“Everything that is, is holy,” wrote the renowned monk-in-the-world, Thomas Merton, everyone’s favorite chatty Trappist. (Fortunately, after he took the order’s traditional vow of silence, no one could shut the man up over the 80 or so books and thousands of letters and journal jottings that subsequently came out under his name.)
I was put in mind of that phrase on a hike through the park midway through this fine Friday afternoon, the kind of luxury I have mostly denied myself over these working years, a denial that Merton very likely would have chastised me for.
Out in ridiculously unseasonal 70-degree weather under soft breezes and shifting, wispy clouds, it is easy to think that humankind was made to be outdoors, breathing deeply and letting thoughts emerge and waft along as they will.
Sure, we need shelter from the elements when the night turns cold or the days nasty, but at base, it is a rare person who is not perfectly, almost preternaturally content ambling along a dirt path under the trees, far from the press and mind-clutter that so frequently attend our work and daily lives.
Out here, beholding the stark peaceful beauty of trees and rocks in all their glory and decay, we feel a certain rightness, an “Ah yes, but of course, this, this is what it’s about! Why do I keep forgetting that?” So we yearn again for more time, more connection with nature, more conviviality with loved ones, more more more of the deep body-and-soul satisfactions that transcend so much else that divides us from each other and our own deep selves.
“It is not true that the saints and the great contemplatives never loved created things, or had no understanding or appreciation of the world, with its sights and sounds and the people living in it. They loved everything and everyone.”
That’s Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, reflecting a world-embrace quite in keeping with the kind of poet’s eye and radical sociability he brought to bear on his own life.
“Loving everything and everyone” has to be somewhat qualified, of course. Who in their right mind or with an ounce of conscience can possibly love violence and starvation? But to feel love and compassion and a kind of tenderness for the all-too-human plight of those caught in such snares is to take the broader view of the saints and their bowing down to all that is, all the reality that presents itself to us, without dismissing the reality of suffering and resorting to the implied relativity of Shakespeare’s famous pronouncement via Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Out on a park trail or along a shore or even wandering amidst an unfamiliar urban landscape of startling vertical concrete, our minds enter freespin, we feel spaciousness forming between muscles and vertebrae, matter and mind, and we get to thinking it really could be different, it certainly feels different right now. And that maybe we won’t go back this time, or we’ll at least go back in a different way, as the person we really are, the person out on this trail where so much makes such complete quiet sense. We’ll free ourselves, if not right away, then soon, from that same ol’ same ol’ (job, addiction, hurt, anger, relationship, self-doubt, way of looking at things…).
And the question hangs there, listening for an answer among the whispers of the trees: “Am I just high, or is this the real deal?”
With eyes freshly open and a heart requiring just steps into the park to feel your reset button engaged, you look more closely, breathe more deeply, feel more piercingly the super-reality that hums along barely at the edge of consciousness. You see a subtly curving trail, a caterpillar, a shaft of light, a downed tree, a play of shadow, an abandoned baby carriage, careening youth cyclists, struggling fish at the end of a hook, and you know the truth about things, their inherent beauty and integrity, their sadness and grace, the eternity they carry within them for their short duration on this earth.
And you are glad.
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Footnote to Howl,” complete with a few holy obscenities, is rendered worshipfully here:
Rotating banner photos at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Park photos by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
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