Sunday, November 9, 2008

Words

“Nonviolent Himalayan bees: after one had lit on me quietly three times without stinging, I let it crawl on my head a while, picking up sweat for some eclectic and gentle honeycomb, or just picking up sweat for no reason. Another crawled on my hand and I studied it. Certainly a bee. I could not determine whether it was stingless, or just well behaved.[1]

I can stand to take a lesson from the Himalayan bees that Merton encountered on his trip. They showed up unannounced, traveled around his personal landscape, picked up something they were apparently interested in, and then went on their merry bee way. Merton knew that he had been visited. Both Merton and the bees benefited by the encounter. Merton wasn’t stung. The bees weren’t smacked.

It’s really hard for us humans to always say things in a way so that those who hear us feel no sting in our words. Try as we may, even well intentioned words, the best well intentioned words, always possess the potential to be misunderstood, hold the possibility to inflict rather than heal, repel rather than attract, divide rather than unite.

Words. They are the best and the worst that we have to offer. We do need to be careful how, when, and where we say things but, at the same time, I can’t help but to think that a greater tragedy occurs when we consciously dumb down what we are saying simply for the sake of not upsetting anyone. That is, in my opinion, as great a tragedy as scourging and scathing with words, a weapon that I was once proficient with in my earlier fundamental tradition, a practice that I am no longer at all fond of.

Merton’s bees were still bees. They did not change their character simply because they were walking around on a strange head or hand. I’m not an authority on Himalayan bees. Perhaps they were a kind that was stingless. Perhaps, in the Himalayas, the bees had no reason to fear Merton even though his appearance in the flesh was obviously not one they were accustomed to seeing.

In an informal talk given in Calcutta, Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”[2]

This, I think, is the true quest of monastic spirituality … to discover and recover the true essence of who I am and to live in the aroma of this essence. There will always be an assortment of fragrances wafting about me as I pursue this quest, some of them not so pleasant to others, particularly those fragrances that have a way of defining existing and unavoidable dogmatic, doctrinal, and theological differences.

These important differences in one another, undeniably discerned through spoken and written words, demand to be respected more than they deserve to be ridiculed and defied. These differences, though more often serving as polarizing agents, offer an opportunity for dialogue, an opportunity for friendly discussion[3], an avenue that leads toward a deeper understanding, the most fruitful pathway that leads toward recovering our original unity.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 53
[2] ibid, p. 308
[3] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Section A, para. 2