My wife and I watched the BBC documentary on Pope John Paul II and the female philosopher.
His long intellectual and emotional friendship reminded us of a Sunday picnic at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1971.
The most famous member of that abbey, Thomas Merton, had died nearly three years earlier, in Bangkok, on his journey outward from the rolling hills and cheese production and long silences, but he was still a presence, the reason we were there.
A few members of the Merton society, new friends who had welcomed us to Louisville, invited us to visit the abbey on Sunday, when the Monks, Merton’s peers, were allowed to speak, to meet visitors.
We were not prepared for the rush of energy from five monks, who mingled with us on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon.
They were polite to me, eager to talk to my wife, who had packed a picnic basket.
“They wanted to talk to me, not formally, just ‘It’s my turn now.’” Marianne recalls. “I probably spent 10-15 minutes alone with each of them, one on one.”
I remember being escorted on a tour of the abbey – the sparse rooms, perhaps a chapel, the rooms where they made cheese. They kept me busy. I understood.
“They all said how much they missed talking with women,” my wife remembers. “They said they laughed differently with women than with men. They talked about their mothers and their sisters. One man said he felt sad that he would never be a father and wanted to know what it was like to raise children.”
Four decades later, she fondly remembers these men acknowledging the gap in their lives, the part they had given up for their spiritual mission.
Merton was the man in the room who wasn’t there. He was the worldly member, born in the Catalan corner of southwest France, shuttled around Europe, studied at Columbia University in New York City, lived, explored, thought, wrote, was refused the priesthood because of his worldly past, so he became a monk, seeking peace and quiet.
He became a celebrity through his writings, met the Dalai Lama, and then, quite apparently, while recuperating in a hospital in Louisville, had a brief affair with a young nurse. He was in Bangkok, when he died, electrocuted by faulty wiring on a fan, as he left the shower, far from the quiet abbey in central Kentucky.
There is no moral to this, no talk of sin or weakness, no screed against celibacy, against monasticism. Merton needed to speak out against war, against injustice.
The former Karol Wojtyla from Krakow expressed himself in a complicated relationship with a worldly married woman, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who lived in America. The documentary said there is no reason to believe they had a physical relationship, and I believe that, from my impressions of him, up close. He was a strong man, in every sense.
I first saw John Paul II in person at a dude ranch outside Mexico City in 1979, on his first journey as Pope. He told us we should regard journalism as a vocation, a calling. I have never forgotten that. He was a force, even when I did not agree with his politics.
I saw him up close again in the fall of 1979 when he was striding across a heritage farm in Iowa, greeting Lutherans. As he moved across the turf, his strength, his stride, his jutting jaw, reminded me of a linebacker stalking a quarterback. (That’s when the security guard elbowed me, said I was getting too close.)
I believe that Karol Wojtyla was quite capable of being Pope and dear friend at the same time, although it sounds as if his friend had other ideas.
The documentary showed their letters and also his sturdy face, even in old age and illness, visibly happy whenever he saw his friend. He reminded me of the monks at the abbey, who told my wife they missed women.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)