“For now, oh my God, it is to You alone that I can talk, because nobody else will understand. I cannot bring any other man on this earth into the cloud where I dwell in Your light, that is, Your darkness, where I am lost and abashed. I cannot explain to any other man the anguish which is Your joy nor the loss which is the Possession of You, nor the distance from all things which is the arrival in You, nor the death which is the birth in You because I do not know anything about it myself and all I know is that I wish it were over – I wish it were begun.” – Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Beginnings and endings. Endings and beginnings.
When I used to travel a great deal – one or two weeks a month – I found that I started to dread the beginning of trips and very much anticipated the ending of trips. When I was traveling so much, others would comment about how much they were jealous of my traveling and how they would love to “get away” like me and see so many other places. I will admit that I never got tired of new sights, sounds, and tastes but I also confess that the act of traveling became a true burden and something that became hard for me to do. Getting aboard airplanes and fighting traffic and lugging baggage became a real attitude chore for me. Perhaps like most things, it is all about perspective. What for some seemed exciting was, for me, a task to be accomplished. Whereas others anticipated the beginning of the trip, I was anticipating its end.
During my running years, I ran many miles every week to train for my first marathon. Not being athletic by any stretch of the imagination, I ran because I had some amazing friends who encouraged me and because I wanted to say that I had run a marathon in my lifetime. Literally and after several months, all I could think about was getting to the starting line of the marathon in some semblance of fitness knowing that I could then run the marathon and survive and be able to tell about it! I remember telling Regina one time, “This is killing me. I can’t wait to get on that line and hear the gun go off and get this thing going. I’m sick of all of this anticipation.” I was a ball of nerves. There were some mornings when the weight of training depressed me. All I could imagine was getting on that starting line.
And I did. And I felt good. And all seemed well. Just to be on the starting line with 10,000 other runners made me very proud. To this day, I am glad that I was able to stand with those runners and have a racing bib and say that I was going to do this. So anyway, off we go. A good pace for me. I remember falling in behind a lady who seemed to be running about my speed and I followed her for quite a few miles – it was good to have someone to follow and pace me. I was glad to be out there. My hopes and dreams for a very long time had been to get to this point. I had arrived!
Then I saw it. Those of you who have run marathons will know what I am talking about. Some of this particular marathon’s route doubled back on itself. In other words, running out would be down the left hand side of the road and coming back would be on the opposite side. We had only been out for a few minutes with a mile or two behind us. We knew that there was something of a loop to get around – out and back – until we made it over to the main course. The loop out and back was easily five miles. We had just gotten to the start of the loop. This is no kidding. Running back at us on the opposite side of the road were the world-class, sleek, extremely fast male and female runners. They, in just a matter of minutes, were already miles ahead of us and running back at us on the other side. They would ultimately finish the 26-mile marathon in a little over two hours. I finished in five hours. This means that when I was running at around 4, 5, or 6 miles an hour, they were running at 8, 9, or 10 miles an hour. I can’t imagine!
Oddly, the anticipation I had had to get to the starting line was somewhat put into perspective when I saw those elite runners going the other way. I clearly understood that they were anticipating the end of the marathon. They saw themselves running across the finish line – not just hoping to make it to the starting line like me. By the time I crossed the finish line, the two-hour runners were likely already back at their hotels. They were probably already stretched out, showered, hydrated, and might have been sitting down to eat a light lunch. And here I came.
It was all a lesson in perspective. The beginning and the end. The end and the beginning. What is it that I anticipate?
Merton talks about anticipating the light of God which to God is God’s darkness. In other words, God’s darkness is God’s normal, ambient, common, day-to-day average existence that God usually exists in. We see it as bright light and magnificent whereas God sees it as, well, his home. Merton talks about his personal loss and anguish as being God’s joy and possession – two of the same things but opposites because of perspective. Merton refers to his distancing from things as being God’s arrival, and death being birth. Finally, Merton wishes it were over in order to begin.
Beautiful words and thoughts, I think. From where I sit, I see God one way. It is about my anticipation – likely through loss or departure – of drawing to God in a last, gasping effort in what I perceive to be as the end of all that is good and wonderful. On the other hand, God sees my perceived ending as being, instead, an arrival and a new beginning. It’s when things can really get seriously started. Perhaps I selfishly think that when this life is all over, there is nothing else and I go off somewhere to take a long, eternal nap. But maybe this isn’t how it is at all. Maybe, instead, God is giddily waiting for my arrival because he has some really big and important stuff that he wants to show me and talk to me about. Maybe he is excited to finally be able to have me sit in his house with him and break bread, so to speak, over a warm cup of coffee like separated friends who have finally found each other again. Perhaps he is extremely excited to re-introduce me to all of my family and friends who departed earth’s life before I did. Maybe he anticipates the moments when he can stand back and watch, with loving affection, as I get reacquainted with my wife and grandparents and friends who I so badly missed for so many years during my physical life.
Most of all, I think he anticipates my arrival because he will know that I am safe. Finally and completely safe. And he will be happy about that.
No, I can’t mourn for too long in this life. You can’t either. We need to work through things, and rightly so. But we need to really understand – step by step – that our endings are God’s beginnings. And that is an amazing thing, don’t you think?