I have been reading a book by one of my favorite monks, Thomas Merton. As many would know, Merton has been around in my life for quite some time, even though he died in 1968. I never met Merton, although I feel like I know him. He wrote quite prolifically before his untimely death in his early 50s. One book I had never read is The Sign of Jonas.
In this book Merton used the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, as a kind of alter ego. Many of you will know Jonah as that prophet whom God chose to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Babylonian empire. Instead of obeying God, Jonah took off in the opposite direction! He climbed aboard a ship, which soon ran into bad weather. Feeling like he was to blame, Jonah was tossed into the sea, upon which he was swallowed by a giant fish. Symbolically, he keeps getting farther away from and deeper from God. This is an interesting comparison for Merton to be making.
I don’t want to focus on any particular content from the book. Instead I was struck again how felicitously Merton is able to turn the phrase in his writing. He uses images and metaphors that capture my imagination. In many ways he writes with a kind of graphic presentation that enables the reader to identify with the material. And then, the reader is able to make the ideas his or her own. It can be quite moving.
Other times, I find Merton to be quite funny. He will say something that makes me laugh out loud. I ran into one such phrase as I was reading today. The selection comes from the year, 1947. He has been a monk at Gethsemani for about six years. He is coming to the point where he makes solemn vows to remain a monk at that monastery for the duration of his life. He tells the reader that he has been spending some time focusing on a different religious order than his own, namely the Carmelites.
The thing he picks up in his reading is the Carmelite focus on poverty. He has high praise for the seriousness with which the Carmelites take up poverty as their ideal. And then Merton says, “…I wish I were poor. Yet I do not want to wish I were poor in a way that might imply that I thought myself rich. I am not rich.” I read along and felt like I understood what Merton was saying, although it did not seem surprising or unusual for a Cistercian like him to be for poverty. I am sure he was not rich.
Then came the sentence that made me laugh. Merton wrote, “I just sit in my little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas, and most of the time they make me slightly sick.” As I reflected on it, I am not sure why I laughed. In some ways Merton is being melodramatic. Then I realized that I laughed because of the way he had expressed himself. It may not be that he is comparing himself to the Carmelites. It may be more the fact that he is expressing the fact that he has some growing and developing to do. I can resonate with that!
Merton uses a graphic image to convey how he sees himself. He pictures himself sitting in his “little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas.” That is a powerful description of his situation, as he assesses it. I am impressed with this description because it would never occur to me to use the image of a “pawnshop.” As with most great images, you get exactly what the point is.
A pawnshop is, indeed, rather second-rate. I get the image of a seedy kind of place. I don’t think I have ever been in a real pawnshop, but from the movies a pawnshop is rather old, musty and exists for the downtrodden. There is nothing in a pawnshop that is first-rate. It is all second-hand kind of stuff. When Merton applies this image to himself, I don’t laugh any more.
Merton talks about his pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas. This poignancy tugs at my heart. In a real way he is saying he has no primary ideas or personal emotions. His ideas and feelings are second-rate---borrowed from someone else. This is a kind of dependency that is not necessarily bad, but is certainly sad. In a way Merton is confessing that he has not yet found his own voice---his authenticity.
Of course, I don’t know whether he meant it this way. But it is how I read him. Perhaps this is because some part of me resonated with the image of the pawnshop. I wonder whether part of me also is not sitting in my own little pawnshop of second-rate ideas and emotions? Am I content with borrowing someone else’s ideas of God, spirituality and meaning in life? Or am I working authentically on my own experience of the Holy One?
Am I pursuing life deeply enough to have my own first-hand engagement with the Cosmic Giver of Life in such a way that I can be transformed into the amazing person God wants me to be? I don’t want to be content playing hinky-dinky spiritual games. I want to be bold for the spiritual gold. Of course, it is not the Olympics. But it is a journey in search for the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t want to settle for some pawnshop of second-rate stuff.