Ancient Answers


Permission to “Be”


The first chirps of the waking birds mark the “point vierge”

of the dawn

under a sky as yet without real light,

a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence,

when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes.

They speak to Him, not with fluent song,

but with an awakening question

that is their dawn state,

their state at the “point vierge.”

Their condition asks if it is time for them to “be”?

He answers “Yes.”

Then they one by one wake up, and become birds.

They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing.

Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that

when creation in its innocence asks permission

to “be” once again,

as it did on the first morning that ever was.

All wisdom seeks to collect and manifest itself

at that blind sweet point.

Man’s wisdom does not succeed,

for we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask

permission of anyone.

We face our mornings as men of undaunted purpose.

We know the time and we dictate the terms.

We know what time it is.

For the birds there is not a time that they tell,

but the virgin point between darkness and light,

Between nonbeing and being.

So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals.

Later the song sparrows and the wrens.

Last of all the doves and the crows.

Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us

and we do not understand.

It is wide open. The sword is taken away,

but we do not know it:

we are off “one to his farm and another

to his merchandise.”

Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves

cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

My 40-year-old worn copy of this Merton book

Thomas Merton wrote this in the early 1960s (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 131-32), when indeed there were radios in every home and electric shavers did create static in those radios. Long-play records have made a comeback – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps radios too will come back. We live in a retro age.

But the more important things reflected in this meditation will not come back. The silence of the morning that Merton experienced in his Kentucky hermitage is not ours to experience. The new creation that takes place every morning in the depths of nature are beyond our understanding. 

And yet, we can be like those birds. We can wake up each morning and ask permission from God “to be”! God’s answer will always be “Yes” to that question. 

As we get older many of us wake up each morning grateful to be alive. Don’t stop there. Ask permission from God to be! To become a new creation each day! Nothing pleases our heavenly Father than to see us rise each morning and become more fully human than we were when we went to sleep the night before.

Thomas Merton’s study in his hermitage

This meditation by Merton seeks to enlighten us with God’s wisdom. But man’s wisdom stands in the way. The tragedy is that “we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask permission of anyone.” Not even of God. So we pursue our own “undaunted purpose.”

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand….Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.”

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

“Wisdom, let us attend,” our Liturgy also calls out several times. There is wisdom here. There is wisdom all around us. Sophia!

Leave a comment

Who am I? Who are you?


A Nasruddin story

A neighbour came to the gate of Mulla Nasreddin’s yard. The Mulla went to meet him outside.

“Would you mind, Mulla,” the neighbour asked, “can you lend me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town.”

The Mulla didn’t feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however. So, not to seem rude, he answered:

“I’m sorry, but I’ve already lent him to somebody else.”

All of a sudden the donkey could be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.

“But Mulla,” the neighbour exclaimed. “I can hear it behind that wall!”

“Whom do you believe,” the Mulla replied indignantly, “the donkey or your Mulla?”

I can’t help but think of this Nasruddin story when I think on today’s Gospel Parable of the Sheep and Goats. It’s so easy to say, Whom are you going to believe, Jesus, or what I tell you he meant? There are millions of Christians – whom I call “Rapture Christians” – who simply ignore the plain teaching of what Jesus says. How do they do this? They simply say it doesn’t apply to them. It applies to other people, or to another time and place! Nice and quick way to avoid the plain meaning. You can’t argue with people who simply refuse to accept what’s in front of them.

But it’s much worse than that. Most Christians in one way or another have substituted their own beliefs for what Jesus says. Most Christians – including Orthodox, Catholics and most Protestants – think the most important thing is what we say about Christ, rather than what he said!

But pay attention. The Lord will gather THE NATIONS! He says nothing about what they believe, what the religions of the nations might be. He will gather the nations and will separate them according to what they have done. Deeds – not creeds!

Look what Paul wrote in Romans ch. 2:

For he will render to every man according to his works… There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

“The Jew and the Greek” was just shorthand for saying everyone. If Paul were writing today, he might have said, the Jew and the Muslim, the Jew and the Buddhist…

The judgment is universal. Jews, Christians, Muslims, have similar ideas about God’s judgment. They might not agree on many things – but they do agree about judgment. And the bottom line is how we practice our faith! That is why Jesus said “the nations”.

41t4vjn9hzlI’ve been reading a book about Thomas Merton’s relationship to Judaism.

Merton: If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.

Martin Buber: I have “felt Jesus from my youth onwards as my great brother.” … “we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him.”

This is a provocative statement, even arrogant on the part of Buber, and it took a while for it to sink in. But when it did, I had no disagreement with it. And the Jesus who spoke to us today is Buber’s brother!

Buber quotes a tale told by Rabbi Hanokh:

There was once a man who was very forgetful. When he got up in the morning it was so hard for him to find his clothes that at night he almost hesitated to go to bed for thinking of the trouble he would have on waking. One evening he took paper and pencil and as he undressed noted down exactly where he put everything he had on. The next morning, he took the slip of paper in his hand and read: cap – there it was, he set it on his head; pants – there they lay, he got into them… and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well, but now where am I myself?” he asked in great agitation. “Where in the world am I?” He looked and looked, but it was in vain that he searched; he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us,” said the rabbi.

Where am I? I might have all my beliefs in place. I might think of myself as alright with God. I’m Orthodox, after all, I’m not a heretic. But where am I? Am I missing the most important thing? Jesus’ parable today tells me that I am where he is! I will find myself where I will find him: In you, in my neighbor, in the homeless, in the stranger, in the refugee.

That’s the true power of Jesus’ words – and his words shatter all our conceptions of what religion is. And that’s why he says, “the nations” – because our beliefs are not our own, they are the beliefs of our tribes and national/ethnic identifies. But Jesus shows us a higher identity – an identity of truly transforming power.

But I will give the final word to Thomas Merton:

The message of the Bible is that into the confusion of man’s world, with its divisions and hatred, has come a message of transforming power, and those who believe it will experience in themselves the love that makes for reconciliation and peace on earth.