Fire Watch

Thomas Merton’s epilogue to The Sign of Jonas is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and profound texts he has ever written:

The voice of God is heard in Paradise: “What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all. What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin. What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away. What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance and within what was not I AM."

Jonas, the reluctant prophet with whom Merton identifies himself, is an image of death and resurrection. The text eloquently describes the radical intensity of both terms. What is dead is truly dead; what is alive is truly alive.

These lines were written on July 4, 1952, when Merton was on the fire watch at Gethsemani Abbey, relative early in his monastic life. He would evolve in many ways over the subsequent years, ceasing to demonize the world and becoming involved in the civil-rights movement and Christian pacifism. He would also discover Eastern Christian spirituality as well as non-Christian Asiatic traditions. He would fight with his abbot, fall in love with a nurse and become a sort of lightening rod both inside and outside his monastery. Yet God would not let go of Jonas. In October 1968—a few months before his death, Merton gave a talk in Calcutta:

The only ultimate reality is God. God lives and dwells in us. We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God…to pierce through the irrelevance of our own life, while accepting that our life is totally irrelevant in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is something that can only be received, not something we grasp or possess. It is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; a gift from God and a gift from others.

Many years ago I assisted at a class of Abbé Journet where he commented upon the Miserere. There had recently been a corrective retranslation of the Vulgate and in the opening verse of this psalm the original text was “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your great Mercy." The revised version dropped the adjective “great” and Abbé Journet was indignant. He needed God’s great mercy, not his little mercy and thought we all did!

What Merton expresses on a very personal level also holds true, I believe, on an ecclesial level as well—as a basic attitude of great humility and great hope. The gifts of God are such that they can wipe the slate, make nonexistent all that is impure and unworthy in us and make us pleasing unto God—almost in spite of ourselves. This would not be too different from the message of mercy that is becoming one of the trademarks of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

Also by this author
Unlikely Prophets

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