A year ago, Scott and I took a weekend cruise. We didn’t do any of the excursions or many of the activities on the boat, but instead spent our four days talking, reading and guiltlessly eating an insane number of Guy Fieri burgers every day (if you’ve been on a Carnival cruise, you KNOW).
I read an entire book on that cruise: Thomas Merton’s memoir, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Merton was a Trappist Monk in the mid-20th century who’d lived a colorful life before converting to Catholicism and moving to a monastery, where he took a vow of silence, labor and poverty. His memoir is a beautiful and compelling coming-to-faith story. It was unlike any other Christian writing I’d ever read, as it discussed solitude, contemplation, simplicity and all kinds of ideas I’d never even considered being part of Christianity, having come from a faith background that emphasized a lot of doing and going and preaching. There’s nothing wrong with doing and going and preaching, but it’s not the whole picture.
In the epilogue, he discusses the tension between contemplation and activity:
“Contemplation means rest, suspension of activity, withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God and learns something of the secret of His perfections less by seeing than by fruitive love… Activity will only be more perfect than the joy and rest of contemplation if it is undertaken as the result of an overflow of love for God in order to fulfill His will. It is not to be continuous, only the answer to a temporary emergency. It is purely for God’s glory… there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life and to pass the fruits of your contemplation to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.”
I loved reading about Merton’s time at his monastery. He gave up his life and all its potential in pursuit of God, having no ambitions to pen a bestselling memoir at the time. The point of a monastic life is to deprive yourself of worldly pleasures and pursuits in order to see God and your true self more clearly.
It never occurred to me that God could use simplicity and stillness or that he would rather us do the thing that brings us closer to Him rather than the thing we imagine would bring others closer to Him. Reading this book gave me permission to begin the slow process of unbusying myself and accepting God’s love for me apart from my spiritual performance.
I wanted a quote from Merton in my home, and I found one on Etsy that so perfectly described the life I craved, but had no idea how to create. I was running myself ragged mothering, working for a church, operating a side business, socializing constantly and volunteering for just about anything without giving it a second thought. I was addicted to busyness and fueled by pride, none of it truly centered on God. I bought the print, framed it and hung it on the wall, breathing a quick prayer that maybe He could help this quote become true for me one day.
“Let us come alive to the splendor around us and see the beauty in ordinary things.”
About a month later, I took it down when we moved.
Fast-forward a year. Since I bought that print, we’ve moved to a new state, experienced seven months of a tight budget when our house wouldn’t sell, observed Lent, had a second baby and now… are quarantined because of a pandemic.
There are no date nights. No vacations. No volunteering. No gatherings. No church. No escape.
All I have left are ordinary things.
There is a lot of labor, stillness and solitude in the life of a mama cut off from the outside world. In many ways, my home is like my own little monastery. But instead of dirty fingernails from working the land or a schedule occupied with praying seven times a day, my cuticles are cracked from repeated hand washing and my schedule is filled with feedings, naps and diaper changes.
Just as Merton found deep contentment in a humble life of monasticism, I have the opportunity during this time to come alive to the simple splendor around me—my baby’s smile, my toddler’s silliness, a hot cup of coffee in the morning, an Epsom salt bath, the flowers blooming along my walk route, a belly laugh with my husband, a quiet moment of prayer.
I have a choice during this season: I can relish the simple joys right in front of me, or I can be miserable, waiting for a future that is uncertain or longing to return to a past that is impossible to recreate. There’s something about being forced to live in the present during this pandemic that can open our eyes to simple joys of right now that are normally hidden by our anticipation for our plans next Tuesday or our vacation in a month.
As Daniel Tiger says, I think I’ll do my best to “enjoy the wow that’s happening now.”
What about you?