“Thomas Merton, the monk and the priest, wrote in 1962 to Abdul Aziz, a Pakistani Sufi Muslim: “I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in this world but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself … My life is in many ways simple, but it is also a mystery which I do not attempt to really understand, as though I were led by the hand in a night where I see nothing, but can fully depend on the Love and Protection of Him Who guides me.” (Abdul Aziz 6 4, 62 HGL 52)” (article by Patrick Collins titled ” Moving beyond his pious views of priesthood…Thomas Merton”
At one time I had a defined role in life – and with that came security and status. Perhaps early in life as a Knight of the Altar I began the grooming process through which the church attracts young boys to the “vocation” – with all the well tuned language about being selected from the many and chosen by none other than “God” to be another “Christ” – or at least to act in the person of Christ and enabled with the chrismed fingers to perform sacramental miracles, on command.
Having morphed from this calling to a more common service – that of “teacher” – I still was able to operate as one who had the goods (this time goods of the mind rather than of the soul) and was able to guide others to aspire to the same level of knowledge and wisdom. I was lucky in that often I had the freedom to “enrich” the programs I taught to bring to young minds a few different non-curricular concerns.
Once after many years away from an all-girl school at which I worked for 10 years, I had a phone call from a former student who was working on a post-graduate degree at York University in Women’s Studies. I suggested to her that such a program would not easily lead to a career, and I asked her why she had gone in that direction. She told me that she had considered me to be somewhat different (as in odd) as a teacher, but after finishing high school she had come to realize what I was doing with some of those “non-curricular” moments. She chuckled as she said that she ended up in feminist studies because of me. There were few moments as fulfilling as that one, with the thought that out there somewhere other students might have been able to move beyond the scripted material and had picked up something that would serve them well in life.
Retirement and age perhaps combine to bring transitions to my way of thinking. I don’t need to be confined and orthodox enough to keep my job and to bring in the required salary for home and family. I would like to think that I was not totally “market driven”, but the reality is that with home and family there were requirements that simply were not negotiable.
This process of disengaging began before retirement – and is certainly not complete. I am amazed at how I have been tied to customs and perspectives that ultimately are not helpful nor true. But being part of the mainstream, one just goes with the flow. As a “Catholic” Christian my knowledge of Judaism was cursory if not infantile. Perhaps I did not know anything about Judaism, but only the traditional canards repeated by Christians over the centuries. In the mid-1990’s I came to know for the first time a Jewish person and to come to know something about him and his culture. Later our family was blessed with the friendship of a most extraordinary Jewish woman, Frania Rubinek, and through her we came to meet other Jews who were Holocaust survivors from Poland. The Holocaust became a preoccupation in my mind and soul, for it was a window to understanding my own faith culture and my community.
I joined many others in the anger movement within the Catholic church – the Coalition of Concerned and Pissed-Off Catholics (as I irreverently sometimes referred to the C.C.C.C. group). There is no doubt there was much and there remains much to be angry about – so the institutional church remains a scandal and a road block for those who seek to be guided by the itinerant preacher from Galilee whose vision was so vibrant and dangerous. Why do I get angry when I read about another church scandal, or another backward pronouncement from some Vatican official? Why do I even read that stuff? Perhaps it is because that is from where I come, and I have not been able to totally “leave”. Out here on the west coast, perhaps more than at any time of my life, I am living among and connecting with many people whose Christianity is not “Catholic” or whose religion is not even “Christian” or who have no defined religion at all. And sometimes they say to me “I thought you gave all that up”. In other words, probably until the day I die I will still think like a Catholic and respond like a Catholic even if officially I do not identify with the organization. It is too much a part of my cultural “genetics”.
I am on a learning curve – and finding it quite exciting to deal with thinking outside the box, even if it is not consistent or connected. Somewhat like Merton I find myself as a pilgrim and an exile in life, but so grateful to be at this stage. I am drawn towards a universality with all others, and other forms of life. I wonder if I had chosen the “Franciscan” way back in 1965, would I have been pulled into a radical following of Francis of Assisi or would I have taken the path of the majority. The call of Francis is so much more relevant today with the environmental concerns and the movement towards a care for the earth. He really was one of the last great radicals in the Catholic tradition, but even in his life time the “message” was tamed and contorted to serve the dominant powers in the Church.
Can this “exile in life” be a blessing rather than a retribution or punishment? It is being forced from the land of convenience and custom in which one has lived his previous life. This exile is still a gentle push into something new – with exciting possibilities and widening relationships.