The Middle and the Marginal
Sometimes my ideas for an inspirational reflection come in odd ways. The idea for this piece originated in the classroom. We were discussing a section from Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk, which is one of my favorite books. One of her paragraphs made reference to the French phrase, point vierge. Because I have read her book a number of times, I am familiar with the term. And I also know that Thomas Merton, my favorite monk used the phrase in a very significant way.
The French phrase is translated in various ways. Literally it means the “virginal point.” It suggests that time at dawn---the breaking of the new day---when the light is just beginning to appear. It is the point where night meets day. It was used by Merton to talk about “the still point.” All this I knew, but I was still curious about the phrase. So I chased my curiosity a little further. I turn to Google, which magically and efficiently makes so much information appear.
Many of the informational leads took me to something in Merton. Much of this I already knew. At some point I landed on a very interesting piece of writing by Albert J. Raboteau, a Religion professor at Princeton. The title of his work captured my attention: “A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Again, I know some of the history of Merton and King. Ironically, they both tragically died in 1968 in the very prime of their lives and careers.
Merton was living the life of a reclusive Trappist monk in the middle of Kentucky and King obviously living a much more visible life in Atlanta and traveling over the South. Both men were leaving distinctive marks on their world. And plans were well underway for King to visit Merton at Gethsemani, the monastery, in the very near future. That visit never happened. So there are many interesting lines of inquiry when we think about these two men.
It was at this point I read one of Raboteau’s paragraphs. “Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Catholic monasticism and Black Protestantism, two very different locations and two very different traditions and yet, they did share a common trait -- marginality.” This is such an interesting and insightful idea. Indeed, they both were marginal men. By contrast I have spent virtually all of my life right in the middle---the middle of my culture and my world.
Eagerly, I read further. “Monks were marginal by profession; they had rejected the ‘world.’ Blacks were marginalized by discrimination; they were rejected by the dominant white society.” One was marginalized by choice. The other was marginalized by accident---the accident of being born a black man. But the marginalization they shared in common. And it helps me understand why they shared a vision for what the world could become.
I continued to read the amazing paragraph. “Both monasticism and the black church were profoundly extraneous to the priorities and to the values of America in the 1950s.” I can remember the 50s, although I was young. In those days I knew almost no Catholics, certainly knew no monk or knew nothing about monasticism, and was first-hand acquainted with the still overt racism of the day. And yet because I was in the middle of my culture and world, I assumed the way I saw things was perfectly normal and acceptable. I did not have the “eyes of marginality.”
Raboteau led me further to see. He says, “Marginality provided Merton and King with the critical consciousness necessary for radical dissent from the religious and political status quo. Moreover, the contemplative tradition within monasticism, and the prophetic tradition within Afro-American religion, furnished Merton, the contemplative, and King, the prophet, with the spiritual insight necessary to articulate convincing critical analyses of society and the religious experience necessary to ground their prescriptions for social change in personal authenticity.” It was at this point I began to understand.
I understand to be part of the status quo is the fate for those of us in the middle. It is not inherently bad. But it is limited and, often, myopic (nearsightedness). Most of us who grow up “normal” are also “middle people.” One of the functions of authentic spirituality is to take us to the margins. Jesus describes this process when he told the disciples to deny themselves, take us their cross and follow. The Apostle Paul uses the image of dying to the old self in order to walk in the newness of life.
I know for myself part of me wants a spirituality that makes no demands. I sometimes only want a spirituality that leaves me comfortable in my status quo. People like me in the middle usually have quite a bit at stake to get serious about being spiritual. We are not willing to be prophetic like Merton and King. And yet something in me wants to read and take these two guys seriously.
Maybe I am ready to live in the middle and occasionally visit the marginal. At least that would be a start. It will take some practice, some patience and some grace.