It’s Easter Monday here in Australia, and after a lovely day yesterday driving along Victoria’s beautiful Great Ocean Road, we’re having a quiet day at home. I spent some time this morning enjoying a coffee (long black, made in a plunger – whenever my friends visit and try my coffee they politely refuse any refills and never manage to finish a whole cup, which suggests to me that my preference for dark and slightly bitter drinks isn’t universal – but it but it works for me!), and reading more of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation (1961). I’m reading a 2007 edition by New Directions Books, New York, with an introduction by Sue Monk Kidd.
Merton is one of those writers I simply cannot read in one sitting. A single paragraph from him can be so laden with rich meaning and depth that more often than not, I might make it through about three pages before I have to set it down and journal my thoughts as I read. I have a notebook set aside for taking notes and quotes from books – that’s a useful habit that I picked up in my university days. I know everyone learns differently, but for me I find that handwriting quotes and my own personal responses to a text enables me to delve more deeply and memorise pithy sayings. By writing it down I tend to remember it and be able to plug it into the neural networking system… I vaguely expect that at some point in my life I will have amassed enough information to categorise everything, ever. I can’t even talk to people these days without running a mental sub-routine that is trying to analyse the content of their speech and apply to them an ontological category: “Hmmm, this person is talking about coffee, but I suspect that they are a member of the … subculture, their religious self-label is … but I think they’re also heavily influenced by … philosophy…” Yeah, I don’t know. The things that amuse different people, I guess.
Anyway, back to Merton. If I were to attempt to share some Merton quotes from New Seeds of Contemplation, I run the very real risk of quoting the entire book. People are probably better off just reading it for themselves; even though Merton is eminently quotable, and the kind of author that would’ve been perfect for the Twitter era, and who I see quoted everywhere from people who possibly haven’t considered the origins of his philosophies (and that’s totally okay, don’t read that as a critique – he espouses a wisdom that transcends theological divisions and that is just wonderful), I personally find that his thoughts are best absorbed in the context of the surrounding ideas. A bit like the Bible, I guess, which in my mind at least is best understood not as a collection of truth sayings that must all be accepted at an equal level of factual integrity, but perhaps as a collection of stories (which may indeed be drawn from truthful historical events, and which have resonant religious and spiritual truths) compiled over the millennia.*
Reading pages 61-62 of New Seeds of Contemplation this morning, I came across this wonderfully relevant Easter passage and decided to sit with it for a while and draw a response to it. I think this is along the lines of what some old friends mentioned they call Bible journaling, though I can’t say I was consciously attempting to jump on board that train. (I admit, though, that Bible journaling looks like a brilliantly creative way to respond to the Scriptures.)
Here’s my illustration (in Faber-Castell fine point felt-tip markers) and the quote. The chapter it’s from discusses notions of holiness, and how too often we like to imagine ourselves as terribly pious and better than others, only to have those self-images shattered when our human imperfections are all-too-often exposes.
Quote (bold emphasis mine):
If I am to be “holy” I must therefore be something that I do not understand, something mysterious and hidden, something apparently self-contradictory; for God, in Christ, “emptied Himself.” He became a man, and dwelt among sinners. He was considered a sinner. He was put to death as a blasphemer, as one who at least implicitly denied God, as one who revolted against the holiness of God. Indeed, the great question in the trial and condemnation of Christ was precisely the denial of God and the denial of His holiness. So God Himself was put to death on the cross because He did not measure up to man’s conception of His Holiness… He was not holy enough…
I sometimes wonder if my sense of Easter is almost skewed in terms of its seasonal resonance. In the northern hemisphere, people mark it as a spring festival, reminiscent of the Pagan Ostara and its rabbit and hare symbolism. The obvious link is that the risen Christ is like the awakening of new life that springs forth in nature. But here in southern Australia, Easter falls in autumn, more akin to Mabon, which is a pagan season of final harvest and spiritual mourning, reflection and storing foods before entering the darkness and hardships of winter. The Bilby, an endangered Australian native animal that resembles a rabbit in many ways, has been adopted as a kind of native symbol for the Easter season. I wish I knew more about the Indigenous Australian seasons for our area so that I could link it to their knowledge of native flora and fauna’s seasonal cycles – how does one note autumn when the native flora doesn’t lose its leaves before winter? I just read that the Gariwerd peoples of western Victoria gathered in their villages around this time, and noted the ripening berries and the flowering of the heath, the young bandicoots leaving the pouch, the tadpoles in the ponds, and the masked lapwings gathering in flocks.
I love autumn, by the way. The temperatures are far more gentle than the summer and winter extremes. My allergies settle down. The bird song changes very subtly from their summer melodies. The lemons start turning yellow and the baby mandarines are appearing on the tree. The veggie garden is a complete mess after summer but the warm soil and the kinder sunlight mean that it’s easier to get out there and work on it. The school year has settled into a rhythm, now that the season of celebration and perpetual socialising dies down, and for the next few months the days and weeks usually take on a bit more of a predictable stability.
*I read a great article this morning that touched on that. See it HERE at the Brazen Church blog. On a similar note, as I read it I pondered the question I have posed to myself several times recently: ‘Why am I still a Christian?’ I would like to blog about it but at this moment the language to adequately discuss it eludes me.