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Life: a Fragile Thing

It is wonderful when the serendipitous happen.  What this means is I love it when a “gift” comes and I did not work for it nor even see it coming.  That happens more than I probably realized it.  But when I realize it, I can enjoy the moment.  And then, if possible, I can share the moment.

Just such a gift happened last night.  I was doing some “fun reading” which many folks would not consider fun at all.  It was still spirituality-focused.  I have been working my way through the multiple journals of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk who died in the late ‘60s.  I have taught an upper level seminar on Merton’s spirituality, so at one level I have a fair sense of what he thinks.  He impacted me in my early spiritual and intellectual formation and I suppose I will never “get over” him.  Even in his death, he challenges me and reassures me. 

Since the Cistercian monastic life is lived with so much silence and Merton was such an outgoing, talkative type, his journals became his dialogue partner.  So instead of sitting down and chatting with someone, Merton would sit down and “chat” with his journal.  The good news is that we now have those “chats” in literary form. 

So innocently last evening I was reading along---enjoying the conversation with Merton.  And then, boom, came this sentence, which nearly knocked me for a loop.  As the 1960s unfolded, Merton seemed to get an eerie sense of his own death.  He was not an old man yet (turned 45 years old in 1960), but death comes up in his writing with some frequency.  Such was it in this journal entry.

The entry for December 15, 1962 raises the death topic.  He says,“… this sense of being suspended over nothingness and yet in life, of being a fragile thing, a flame that may blow out, and yet burns brightly, adds an inexpressible sweetness to the gift of life, for one sees it entirely and purely as a gift.”  Somehow at a very deep level, I knew exactly what Merton was describing.  It is not a thought so much as a primal experience that is, then, put into words.  I am sure, Merton would say the words are inadequate to the depth of the experience.

There is power in the experience.  As I read it, the experience is being suspended.  There you hang…over nothingness and yet…not yet.  Somehow you know that ultimately nothingness will get you.  And when it does, life is over.  The thing I like about this Merton quotation is both the truth of this experience and the fact that he is not scared. 

I appreciate the next phrase.  He is aware of life “being a fragile thing.”  “So it is,” I exclaim.  Even big, strong guys at some point come to this realization!  And he goes on.  Life is “a flame that may blow out.”  But it has not yet extinguished.  In fact, it “yet burns brightly.”  That is what I so want to be true.  I want my life to be a flame that yet burns brightly.  I don’t want life to be a dull flame.  I don’t want it to flicker perilously, piteously gasping for just a little more oxygen to survive one more day.

Merton ends where I want to begin each day: life is a gift.  This seems to be the basis for blessing rather than desert.  If I can see life as a gift, then I am positioned to see it as a blessing.  If I somehow think I caused life and control life, then I see what I get as what I deserve.  Now that is scary, because at some point things will happen that I probably won’t think I deserve.

I really do think life is a gift.  Thank God!  And at some point I might be suspended over nothingness, but I want to remember I still am in life.  My flame can burn brightly.  Ah, that is the trick of the day.  My flame “can” burn brightly.  That is different than “will” burn brightly.

It is up to me.  Where can I burn brightly today with my life…this fragile thing?    

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