“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”
I am reading Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton: “Living With Wisdom.” I have never read any of Thomas Merton’s work. It seems my journey has led me through communities that were not Merton readers. I knew people who read Merton, but they always seemed to be people who were on a path quite different from mine. Consequently, I early on developed a distrust for Merton (having never read him myself). There is, for me, a stinging irony in this, for I developed this distrust for Merton during a period of my life in which I somewhat prided myself in not rejecting an idea before I understood it. During that period of my life I read a great deal of what is called “theology” from perspectives as far ranging as Evangelical to liberation and “God is Dead,” and from feminist and gay perspectives to the Institutes of Calvin. But Thomas Merton I didn’t bother reading. What a pity.
I am only halfway through the biography. Merton has now become a Cistercian monk and become successful in his writing (about 1949). Throughout the book, Jim Forest highlights interesting quotations in the margins that give a flavour of Merton’s reflections on or during the season of his life that is being discussed in the main text. One of the quotes sent me into a reverie, and I felt I had to write about it. This quote seems perfectly to capture how I and perhaps many of us experience our inner life. The quote is this: “I find myself traveling to my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”
This metaphor of Jonah is quite fitting for my experience. I resist God thinking that I know better, thinking that things should be reasonable, make sense, should line up. It is as if reason and a sense of “how things ought to be” is the ship on which I flee God’s ridiculous (in my eyes) calling. It is not so much that I know God wants me to do a certain thing like “go preach to Niniveh” and I don’t want to do it (although that can sometimes be the case). Rather, most often, it is that I cannot be at peace with where I am right now and with how things are right now. I can’t accept that God is present right now in this mess and that it is here that He has called me to trust Him. It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be on the ship where everything makes sense, where everything fits into a plan that I understand. However, instead, I have been thrown into the sea and swallowed by Paradox as by a great fish.
I am trapped amid many paradoxes, as in the belly of a sea monster. I am a priest and the father of a community, yet I am also married and have a wife and family of my own. I am looked to as a spiritual father, yet I am an infant when it comes to spiritual things. I am surrounded by great pain and great beauty at the same time. I say one word and it sets someone free, and to someone else my words are only annoying—and I seldom can tell the difference. I strive to live as an ascetic and friend of the poor, but I reside in a million dollar house. I love to rise early and pray, but I also like to stay up late to watch football. I am trapped in the belly of a monster called Paradox.
In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the sea monster plays a significant role. It is the theme of the sixth of the nine odes that are always sung at matins. And particularly, Jonah’s prayer (2:3-10), is read every Friday morning (in monastic contexts): “I cried aloud in mine affliction unto the Lord my God, and He hearkened unto me; out of the womb of Hades You heard my cry and my voice.” When we are swallowed by a sea monster (literally or figuratively), we find ourselves in the womb or the belly of Hades. I imagine that I am not the only person who can relate to this.
Another important liturgical aspect of Jonah’s experience in the sea monster is that it is a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and resurrection on the third day. On Holy Saturday, we read the entire book of Jonah along with other Old Testament passages during the vesperal Liturgy while the baptisms are taking place. We descend into the water of baptism and are swallowed by the deep—just as Jonah was swallowed by the sea monster. And then three times we rise again in the Resurrection of Christ—just as Jonah was spat forth from the sea monster “like a babe from the womb,” or so the Paschal canon puts it. We die and rise with Christ in Baptism, but our Baptism is not the end of the story. Like much in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, things repeated thrice signify a pattern of life. Baptism is an initiation into a life of dying and rising, a life of finding oneself enclosed in the depths of Hades, in the belly of Paradox, only to cry out to God there, from the midst of the monster, from the depths of Hades. We cry out to God in the midst of the pain and the paradoxes that make up our life.
We have no clean life or straight path to offer God, nothing reasonable or neat. We have to pray here, where we are now. We cannot wait to pray. We cannot wait until things are better, until we better ourselves. We have tried and we know that we cannot fix ourselves, much less can we fix the craziness of the network of relationships and responsibilities we find ourselves in, the paradoxes that have swallowed us. Like Jonah, we can only cry out from the belly of the sea monster, the womb of Hades, and wait, wait for God to save us.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said famously, “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” I think one of the Hells (or perhaps a better way to put it is one aspect of Hell) that he is referring to is the monster of the life that has swallowed us, a life full of pain and paradox. The Hell of our life is real. We cannot pretend it is not a mess. But the Resurrection is real too. God is real. Prayer is real—even, perhaps especially, from the belly of a sea monster. “How long O Lord, how long?” This is the prayer of the Psalmist and the Prophets, and it is the prayer of the saints in the book of Revelation: How long O Lord?
The scripture says that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years. We cannot put God on our time schedule. What does three days in Hades feel like? How long does it last? How long,O Lord? Ours is to pray and wait: to pray and wait and hope. And hope is often nothing more than a stubborn refusal to give in to despair. And yet there is mercy. There is beauty amid the ashes. There are moments when hope even buds into something that looks strangely like faith. God is good, even in tragedy. Mercy is present, even in suffering. Jesus descended into Hell so that we would know that there is no place where His presence is absent: not even in the belly of a sea monster, not even in a life full of pain, not even in a life full of paradox. In fact, as with Jonah, it is this very sea monster that we find ourselves trapped in that is carrying us to the place God wants us to be.