self that I was created to be"

Yes. That. G'zactly. Me, too.

GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Reading Merton is a lot of work, but it's worth the effort. I'm baffled by how one man could understand things so deeply. His books are really humbling for me but also really encouraging. Jesus is like that too. Hmm.

alaiyo said...

Hello, my friends! Amazing to me is how much Merton can say in so few words. What would take me a page or two to explain clearly he says in a sentence or short paragraph.

Blessings on you both!


Fieldfleur said...

I remember reading 7 Storey Mtn and thinking, "I'm going to read all the Merton I can." But then, he is just so dang complex that I'd eventually put one of his books down. I need to pick him up again.
Loved your post. I always love the rethinking of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. I like what you said here: "This loving of God and loving of neighbor is not a kind of self-erasure." As a kid who tried to self-erase in the name of religion, it became a matter of survival (and many years of hard work) to agree wtih God that I am a worthy subject of divine and self love (just like my neighbor). Pride and selfishness are altogether different. Why can't that be preached more?!

Have a good day!

alaiyo said...

Well put, Teri. "Worm theology" is such a bummer! I think some folk simply can't believe that we can understand our immeasurable value in His eyes without becoming arrogant. And yet it's understanding that value that makes us humble.