Tag Archives: flight

A Creative Life

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, teaches how we should relate to a new baby. “The astounding miracles of matrimony, birth and raising a child open a person’s heart and eyes and his ears to see that nothing ‘just happens.’ This experience should awaken any thinking person’s ability to be emotionally moved.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash Tanchuma on the verse וילדה זכר And she birthed a male.’ The Midrash applies the verse, ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ to this. It explains there that the word צורcan be understood to refer to צייר which means one who fashions. In this context the verse is saying that there is none who can fashion like God does. A human makes a picture on the wall. Can it move? Can it breathe? Can it speak? God creates man who moves, breathes and speaks. An expert painter has many types of paint to create a picture. God can create a human from one drop.

“We see from here that one who sees a child should be filled with wonder. Studying a child should bring one to contemplate the works of God. Giving this any thought should lead one to the same conclusion as the Midrash: ‘There is צייר , no artist like God.”

Rav Yechiel Michel Stern pointed out the obvious question on this midrash: “It seems strange that our sages took the verse ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ out of the simple meaning. Usually the word צור literally rock, means forceful or powerful, and does not refer to an artist or fashioner.

“The Maharsha in Berachos answers this question. Since the verse tells us that there is no צור like God it implies that there are others which should be referred to as צור , but they cannot be compared to God. Clearly, here we are speaking not of the one and only Rock, but of a different meaning related to the root צור!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Ultimate Artist”
Niddah 41

In Rabbi Yaakov Menken’s commentary on last week’s Torah Portion Chukat, he addresses the mystery behind the sin that resulted in the death of Aaron and Moses being denied entry into the Land of Promise. For many, trying to comprehend what sin Aaron and Moses committed that was worth so terrible a price is extremely difficult. But we must remember that not only were Aaron and Moses born to accomplish a very high purpose, but we see that the more exalted a person’s holiness, the more is required of them. In other words, the higher you fly, the further you have to fall.

Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a major sin such as murder, adultery or idolatry — and thus the Prophets use severe language, similar to HaShem’s own words that Moshe and Aharon “did not believe” in Him. Just like the anthropomorphic references to HaShem Himself, these passages use language which we can understand, so that we can learn from them, but are not intended to be taken literally at all.

Every human being is just that — human — and no one is perfect. Even as we are humbled by recognition of the heights reached by prophets and great scholars, we should never lose hope, or imagine that those who came close to G-d were truly angels, without inner struggles or difficulties. This is the lesson the Torah brings home to us when attributing unimaginable ‘sins’ to our forebears. And yet it is also incumbent upon us to realize that we could be, ourselves, so close to HaShem that our ‘sins’ would be something we could not even recognize today.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this event in the Bible is nearly impossible for most of us to understand is that the majority of us are not tzaddikim; exceptionally righteous ones. Our worldview does not operate at such an exalted level. In the same manner, this is most likely what made it difficult for Christ’s own disciples to understand him at times and, what continues to contribute to what we often refer to as “the difficult sayings of Jesus” as seen from the perspective of the 21st century believer.

I know most Christians like to think of Jesus as ultimately approachable, friendly, kind, and understandable, but in spite of 1 Corinthians 2:16, we may be forced to admit that the mind of the Messiah is beyond most of us. Even the sins of those lesser than the Messiah but still exalted Holy ones are difficult to comprehend. Hence the following from Rabbi Menken:

On Rosh HaShanah, there is a tradition to go to a body of water and “cast off” one’s sins, as it were, and ask that they be covered over like water covers and hides the fish who swim within it. Many Chassidim have a custom to take bread crumbs along and throw them in, to give physical expression to this idea.

It is said that after a particular Chassidic Rebbe threw crumbs into the water in accordance with this custom, one of his Chassidim bounded into the lake and began to retrieve them. When questioned, the Chassid explained: “what the Rebbe considers his ‘sins’ are Mitzvos where I’m concerned!”

For years, I couldn’t understand this story or its intended lesson. A transgression is a transgression! But then, I heard that the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohein Kagan (perhaps the greatest known Torah scholar of the last century) once repented on Yom Kippur for having wasted eight minutes from Torah study during the previous year.

Can we imagine wasting merely eight minutes in an entire year? I would be extremely happy to say that I had managed to waste no more than eight minutes on a given afternoon! Maybe, maybe I’ve spent a few hours without wasting eight minutes once in my life. Maybe.

It’s impossible to imagine being able to account for every moment of every day, save eight minutes (I would almost be relieved to be told that I had heard this story incorrectly). And this is what the Chassid was saying: for us, it would be a great Mitzvah! The sins of great people occur at such a level of precision, that _reaching_ that level, to be worthy of being judged at that level, would be a phenomenal achievement.

Previously, I momentarily seemed to disregard a passage from 1 Corinthians 2, but I’d like to revisit those words in the context of Paul’s epistle:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. –1 Corinthians 2:12-16 (ESV)

This part of Paul’s letter makes it seem like, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all believers and disciples of the Jewish Messiah should have an equal ability to comprehend the Word of God, as if we were Jesus Christ himself. But do we? If we did, you’d think that the endless myriad of questions I post on this blog wouldn’t exist or would just be rather moot. You’d think instead of the 35,000+ Christian denominations (and counting) that exist in the world, we’d have only one. You’d think that we would all have the identical understanding of God and the very same template for organizing the community of faith.

You’d think God would have finished writing the Word upon our hearts by now. But apparently, He hasn’t.

As we saw in the “Story Off the Daf” from which I quoted earlier, God can be considered a magnificent artist. He fashions each and every one of us miraculously and He has repeated His artistry in an endless progression from the beginning of Genesis until now. He is creating His “paintings” still, and will continue to do so until a point in time we cannot yet even begin to grasp.

And He has created us for many purposes, all of which serve His will. But all that being true, He gave us the gift of self-determination to the point where only a human being may actively and purposefully defy the will of God. In other words, we can take the incredibly wonderful work of art that was created by the hand of God and turn it into the moral equivalent of a velvet painting of Elvis (and I apologize to all of the fans of Elvis Presley and those of you who enjoy velvet paintings).

I can hardly accuse Aaron and Moses of such a sin against God. It is God who held them both responsible for how they chose to treat His “artwork”. And while you and I (or at least I) are not tzaddikim and we do not operate at the level of Aaron or Moses (and certainly not at the level of Christ), we have been created as God’s handiwork to serve a purpose and a goal. We are responsible for what we do with our lives. There are consequences for choosing not to live as we were designed to live.

The end of the lives of Aaron and Moses give us an idea of those consequences. We also have examples such as Nadab and Abihu.

Who are we and where do we come from? Do we have a purpose in life, or is everything we do random and meaningless? Is this all there is or is there something more?

We spend all our lives trying to answer questions like these. Even those of us who adhere to a specific religious tradition encounter great difficulties in answering what should be the simplest questions about our faith. Now we see that these questions and their answers aren’t just meaningless exercises in philosophy. They are what define us, not just as individuals, but as a species. If we are simply the most evolved animals on the planet, then it pretty much doesn’t matter what we do. Go ahead and destroy the physical environment and contribute to our extinction. It doesn’t matter. The planet will eventually recover and even if it doesn’t, so what? We will have exterminated ourselves, but the Universe goes on.

But what if we have been created by the “Master Artist” for a higher purpose? If there are consequences, for good or for bad, for the manner in which we live out our lives, then our every action does matter, our every decision does have an impact beyond that of the moment. Our words, behavior, and feelings are all part of a greater design that contributes to the infinite tapestry of Creation. Each individual life is personally important as an artistic act of God and it matters to Him how things are going for us each and every day.

Just recently, I compared a life of faith to a bird in endless flight. Given the example of Aaron and Moses, we can see how “dangerous” it is to fly as high as they did, because with one subtle failure, they lost their wings and fell back to earth in disgrace. And yet the wonder and majesty that they beheld, especially Moses who spoke to our infinite “Artist” as one might speak to a dear and close friend…isn’t that worth even so great a risk? Isn’t soaring through space, nearing the court of the Mighty One, tasting the excitement, the freedom, the glory of approaching even the tiniest thread of the hem of the living God worth our time, our effort, even our very lives?

The Artist with His brush, puts the finishing touches on His latest painting and looks upon it with satisfaction. The painting, moments away from birth, stares back at the Creator and smiles with gratitude and love.

Then, as a child might send a paper airplane aloft with a single flick of the wrist, we are sent up into the Heavens and born into our lives. May we fly with the wings of an angel and live with the soul of His Image.

Why can’t He provide simple, clear directions and let us just follow His Divine plan? Why does He place these challenges before us, forcing us to make our own decisions, to chisel out our own paths?

Because He desires a home in our world
—not a home manufactured in heaven and transported downward to earth,
but a home made in our world
out of worldly materials,
chosen, designed and constructed
by citizens of our world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Made On Earth”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

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Balancing Flight

These days, my son David and I go to the gym together at about five every weekday morning to work out. This morning, I was on one of the aerobic machines. The last five minutes of a workout, I go into a cooldown mode trying to get my heart rate back down to something more or less reasonable. Often, I’ll close my eyes and imagine that I’m running alone on a path that’s climbing to the crest of a hill. It’s dark, but I can see the light of a new sunrise beckoning ahead of me. The light gets brighter as I near the top. It’s almost as if I can see the breath of God intermingling with my own as we approach each other. I jog toward the crest of the hill but never quite reach it before the timer on my machine gets to zero.

But in the last seconds of my fatal descent from the heavens, I manage to pull back up, avoiding a fiery disaster, and with my wings fully extended and my engines roaring with new life, I begin to climb.

-James Pyles
Climb!

I suppose it’s narcissistic for me to quote myself in order to start another blog post, but I couldn’t think of anything else that fit. OK, how about this one?

I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that’s when it dies.

-Yuddy (played by Leslie Cheung)
from the film Days of Being Wild (1990)
original title, “A Fei jingjyhun”

I’ve never seen this film and probably never will, but when I Googled what I was thinking about, the above-quoted piece of dialog came up. Interestingly enough, I first heard this idea in High School. A fellow in my Creative Writing class (yeah, I was interested in writing even back then) wrote a poem (I think…it’s been forty years) about a bird without legs that was perpetually in flight. Sadly, that’s all I can remember.

But it’s enough.

I had a conversation like this with Boaz Michael at the FFOZ Shavuot Conference last month in Hudson, Wisconsin. During one of his presentations, he was talking about FFOZ being able to “land the plane,” which meant being able to get past the chaos of how various people and groups reacted to their shift away from the One Law theology. The idea was to be able to move on and focus on the primary mission and goals of FFOZ. This includes being able to reach out to the church in an effort to promote a more pro-Jewish message, and reaching out to normative Judaism to promote the Jewish Messiah.

At some point during the conference, I had several opportunities to sit down with Boaz and discuss various topics. One of the things I said is that the plane would never land because there will always be challenges.

I think that’s true of us personally in the realm of faith, too. Once we are introduced to God and realize that we must strive to approach Him, we take flight. But its only when we are in the air that we realize we can never land again. There is no turning back. There is no true sense of rest or peace.

I know that sounds strange, especially to anyone who has a bumper sticker on their vehicle that says, “No Jesus, No Peace; Know Jesus, Know Peace.” But really. You live in a world that is completely hostile to the discipline of religion in general and a Christian faith specifically (I think only Jews and, in some circles, Muslims are more reviled). Once we leave the ground, there are only two options: flight and death.

Sounds pretty grim.

When I say “death,” I don’t mean (necessarily) actually dying but if we choose to leave the faith, we die in terms of being spiritually dead. We no longer have a sense of God. Our relationship with Him is severed. We’ve gotten a divorce.

But considering flight, what a glorious thing it is. Imagine being able to fly without the aid of some sort of machine. Imagine simply extending your arms, raising your head, and realizing that your feet have left the ground. Up, up, up you go. The air is cold and crisp but you don’t feel chilled. Instead, you are invigorated, excited, thrilled. You are sharing the skies with God, seeking Him, soaring up to Him, as a bird might climb high above the clouds to seek out the Sun.

Now imagine that flying is something like running. Eventually all of that flapping will make you tired, just like running a marathon will exhaust you (not that I’ve ever run a marathon). Sooner or later you will want to land, to rest.

And you can’t.

You’re committed. It doesn’t matter how tired you get. It doesn’t matter if you’re exhausted. It doesn’t matter that your wings feel like they’re made of lead and sometimes, you feel as if you don’t care anymore. You just want to rest. Even if you fall. Even if you crash. It’s like Yuddy said:

I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that’s when it dies.

So you can glide. Find a sustaining wind, a jet stream, a thermal and let them do the work. Just hold your wings out and let them catch the air and feel yourself suspended between Heaven and Earth; between life and death.

Isn’t that were we all are right now?

Bette Midler sings the Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley song Wind Beneath My Wings (no, I won’t inflict the YouTube videos on you) and the song ends with:

Fly, fly, fly high against the sky,
So high I can almost touch the sky.
Thank you, thank you,
Thank God for you, the wind beneath my wings.

That last line should probably say, “Thank God, You are the wind beneath my wings.” Without God, how could we sustain such an existence.

We all want to enter into His rest. We all long for the Messiah’s return for just that reason. The character Yuddy said cynically, “I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning,” but if that were true, then faith is in vain. The atheists say that, and they say they are more alive than we are. There are more than a few believers who have been unable to find that updraft to support them, and exhausted and flightless, have collapsed back to earth like a latter-day Icarus, not because they flew too close to the Sun, but because they flew too long with leaden wings. They never found their source or they lost the will to keep seeking out that great imagination.

Now let me tell you a little secret. My wings get tired, too. It isn’t always easy to find a convenient wind to keep me aloft. Sometimes I doze and drift and wake up to find myself in a spiraling descent. I rouse my wings and push and lift and climb.

But sometimes it’s a close call.

Somewhere between Heaven and Earth are the forces that balance flight and falling. I know that God would not have called me into the sky if He only intended me to lose my ability to fly, but like that first generation of Israelites who were called out of Egypt, I sometimes doubt and complain. Like them, I sometimes feel as if God really did call me into the Heavens just to break my wings and send me plummeting back into the mud and tears. Like them, sometimes my faith is shaken. Like them, I fear defeat.

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” –Psalm 95:7-11 (ESV)

What a horrible thought that, after all of this effort, after tiring days and sleepless nights, no rest, no sanctuary, no oasis, constantly encountering resistance and opposition, that when it’s all over, I will not enter into His rest anyway.

So desperately terrified of a flight that never ends even after I have collapsed into shredded bone and flesh, I look around for some sign of another thermal. I try to find a way to let the wind lift me so I can rest my wings. I strive to look for the courage and strength to make it one more day in the air. I hope that God will show me, not just the ponderous effort of flying, but the glory of infinitely ascending across the skies.

Because sometimes, that’s all I have left.

Each journey the soul travels takes her higher.

There are journeys that are painful, because there is struggle. Struggle to wrestle out of one place to reach another, struggle to discern the good from the bad and put each in place, struggle to face ugliness and replace it with beauty. But in each of these, a sense of purpose overwhelms the pain and brings its own joy.

Then there are journeys that seem to have no purpose. Where nothing appears to be accomplished, all seems futile. There is no medicine to wash away the pain.

But every journey the soul travels takes her higher. It is only that in some, the destination is a place so distant, so lofty, she could never have imagined. Until she arrives.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Unimaginable Journeys”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I hope, I pray, I plead that every day is a journey that takes me higher. But the destination is so far away and the effort to reach it is so great. Yet I dare not consider the possibility of falling. I must climb. I must soar. I must fly.

May God, by His grace and mercy, give me the strength. May He grant it to us all.

Burning Alive

“…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:19 (ESV)

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

Psalm 103:13-16 (ESV)

The Apostle Peter had a slightly different spin to Psalm 103:

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for:

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you. –1 Peter 1:22-25 (ESV)

I write these “meditations” a day ahead, so who knows how I’ll be doing by the time you actually read this, but as I’m keyboarding this message, I am very much aware that “all flesh is grass,” (Isaiah 40:6) here one day and gone the next. I’m not feeling very “imperishable.” It’s not a perfect world. Today, it doesn’t even seem to be a particularly good one.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued another call Sunday to free Jonathan Pollard. His appeal came shortly after Pollard was rushed to a hospital.

“The time has come to free Jonathan Pollard. The Jewish people’s holiday of freedom should become his personal holiday of freedom,” the Prime Minister declared.

-by Maayana Miskin
“Esther Pollard: Don’t Make Me a Widow”
First Publish: 4/8/2012, 3:25 PM
Arutz Sheva News Agency

This is only one example of an injustice occurring during one of the most holy times on the Jewish calendar (and I suppose on the Christian calendar too, though Easter has just ended). My “calendar” isn’t exactly filled with joyous rapture these days either. Lots of reasons, though none that I’m prepared to disclose. I wonder if that’s the point, though. Is faith and trust in God, let alone in ourselves, supposed to be dictated in terms of circumstances? Not according to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman (appropriate last name for this Passover, don’t you think?):

Why do we kick ourselves so hard when we make a mess? Because we pat ourselves so nicely on the head when we succeed. As though success and failure is all in our hands.

Yes, we believe. We believe that it is not our talents, our brains, our good looks and hard work that brings success, that everything is in the hands of heaven.

But when we walk out the door into the cold, real world, we leave our faith behind in a world of fantasy.

If we would chew on it a little and allow it to digest before we went through that door, if we would let it sink into our minds and our hearts, then it would be more than faith — it would be a vision, an attitude.

It would be more real than even a dollar bill.

Although Freeman’s message is more oriented toward comparing the spiritual to the commercial (hence the “dollar bill”), the fact that we kick ourselves when we’re down and pat ourselves on the back when we’re up seems to show how the center of our reality is us rather than God. If, when life deals us harsh blows or when life grants us lush blessings, we were to consistently turn to God in praise, the condition of our lives wouldn’t really matter, would it?

Then why do we still feel pain and sorrow? Shouldn’t true people of faith be immune to “situationalism” by now? Is that why all the “real” religious bloggers only talk about their lives in upbeat, positive terms, because either nothing bad ever happens to them or bad things never affect them?

It’s often why I take inspirational blogs, religious or not, with a grain of salt.

But speaking of which, another of Rabbi Freeman’s messages states that, “In the heavens is G-d’s light. In the work of our hands dwells G-d Himself, the source of all light.” God is not (supposedly) hiding from us up in Heaven, but He’s right here with us, occupying everything we’re doing, every experience we are having, and perhaps even everything that we’re feeling.

But instead of listening to me kvetch, God has something to say, and He wants me to shut up long enough to hear Him.

There are questions to which G-d says to be quiet, to be still, to cease to ask. The quietness, the stillness, the abandonment of being, that itself is an answer.

-Rabbi Freeman
Be Quiet

It’s tough to abandon my being when the pain from the splinters in my soul and psyche keep bringing me back to myself.

All flesh is grass, especially mine.

Peter failed the Master by denying him three times publicly right before the crucifixion. The disciple upon whom the “church” would be built came to his lowest ebb at that time and in the days that followed. The resurrection of Christ still didn’t heal his wound, and Jesus himself added to Peter’s pain:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. –John 21:15-17 (ESV)

Maybe you don’t see this transaction the same way as I do, but try to picture the scene. Peter is humbled and humiliated at having denied that he had anything to do with Jesus as the Master was undergoing his false trial. His betrayal and shame could only have gotten worse in the hours and days that followed, as Christ was tortured and then slowly murdered upon the cross. No wonder he and the others among the core disciples went into hiding.

Of course Peter ran to the tomb on even the slim hope that Jesus had been resurrected three days later, but that wasn’t going to fix the problem. Yes, the return of the Master from death was a joy beyond measure, but then, as we see recorded in John’s Gospel, Peter had to face his “accuser” again, the man he had horribly abandoned.

The Master asked, “Do you love me?” I wonder if Peter asked this question about his love of the Master. I wonder if he said, “How can I say I love him when I am so guilty?” How could Peter say, “Lord, you know that I love you” in response? How could he love even God when he must have so loathed himself?

Unlike Peter, in my current circumstance, I can’t say that I really failed. I only feel responsible because I’m involved. No one has failed, but when someone you love is hurt and in need, and you struggle to find a way to help and can’t, it still feels like failure. It also creates unbidden tension in other relationships, which serve as a reminder that after all, you’re only human.

I’m only human, and I am grass, cut and thrown into the fire, withering and turning to ash, even as I write.

I am on fire and soon the fire will be gone, and there will be only hot ash and smoke. And then that will cool, and the cold, dry ash that used to be me will be caught up in the breeze, become airborne, and scatter, carried by the four winds.

Even that would be a comfort, but I can’t let that happen because I’ve still got so much to do and have too many people who depend on me.

Though he slay me, I will hope in him… –Job 13:15 (ESV)

But God is gracious. As miserable as things can seem sometimes, He can also lighten the load. A little while ago, God relaxed the pressure He was putting on my skull with His thumb and I’m really grateful that He did. The fire is beginning to die down and I’m still here and in one piece. We may be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), but there’s only so much we can take before we break, or God, in His mercy, takes us off the altar.

Like Icarus, my wings have melted and I’ve fallen to the ground, but my ashes are cooling and pretty soon, I feel like I might be able to rise up from them again.

Maybe this time I’ll get a new set of wings, or maybe God will just heal the old ones.

Unavoidable

It was the summer of 1930, before most of these things had happened…It was several months since I had been in London, and then only in passing, so I had really hardly had seen Father at all since he had entered the hospital the autumn before.

So all of us went to the hospital. Father was in a ward. We had arrived much too early and had to wait. We were in a new wing of the big hospital. The floor was shiny and clean. Vaguely depressed by the smell of sickness and disinfectant and the general medical small that all hospitals have, we sat in a corridor downstairs for upwards of half an hour…

Finally, the clock we had been watching got around to the appropriate hour; we went up an elevator. They all knew where the ward was – it was a different ward. I think they had changed his ward two or three times. And he had had more than one operation. But none of them had been successful.

We went into the ward. Father was in bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.

And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of his living much longer. His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.

I said: “How are you, Father?”

He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.

But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes. Nobody said anything more.

I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor Father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do.

What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

-Thomas Merton
“Chapter Three: The Harrowing of Hell”
pp 90-91
The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith

Reading this part of the chapter doesn’t hurt so much today as it did when I first read it a day or two ago. It doesn’t hurt so much as it did when I read it the day after writing about Joe and Heidi’s latest scene from their cancer battle. Merton was about 17 years old when he visited his dying Father in the London hospital as described above. He had gone through a few vague encounters with religion up to that point in his life, but none yet with God. So as he said, facing his father’s terrible illness and imminent death was like a “dumb animal” facing a tragedy it could not avoid and had no ability to understand.

Does faith make tragedy easier to handle? Joe and Heidi think so. I can’t imagine what that must be like, and frankly, coward that I am, I don’t want to imagine. Who actually wants to face that and have their faith tested? Peter, James, and John had their faith tested at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32:42) and it was found wanting.

My friend Leah said that having faith helps. When her husband died in a sudden accident many years ago, she went around in a fog for the first twenty-four hours, but after that, it was her faith in God and the certainty of the resurrection that sustained her. It was still “the year from hell” in which she grieved terribly, and any hint of joy was fleeting if present at all, but the presence of God was with her the entire time. She was not alone.

I suspect Merton was alone in his grief and sorrow when he visited his father in the hospital, even though he was surrounded by family. God was there too, but no one noticed. No one except Merton’s father, that is.

In fact, if he could not talk, there were other things he could do. One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue note-paper on which he had been drawing. And the drawings were real drawings. But they were unlike anything he had ever done before – pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.

Of us all, Father was the only one who really had any kind of faith. And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired, and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him, and Who gave him, as I believe, light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul. It was a great soul, large, full of natural charity. He was a man of exceptional intellectual honesty and sincerity and purity of understanding. And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even into the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.

-Merton pp 91-92

Merton wrote his autobiography as a young Trappist monk and saw the world and his past through the newly minted lens of his Catholic faith, rather than from the perspective of later in his life as a cleric. I have no idea if, at 17, any of this would have occurred to him, and of course, he had no idea what his father was subjectively experiencing, but his father, a professional artist, was communicating that experience in the only way he knew how. And years later, it’s possible that his son finally understood.

At the time, Merton probably only understood the following, and ironically, decades removed from the event and having lived a completely different life than he, I also understand.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.

-Merton, pg 91

I don’t know if Merton captured the ineffable essence of all human suffering in that paragraph or if, by the grace of God, he managed to actually create in that brief stream of words, a completely accurate description that points to my life as it is today specifically for the sake of my soul, but these words speak to me like no other words that I’ve ever read. In virtually one literary breath, Merton describes my predicament and it’s potential cure. In trying to avoid suffering, I have become the author of my own pain. Every little event is registered as another injury, and my very life, with every beat of my heart, is my greatest agony. Each heartbeat is like another splinter inserted into my eyes, and each breath is constricted by a great hand crushing my lungs.

And the cure is to stop avoiding suffering.

Strange cure, I must admit. After all, who seeks to suffer? Who actually wants their own faith to be tested?

But Peter became a better man after he recovered from denying the Master. Merton believed that, even in terrible suffering, with death waiting for him as close as his shadow, that his father’s soul was becoming better because of his torment. Of course, this is a Catholic’s perspective on the matter, and a 17 year old Merton could not truly assess the condition of his father’s soul, but his father could not avoid suffering and so there he was; drawing “little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos,” and communing with God.

So I went back to school, after seeing Father for a moment on the way through London. I had been back for barely a week when I was summoned, one morning, to the Headmaster’s study, and he gave me a telegram which said that Father was dead.

-Merton, pg 93

And so the great mass of horrible agony and pain is really made up of tiny bits and pieces of frustration and annoyance and sorrow. The missed opportunity to say, “I love you,” the driver that cuts you off on the road, the harsh rebuke from your daughter, the unfriendly chiding of an online critic; these are all filtered through the self and the self-loathing of my existence and my life as I vainly attempt to avoid injury and insult. The harder I try to isolate myself from the “slings and arrows,” the more they strike and stab at me.

Is there some truth after all in letting down my defenses and praying that God stand with me in the face of my own wretched life?

Ironically, it was famed martial arts master Bruce Lee who said, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” On the one hand, I have no control whatsoever, of the seemingly random events of the world around me. But on the other hand, I have a great deal of control about how or if I choose to try to avoid them and, in encountering such events, how I choose to interpret their impact. Am I in pain? It feels that way. Do I have to be? I don’t know.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, interpreting the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, said:

In the morning, we make our plea as though unable to tolerate another moment. And as evening comes, we demand again as though morning never passed.

We live on the verge of eternity. May we arrive now.

We live on the verge of eternity, as if life were like dancing on the edge of a razor blade, running fast and hard, terrified that if we fall, we’ll be cut to ribbons.

But what if we…what if I chose one day, to deliberately fall off of the edge of the razor, but rather than falling headlong into the sharpened metal and being destroyed in bloody shredded flesh…

…I flew?