Standing on Our Own Feet

MertonBy Tommy Airey

It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than to be a soldier on the battlefield.
Cornel West

45 years ago, Jim Douglass wrote a little book called Resistance and Contemplation (1972), urging radical disciples to take seriously both the personal and political–what he called “the yin and the yang of the Movement.” In the second chapter, he recounts the last talk that Thomas Merton (photo right) gave, just hours before his death from electrocution in that Bangkok bathtub in 1968. Merton told the story of Tibetan Buddhist monks being driven out of their homeland by Communist revolutionaries. The elder monk tells the fretting younger protege, “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” Merton seized on the utter scandal of that historic moment:

There is no sensitive conscience which can confront the global organization of power today, and its apparently uncontrollable technology, without seeing that the people are indeed drowning. They are drowning everywhere, and they are going down fast. If the horsemen of the Apocalypse continue to gallop faster, there will soon be no stopping their sweep across the entire world, beating into dust and bones every illusion which mankind has managed to sustain to this point in history.

The people are drowning, or more exactly, they are being drowned by a system which submerges humanity beneath enormous power apparently controlled by a few but perhaps by no one. For the sake of everyone’s humanity, a response is necessary. But to respond to the people and to resist the power of that system without a rock to stand on is simply to jump in the water and drown with the people.

Remember the context: some of the most hopeful American leadership ever conjured had just been assassinated. JFK. Malcolm. Martin. RFK. She was also mired in Vietnam. People were drowning, indeed. In the decades since, the horsemen of the Apocalypse, have galloped even faster as politically ambivalent brands of Christianity gathered steam from the trickle-down Reagan years through her post-9/11 triumphalism. As Ched Myers wrote in Binding The Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988):

Gospel radicalism is still dismissed in the metropolises of the West by the dominant ideologies of Christian realism…In its name the four apocalyptic horsemen of empire, militarism, economic exploitation and environmental revolt ride freely over the earth.

In this heightened Apocalypitc milieu, we are faced with the heavy toll exacted. No one escapes imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone the inevitable dysfunction of our family systems, without cultivating counterfeit patterns designed to cope with violations of love and trust. We develop addictions and codependency. We project and scapegoat. We blame and shame. We guilt and manipulate. We control, catastrophize and caretake. We are weighed down by anxiety, depression, fear and panic attacks. We settle into cul-de-sacs of cynicism, apathy, indifference and narcissism. All of this has profound effects, both personally and politically and the structures that traditionally have protected, nurtured and supported us—the government, the churches, the block clubs, our own families—have broken down on the side of the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

Now more than ever, we must listen to the Tibetan monk’s counsel:

From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.

From now on, Sister, everybody stands on her own feet.

The Christian Story resources us with vast amounts of grace, mercy, forgiveness and hope. In this Story, I can own my shit. I can take personal inventory. I can name it: honestly, specifically, gently. I can commit to 12-step meetings, sacred pauses, therapy, yoga, mindfulness meditation, mind-body monitoring, family systems genogram work, lectio divina, theological readings, the Ignatian examen, time in nature. I can release the trauma weighing down my soul. This isn’t “self care.” This is salvation. There’s no need for justifications or excuses for my embarrassing antics. I can embrace a compassionate curiosity: Isn’t that interesting. Why am I distancing right now? What is triggering my compulsion to go to the frig to grab another beer? What in my past is driving all these competitive urges? I wonder what is behind the sudden outbursts of irrational fears?

This doesn’t mean that we just cash it all in, bail on the church and go live in a cave somewhere. What it does mean, however, is that, as we work in the struggle–right there in the thick tension between promise and peril–we devote time and energy towards our own healing and liberation. This is not something we can expect anyone else to do for us. In fact, no one can do it for us. There are a few pastors and healers in our midst. But only a few. What the church needs, what our families need, what our watershed needs, is radical disciples who are willing to travel the deep, dark path of inner work, of personal transformation. In the words of Douglass: this Way is impossibly demanding and incredibly life-giving.

The late Fr. John Main, often credited with doing more than anyone to recover Eastern-style meditation practice lodged deep within the historic Christian tradition, once wrote that practitioners need to face the challenge of living in a culture that swings back and forth between the extremes of triviality and solemnity. Main called for a serious faith that was embodied, patiently percolating over time in the laboratory of meditative practice:

And yet we should dare to imagine that it is possible for a society to exist where compassion takes precedence over judgment, where mercy and forgiveness are the regular currency. But compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love all depend upon that discovery of ourselves and others to be more than machines. This discovery will mean seeing society not as some anonymous body that needs servicing but as a community of persons committed to maturity, to growth, to understanding, to love. But that society cannot be, unless men and women can be found who will undertake the pilgrimage to the bedrock of their own being, who will be prepared to undertake the discipline of discovering their own infinite depths, their infinite capacity for love, for understanding: for God. But it is useless even to talk about God unless the commitment to that journey of self-discovery is there too.

We are not alone. Douglass, Merton and Main—these brothers have helped pave the Way for us. Now, all that’s left for us to do is to stand on our own two feet.

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