Thomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.
The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words. More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life. During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love. Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.
I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat. Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour. Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.
Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.) He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space. It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.
Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation. The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.” They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples. They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.
“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”
Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people? Their behavior turns my mood black. They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.
“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”
Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul. I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion. They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet. But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.
“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”
I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him. And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space. And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves. And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well. I, too, desire to be relevant. I, too, struggle with my ego. I, too, am frail and insecure.
Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with. I don’t want to be like these people. I want to be better. And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.
This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.