Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal/Theological Notebook: Mourning Chrysogonus; Merton In Love

Slept for about five hours and then couldn't sleep any more. I've been up for a few, now, mostly reading in the sixth volume of Merton's journals, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom. I've been poking through it for about a month now, off and on.

When Chrysogonus Waddell died about six weeks ago, I had to ask myself why it had affected me as much as it did. After all, you could say, I had only been around him a dozen or two times, visits long or short. We hadn't talked in a few years, and he came up between my friends and me in these last few years only when we tossed around the idea of gathering at Gethsemani to visit him and then put it off for another year. Maybe he was more acquaintance than friend? Whatever label one could slap upon the friendship, however you try to quantify such things, if you can or must, it was clear to me when I thought about it, that Chrysogonus was a hugely symbolic friendship for me, beyond just the joy of the man himself.

On one level, he was emblematic of the huge turn in my life that was 1995-96: on the advice of my faculty at Notre Dame, I had turned down all Ph.D. opportunities in order to stick around Notre Dame for an extra year, extending my Master's residency, in order to try to get into Notre Dame's History of Christianity program, for which I had been the runner-up in the spring of 1995, for one of the two positions they had each year. In 1995-96, then, I joined the Notre Dame Folk Choir and found myself moving from a primarily graduate-student circle of friendships to an increasingly undergraduate circle of musicians, a few years younger than me, particularly in the sudden development of my friendships among the Freeks. These would remain among the richest friendships in my life, feeding me in the way that I've always found fulfilling in being around active artists, and introducing me to Chrysogonus along the way. Doctoral studies would be further postponed, for a variety of reasons, but which allowed me to enjoy and strengthen these friendships while I taught in South Bend.

On another level, Chrysogonus was a direct connection to Thomas Merton. That year was my introduction to Merton as well, when I was given the extraordinary opportunity of assisting Professor Lawrence Cunningham in the editing of a volume of Merton's private journals for publication, the 1952-60 journals, eventually published as A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life. Walking around St. Mary's Lake, making notes in the typescript as I read these restricted journals, one of the first ever to do so, was an unusual introduction to Merton, but as a journal-writer myself, one that provoked great sympathy as I began to get used to the fits and starts of his mood, and the rich depths of his thought. Over the years, as I read Merton more, to see Chrysogonus pop in and out of his journals was an odd thing – to have a mutual friend with someone I knew only as a great author was unique in my experience. At the first Chrysogonus Fest, Chrysogonus told a long story at Mark's request, about Joan Baez's visit to Merton, which Chrysogonus was present for much of, and in such ways we would occasionally have a visit from Merton in memory, as a figure in a friend's own experience and "oral tradition."

So Chrysogonus was a symbolic friendship for me in those two ways, I realized. Mourning him, I turned to his own words, listening to his music and pulling out books of his own medieval scholarship, and items dedicated to him, reading in Praise No Less than Charity: Studies in Honor of M. Chrysogonus Waddell, Monk of Gethsemani Abbey, Bernard of Clairvaux: Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Amadeus of Lausanne: Homilies in Praise of Blessed Mary. Then I picked up Merton's journals, paging through some of the mentions of Chrysogonus, which brought me to 1966, and Thomas Merton falling in love.

Merton's journal from this spring and summer is poignant to me, as he is faced with the impossible situation of having fallen in love with a student nurse who had been helping take care of him during his recover from surgery that March. Because they are journal entries, Merton's descriptions here over-emphasize his conflict to the detriment of simply the pure expressions of love, though those are present, as well. His poetry at the time – poems for her – best among his writings capture the authentic feeling he has for what they share, in his estimation. Mostly, though, in these words I find a man working past the difficulties not of loving, but of the often-harder task of allowing oneself to receive love. Mostly, he is discovering that he is capable of receiving such love, in stark contrast to who he was in his youth, with love affairs with young women from whom he was so detached that he can no longer recall their names – memories of callousness that now pained him. The fear, of course, is that that ass is who he really was, and the almost unbelievable thing that Margie is now teaching him, is that, no, he is no longer that person: he did not enter the monastery in order to cut off and suppress his humanity, as the glib accusation against all monastics might have it, but he had gone into the monastery and reclaimed his humanity in the disciplined life of loving God.

But he was who he was: a monk. It was being a monk that made him both someone capable of now truly loving another and of being capable to receive her love, but he was still, inevitably, a monk, and so the thing was doomed in having any formal future. He was capable of loving her, but not of making a life with her: he had made his vows already, not to another lover (other than God, who would have no objections as such to his falling in love with a woman) but to a way of life, and to a community, and that, too, was truly him. Some have been scandalized or embarrassed by this story, in Merton's pushing the bounds of his vows, but it was simply human, and the two of them, despite the pain of their inability to follow through on their feelings, handled it responsibly, all told. Chrysogonus spoke very fondly of her, not that I'm aware that he ever met her, but that he recognized that, in the end, this was a profoundly important episode of his friend's life. It sounded, when he spoke of it with me and Erik, that he saw how, in the end, it enriched the character of Merton's own life, providing in its pain a kind of healing that nothing other than such love could provide.

For a writer dedicated to exploring the inner experience, a contemplative Catholic monk for whom mysticism is a way of life, the sudden experience of simple, pure romantic passion could come as something of a shock, to say the least. Where he was trying to cultivate stillness, he found turmoil, but he recognized that both were aspects of the one reality of love, and so submitted them to the God who Is Love. This last comment is not a piece of theological romance – of decorating the whole in "religious language," but a serious marking of the boundaries of the reality of what had happened in the context as Merton (and Margie, who I understand to be a Catholic believer) would ultimately understand it. For all the people who dislike Merton – as too political, too 1960s Left, too interested in the East, whatever – this is another occasion to write him off as not sufficiently Catholic. Not so. Never was he more Catholic than in having to work out his love for Margie, which he did with a care that tore him to shreds inside, as you can see in the journal (though I see others casting him as dismissive, or even, in the current feeding frenzy, "abusive"). To be Catholic is to embrace the whole, the universal, all of truth, especially those parts we don't like or find uncomfortable. His Catholicism is best revealed in his choice to be most honest and true to her and to himself in the whole of his life, than to deny any part of that complex reality, whatever the gains might have been. I think there's lessons in this story that will provide a service to all who think about the call to love in the priesthood.
Tags: books, chrysogonus waddell, friends-notre dame era, george and the freeks, monasticism, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame folk choir, obituary, personal, priesthood, theological notebook, thomas merton

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