An Unquenchable Hunger for...?
The following reflection was originally shared with my Merton and Me email list on June 4, 2022.
There is, I believe, an unquenchable hunger for truth and authenticity coursing through the souls of not only the citizens of America but the citizens of the world right now, and while such a hunger will inevitably be held hostage by the uncompromisingly rigid formulations of the human mind, which has a very hard time recognizing any semblance of reality between the extremes, I sincerely believe that underpinning this hunger is an irrepressible and desperately increasing need for people to get in touch with and express their deepest feelings. I am not referring to the relentless flood of surface emotions that daily course through our veins and that are increasingly exploding into noxious, divisive opinion or outright violence. I am speaking of a current of feeling that lies beneath the surface of all this bluster, a hidden but sacred river of fear and pain, hope and love that flows unceasingly inside of us and that yearns to be felt and heard and seen and honored.
Accessing this degree of vulnerability more often than not requires a choice, and a strangely radical one at that. It is the conscious choice to actually express the “image and likeness” of God within us, to give life to our truest humanity and our divine heritage. Tragically we are both unfamiliar with and oftentimes unabashedly resistant to sharing our deepest feelings with others. We even choose not to share such feelings with ourselves! And whether conscious or unconscious these cumulative “choices” not to offer ourselves fully to the world are gravely damaging, to ourselves, to our friends and family, and to our relationship with God. Because it is here where true faith meets compassion and reconciliation. It is here where the healing of our own sinfulness and ultimately our broken society begins. And it is here where the Spirit of freedom resides in every one of us.
Thomas Merton writes in his book No Man Is an Island…
“If the essence of freedom were merely the act of choice, then the mere fact of making choices would perfect our freedom. But there are two difficulties here. First of all, our choices must really be free - that is to say they must perfect us in our own being. They must perfect us in our relation to other free beings. We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves. From this flows the second difficulty: we too easily assume that we are our real selves and that our choices are really the ones we want to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are,,, largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.”
Who is this “false self” that Merton speaks about? Surely we’re all quite aware of any number of “psychological compulsions” that seem to cling to us (or that we refuse to let go of), but can we see how these compulsions might inhibit our freedom, our ability to express more deeply rooted/authentic feelings, our capacity to be present to, and serve as instruments of, God’s love? And finally, just how capable are we really of communicating or even perceiving “truth” if it is endlessly filtered through “our inordinate ideas of our own importance?”
I believe very deeply, and it is quite ok that many would say naively, that the potential for lasting societal transformation is greater right now than it has been for a very long time precisely because of the tension, and even the violence, that is plaguing us. There is nothing to hide behind any longer except ourselves. This tension and violence cannot but demand from each and every one of us a personal, heartfelt commitment to stepping right inside the center of the storm and tasting and seeing who we are in the midst of it and what role we are playing to either further exacerbate the tension and violence or be catalysts for its de-escalation and transformation. Our total, individual unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the breakdown in civility, the crises of mental health, the religious triumphalism and antagonism, the racial unrest, the persecution of minorities, the gun violence, the degradation of functional public service, the tearing apart of families and friendships, etc… This prideful unwillingness, swelling by the day, to crack open our individual hearts and minds and recognize the role that our own demons are playing in this painfully “apocalyptic” American and global unfolding is, I believe, the greatest threat not only to our democracy here at home but to the sustainability of our species and the planet. It is time we find the humility, courage, and love to witness ourselves as we are, and not as we imagine ourselves to be… Torn between warring extremes inside and out, overwhelmed by the need to win and conquer, and increasingly estranged from that still small voice that knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that the most human of all responses to pain and suffering is love and forgiveness…
I leave you with two complementary and revealing Gospel passages, notice the subtle differences in the translations:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.
Matthew 12:25, New Kings James Version
“Any country that divides itself into groups which fight each other will not last very long. And any town or family that divides itself into groups which fight each other will fall apart.
Matthew 12:25, The New Catholic Study Bible - St. Jerome Edition
Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Luke 17:20-21, New Kings James Version
Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he said in reply, “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21, The New American Bible - St. Joseph Edition