Just Like Other Men: My Kick in the Pants from Thomas Merton


Sometimes, you need a kick in the pants.

And sometimes you get one.

Mine came a few nights ago, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee famously says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men”. He even goes so far as to single out the Tax Collector praying in the corner nearby [especially not that guy- he’s the worst].

The problem with this Pharisee isn’t that he’s super religious, or too fastidious about keeping the Mosaic Law. The problem is the focus of his relationship to God: not his own sin and repentance, but to publicize and judge the sins of others, justifying himself by comparison (to people rather than God).  He’s not the only one: politicians do it, social media opinion leaders do it. And I do it, too.

After Bible Study this week, we had a discussion about not judging or shaming others for their failings, and meeting people “where they are” in their spiritual journey. We agreed that it was important to consider someone’s progress in terms of where they started, rather than where they currently are [for example, a person who had to pay his way through school and got average grades did not necessarily “do worse” than someone who made all As, but had everything paid for]. Feeling energized by the discussion, and filled with what I perceived to be righteous indignation, I said to my priest:

I just can’t stand those Bible-thumping, judgmental, Pharisaic religious fundamentalists!

After allowing me to vent for a few more moments,  and acknowledging where my feelings were valid, he calmly replied,”The trick is, we cannot judge the Bible-thumpers either.”

My brain then connected the following dots:

Wait. You mean judging people for being judge-y is still. . .judging them?

Yes it is. While there are many social and religious problems going on in the world and it is right to be concerned about them, my broad categorization of all people who come from a more fundamentalist religious background as judgmental Bible-thumpers, is in fact something a judgmental person would do [especially in light of the fact that I grew up thumping the Bible louder and prouder than most].

I was definitely humbled. Then- at Fr’s suggestion- I read the following passages by Thomas Merton:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. . .If a man has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to be black or white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to belong to my political party or social group before I can love him, if he has to wear my kind of uniform, then my love is no longer love because it is not free: it is dictated by something outside my self. It is dominated by an appetite other than love. I love not the person but his classification, and in that event I love him not as a person, but as a thing. I love his label which confirms me in attachment to my own label. But in this case, I do not even love myself. I value myself not for what I am, but for my label, my classification. In this way I remain at the mercy of forces outside myself, and those who seem to me to be neighbors are indeed strangers for I am first of all a stranger to myself. – from Merton’s discussion of “The Good Samaritan”, emphasis added

The sin of classification is not the observing of basic differences, or in the preference of one ideology to another. The problem comes when I use someone’s classification as my reason for loving them (or not), rather than their humanity. This is convenient for me, since using their humanity as a reason to love them would mean I had to love everyone.

So do I choose to love everyone- regardless of how I or the society I live in (or ideology I agree with, or Church I go to) classifies them? Or do I only love people I like?

Okay, okay. I get it, Brother Tom. Kick administered to pants. But Merton wasn’t done dishing out the humble pie. The second thing I read that night was part of the account of his Louisville Vision, an epiphany he had about mankind while walking down a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky:

In Louisville, at the corner of fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation, in a special world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate and holy existence is a dream. Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others. (Merton, March 18, 1956, emphasis added)

What if- instead of the Pharisee’s approach-I took this one. What if this prayer- thank you God that I am just like other men- was in my heart, and realized in my life? What would that prayer look and sound like? And better yet, how might God dare to answer it?

 

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