Merton Paper, Intro

Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”.  The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace.  There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.



Worship is a norm of human life.  Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented:  “Everybody worships.”  Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding.  —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect:  it is worshipful.  The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc.  –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses.  First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular.  And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now).  Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object.  And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence.  These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.

Let me start by dwelling on that last point.  Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course.  Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God.  Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves.  But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one.  It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation.  To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are.  Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar.  We become what we know and know what we become:  blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation.  We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become.  Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.

Ears to Hear: Bill Mallonee’s *Slow Trauma* (Music Review Essay)


Earlier this week, I was walking across the red brick and green tree campus of Auburn University, where I am lucky enough to teach philosophy.  My daughter–a rising senior philosophy major–was walking with me.  We were chatting, and, our chat, as our chats often do, turned to books.  My daughter reported that she was nearly finished with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

As my daughter knows, I venerate Robinson.  If Robinson were to walk toward me on the sidewalk, I would step off, doff my cap, and cry, “Empress!” as she passed.  I deeply admire Gilead.  My daughter continued:  “But I think I am going to have to read it again when I am older.  I don’t think someone my age can fully understand that novel.”  I stopped and thought for a moment–then I agreed.  “Yes.  Some novels you can understand because you can make do with your imagination to fill in where necessary.  But with other novels, only experience can fill in where necessary.  You can imagine being experienced; but that will not substitute for experience where it is necessary.  James Gould Cozzens’ Morning, Noon and Night is another novel like that.  You have to have lived forty years or more fully to understand it.”


I recall this conversation because it highlights an important fact about Bill Mallonee’s fine new album, Slow Trauma.  This album, which I think continues what is now a conceptual trilogy of albums that includes Winnowing and Lands and Peoples, is perhaps the Mallonee album that is most clearly the result of his long experience and experiment in art and in living.

The slow trauma is life itself.  We know–late at night, when we cannot sleep, and the ceiling reveals nothing, and our joints cry bitterly about their long misuse–cringingly, we know at such moments that no one escapes life untraumatized.  But we forget that the trauma has been on-going since our first greedy suck of breath, accumulating.  We keep such thoughts at bay when we are young, maybe we do even until we get just past halfway betwixt mother and Maker.  But eventually, they settle on us, heavy:  we are at war with Time:  we are going to lose.  Time is a bloody tyrant.  He happily besieges us.  He can wait for the walls to fall.  Beginnings and endings are his speciality. But he is done with our beginnings.  Our endings are all that are left.


Mallonee’s album is neither a carping lament nor a willful carpe deim.  Its dominant tone is reverence.  Mallonee has a deep understanding of human limits–and of the human limits in handling human limits.  He knows we would like nothing more than to deny our humanity and to transcend those limits.  We so imagine them that we run against them, believe ourselves to be caged by them.  But there is no cage.  We are limited to our nature but not by our nature.  Our slow trauma is our slow trauma.

Mallonee realizes that coping with our slow trauma necessitates acknowledging it as part of who and what we are.  It would be nice to opt out or be lifted up, be caught up in a cloud or be given a spot on some low-swinging, sweet chariot.  But neither is likely to happen.  We have to hoe our row to its end, sweaty and dirty, knowing the weeds grow back when we finish. But while we hoe, we are surrounded by mysteries.  Our hoeing, our living, has a meaning–but that meaning has not been vouchsafed to us. And what would it matter if it were? How could we recognize it as the meaning of our life?  And how could what I recognize be the meaning of my life, if that recognition comes before my final chary exhalation? My life after I have recognized the meaning of my life would then not be able to change the meaning of my life.  But that cannot be right. Repentance, at least, is always possible, even if it is unlikely.

We are homo viator.  We are in passage, in transit.  The meaning of our life is not available to be known until we are not around to know it–and maybe not even then. The meaning of our life extends past our death into the lives of those we have touched and those we have refused to touch. Our journey’s end is our end, our last stop our last stop–but our meaning travels on. It continues without us.  We don’t arrive, and then get to go and see the sights. Arrival at our destination is our departure for Parts Unknown.

We have to live within these limits.  –How do we do that?  Mallonee opens the album with a short song (“One and the Same”) responsive to the question.

What to hold onto?
What to let go of?
And what to give away?

What’s going to save you?
And what makes you smile?
Sometimes, they are one and the same.

We often see things under aspects.  The thing I need to keep and the thing I need to reject are sometimes the same thing–but seen under two different aspects.[1] What exalts me is the same thing as what makes me chuckle–but under different aspects.  We deplore this state of things.  We want to be able to see under nothing, non-aspectually.  But when we try to see what is both needful and rejectable, but to see it non-aspectually, it simply recedes into some indeterminate, more or less middle distance, neither foreground nor background, just an irregular clump amidst visual clutter.  This means that we cannot have what we want, some final, non-aspectual vision of the thing.  We are stuck with it as both needful and rejectable.  This is not a problem to be solved, but a condition of our lives.  Things don’t sort for us.  They remain a weird tangle, knotted to us and to each other inextricably, in inexplicable ways.  No final preference ordering is forthcoming.


We are curious about Parts Unknown.  We wonder at mysteries.  As we should.  Still, we need to remember that mysteries are not unsearchable because they are abysmal, dark rifts.  They are unsearchable because they are blinding, consuming fires.  Those fires create the light in which we see light.  We live in the light of mysteries, surrounded by uncreated light.  We come to understand the mysteries, to the extent that we can be said to do so, not by staring directly into them, as if we could interrogate them, but by looking ever more carefully at what they allow us to see:  the world around us, and especially other people. We understand the mysteries by caring for what they show us.  (We love God by loving what God loves.  Thus are the first and second commands forever yoked together.)  Our spiritual posture toward the mysteries is forever interrogative–but our question-marks are not symbols of skepticism, but of a desire to progress from glory to glory, to move ever deeper into the Heart of Wonder.  The next of the wine in Cana is better always than the last.

You know, it’s funny how things can get so damn misplaced
Where you bet your farm and where you place your faith
And time is such a precious thing to kill
I just wanna see over that last hill

Will my highbeams flood the plain?
Will the Gatekeeper know my name?
Will there be Someone to claim me for his own?
Well, you whisper to yourself when time runs low
Darling, I’ll carry ever smile we shared with me when I go
Lord, gather me unto Thyself when my wayward heart grows still
I just wanna see over that last hill (“That Last Hill”)

It is important to recognize that this is an entreaty, a prayer, not a demand.  Mallonee asks to see.  Mallonee’s aversion is the clenched fist, the demand aimed at heaven or at earth, the refusal to touch unless it is to hurt–but he also knows how easy it is to clench the fist, to treat the mess, the ugliness, the pain, the worry, as excusing the fist:  it is easy to harden our hearts and curl our fingers.  Reverence sours into resentment.  The light of the mysteries fails us–because we fail it–and so the light we see by is now itself unlit.  The world becomes a grey-on-grey assembly of petty nothings.  We all know the temptation of such moods.

No, it’s not really a good time.  No, it rarely is these days.
Loneliness she washes over you like a wave;
And the snow is ever falling down.
Doldrums in Denver…Doldrums in Denver
And it’s time you leave this town…There ain’t nothing for you now.
(“Doldrums in Denver”)

In such moods, faith and hope seem hellish currency, too awful to carry.  We cannot keep ourselves from such moods.  They come and they go, and fighting against them when they come tends only to aggravate them.  To blacken their shades of grey.  All we can do is let them come, endure them (yes, even, after a fashion, reverencing them), in holy indifference, asking for nothing and refusing nothing.  One of Mallonee’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his gift for writing from and creating in his listener this holy indifference.  (The ‘holy’ here is an alienating adjective of a complicated sort; it changes the register in which we should hear ‘indifference’, making of indifference a yielding, a pliancy, an availability, instead of self-willed stoicism.)  Such a state is, I hazard, Mallonee’s most fecund state as an artist:  his best songs seem to me to come from a state of waiting.  And, as a result, they re-create that state when–perhaps even most successfully when–the songs are not in any way about that state.  As Emerson once said:  “Character teaches above our wills.”


Holy indifference and reverence are not two distinct states.  They are rather the inward-looking and the outward-looking faces of the same state.  It is a state opposed to the state expertly captured by Alan Dugan, in “Passing Through the Banford Tolls”:

Proceeding sideways by inattention I arrive
Unknowingly at an unsought destination
And pass by it wondering:  what next?

This is not the sort of wonder Mallonee seeks to cultivate, the inanition of boredom. Mallonee’s waiting is of a qualitatively different kind.


The most remarkable song on Slow Trauma is “Waiting for the Stone to be Rolled Away”.  It opens with a lilting, meditative guitars, anticipating the melody.  It then settles into a gentle, upbuilding cadence.  The first verses and the last:

There’s a halogen glow cast from across the street
From the parking lot of the Holy Spirit Assembly
It’s a beacon in the desert night until the break of day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

I told Solomon, the shepherd of the flock
I’ve got none of the gifts he’s got
You see, you cannot speak in tongues if you’ve got nothing to say
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away


Baby, gimme those keys, sit back and just watch me
Navigate this thing back home with considerable ease
Down these sad, back streets of doubt to a new and brighter day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

This song manages three levels at once.  One, the actual scene in the desert night; two, Mallonee’s reflections on his own work as an artist; and, three, a metaphysical representation of the human plight.  (Consider the density of the name, ‘Solomon’ here–the name perhaps of the actual minister of the Assembly, the name of the writer of the Songs, the name of the not-entirely-grateful vessel of God’s wisdom:  “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation”.  –Doldrums in Jerusalem.)  Mallonee’s gift of tongues, perhaps not a form of Pauline glossologia, but a gift nonetheless, is real.  But he too needs an interpreter, someone with ears to hear–someone who has not only had experience, but lives and has lived in devotion to that experience, intent on creating a heart that passes out of itself. We are all waiting for the stone to be rolled away.


This brings me back to my wise daughter, and to Marilynne Robinson.  Some things we grow into understanding.  We have to develop certain habits of mind and feeling, and that takes time.  We have to learn how to hear–we need the proper acquist of experience, and we need training in how to listen, lest, hearing, we not hear.  We have to become human ourselves in order to hear the music of the human voice–in order to understand.  Robinson, contemplating this issue in her essay, “Wondrous Love”, writes:

Jesus spoke as a man, in a human voice.  And a human voice has a music that gives words their meanings.  In that old hymn [“In the Garden”]…as in the Gospel, Mary [Magdelene] is awakened out of her loneliness by the sound of her own name spoken in a voice “so sweet the birds hush their singing.”  It is beautiful to think of what the sounds of one’s own name would be, when the inflection of it would carry the meaning Mary heard in the unmistakable, familiar, and utterly unexpected voice of her friend and teacher.  To propose analogies for the sound of it, a human name spoken in the world’s new morning, would seem to trivialize it.  I admire the tact of the lyric in making no attempt to evoke it, except obliquely, in the hush that falls over the birds.  But it is nonetheless at the center of the meaning of this story that we can know something of the inflection of that voice.  Christ’s humanity is meant to speak to our humanity…The mystery of Christ’s humanity must make us wonder what mortal memory he carried beyond the grave, and whether his pleasure at the encounter with Mary would have been shadowed and enriched by the fact that, not so long before, he had had no friend to watch with him even one hour.

Our lives are shadowed and enriched by Mallonee’s voice and music, if we hear it.  His work is a beacon in the desert night.  He is waiting, watching with us–and that eases the waiting, the watching.




[1] A very simple example:  the way food looks when we are hungry and not dieting, and the way it looks when we are not hungry and dieting.

Single Wide Life (Poem)

2014-12-23 09.43.27


Single Wide Life

Growing up in a double wide trailer
Single wide world

Coal-gutted hillsides
Power plants loom umbrageous
Over my high school

Kyger, Gavin Plants
Lighting New York, New York
Dumping cancer
Killing Cheshire, Ohio

Southern Ohio, welfare checks in the mail
Daughters pregnant another time, bun in the oven,
Bigger check in the box

Valedictorian  enlisted (Navy)
Sight the world to see it
Life keeps on–an enlarging stain

“Cough, cough:
Has the mail come?
Shut the damn baby up!”

Chris gets on the bus
Holding a browned dishrag
To his bloody mouth:
He fell, he says:
His sister whispers their
Dad broke a coffee cup
Across Chris’ mouth

He squeezes into a corner of the seat,
Takes out a paperback of Candide:
He is reading it because I did
And he reads while his lip clots

The best of all possible worlds

Growing up in a double wide trailer
Single wide life


The Prayer of St. Ephraim

O Lord and Master of my life,
Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

Yea, O Lord and King,
grant that I may perceive
my own transgressions,
and judge not my brother,
for blessed art Thou
unto ages of ages.

In Spite of Death and the Devil: Husserl–Diary Entry, 9/25/1906


Pure meditation, pure internal life, being absorbed by the problems and devoting myself to them, and to them only, that is the hope of my future.  If I do not succeed, then I shall have to live a life which is rather death.

…I have to pursue my way so surely, so firmly, so decidedly, and so in earnest as Dürer’s Knight in spite of Death and the Devil…And be God with me in spite of the fact that we are all sinners!

Psalm 36 (Mother Maria, trans.)

An oracle for the impious
Is the sin in the deep of his heart.
He regards himself
With an eye too flattering
To discover his guilt
And hate his transgression.

Perfidy and misdeed
He plots upon his bed,
He sets his steps
Upon an evil course,
Heedless of his sin.

The words of his mouth
Are fraud and deceit,
He can no more act
Wisely or well.

There, see how the wicked are fallen,
They can rise no more.

Three Thoughts on Job

From an old notebook:

Job’s confused.  God’s not helping.  God’s making it worse.  So too the comforters.  (Carrion comforters!)  They worsen Job’s confusion.  It’s not bad enough that he’s wrestling confusedly with God; his comforters want to wrestle too:  against Job, for God, as if they were members of a Divine tag-team.

Job speaks out his misery.  What he says is of his pain just because it expresses it.  He is venting his misery more than he is accusing God.  But his comforters will not hear his misery; they hear only the accusing.

Job knows what his comforters know.  He knows the glory and the power of God.  But he knows more than his comforters know.  He knows God’s power and glory in a way that does not deny that power and glory.  Even more, he knows his innocence.  Job knows that God knows it too.  But now it looks like Job knows too much, more anyway than he can bear, for how could a God of such power and glory and knowledge as his tolerate Job’s misery?

From The Spiritual Letters of Fenelon

Excerpted from a letter to the Countess of Gramont, March 21, 1692:

Take up again the readings that have touched you.  They will touch you again, and you will get more out of them than the first time.  Bear yourself without flattering yourself or becoming discouraged.  This happy medium is rarely found.  We promise ourselves great things of ourselves and of our good intentions, or else we despair of all.  Hope for nothing from yourself.  Look for everything to God.  Despair of our own weakness, which is incorrigible, and unlimited confidence in the power of God, are the true foundations of every spiritual edifice.  When you will not have much time to yourself, do not miss making use of the least moments which do remain yours.  It does not take much time to love God, to renew yourself in his presence, to lift your heart to him, or to adore him from the depths of your heart, to offer to him what you are doing and what you are suffering.  This is the true Kingdom of God within us, which nothing can trouble.

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