"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

25 December 2020


Christ always seeks the straw of the most desolate cribs to make his Bethlehem. In all the other Christmases of my life, I had got a lot of presents and a big dinner. This Christmas I got no presents, and not much of a dinner; but I would have, indeed, Christ, God, the Savior of the world.

You who live in the world: let me tell you that there is no comparing these two kinds of Christmas.  What an atmosphere of expectation and joy there is in a Cistercian monastery when the monks get up, not at two in the morning, but at nine in the evening.  They have gone to bed at five.  Now, at this unaccustomed hour, when the winter night has not yet begun to get that paralyzing desolate coldness of the small hours, the church is full of unaccustomed lights.  There is the crib, all lit up with a soft glow, and in the high darkness of the sanctuary the forest of cedar branches that has grown up around the altar sparkles with tinsel here and there.

It is then that the night office begins, begins at once with a solemn and stately invitatory that nevertheless rocks the church with cadences of superlative joy; from then on it is as though the angels themselves were singing their Gloria in Excelsis and showering upon the earth from the near stars, the stars that seem to have become close and warm, their messages and promises of peace, peace!  Peace on earth to men of good will.  As the Midnight Mass begins, the whole places glows with happiness, and after that it is indescribable, building up to the climax of unworldly interior peace at Communion.

It is good that somewhere in the world there are men who believe that Christ is born.  There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem, as it is now.  The ox and the ass understood more of the first Christmas than did the high priests in Jerusalem.  And it is the same way today.

The emptiness that had opened out within me, that had been prepared during advent and laid open by my own silence and darkness, now became filled, and suddenly I was in a new world.

I seemed to be the same person, and I was the same person, I was still myself, I was more myself than I had ever been, and yet I was nothing.  It was as if the floor had fallen out of my soul and I was free to go in and out of infinity.  The deeps that were suddenly there could not be measured, and it was useless to think of even fathoming them.  And they were not a place, not to an extent, they were a Presence.  And in the midst of me they formed a citadel.  And I knew at once that there was nothing that could ever penetrate into the heart of that peace, nothing from outside myself could ever get in, and there was a whole sphere of my own activity that was irrevocably excluded from it, the five senses, the imagination, the discoursing mind.  I could enter in, and was free to come and go, and yet as soon as I attempted to may words or thoughts about it, I was excluded -- or excluded to the extent that I attended to the words and thoughts.

Yet I could rest in this dark and unfathomable peace without trouble and without worry even while the imagination and the mind were in some way active outside of it.  They could stand and chatter at the door, in their idleness, waiting for the return of the will, the queen, upon whose orders they depended.  They stood like a couple of chauffeurs at the door of a mansion which it was not their business to enter.  And yet the mind was not all excluded, only in certain of its operations.  But in so far as it was able to rest serene, it itself, the mind too could enter into the peace and harmony of this infinite simplicity that had come to be born within me.

But what are all these words?  Shadows, illusions.  The soul has not divisions into parts, into sections, into places.  It merely operates this way and that, and the experience of this or that kind of operation can be translated by the imagination into terms of place and space, light and darkness: but as soon as it gets into those terms, the whole thing loses its true meaning.

Within the simplicity of that armed and walled and undivided interior peace was the sweetness of an infinite love.  yet this sweetness, as soon as it was grasped, or held, lost its savor.  You must not try to reach out and possess it altogether.  You must not try to touch it, or try to take it.  You must not try to make it sweeter, or to keep it from going away ...

But all of this is abstract.  There was a far greater reality in all of this, the sense of the presence of a Person; not exteriorized in space, not standing opposite one, or inside one, or outside one, not standing here, there, or anywhere, but living in the midst.  You are aware that you are alive: but where do you feel your life?  Is it here?  Is t here?  It is inside you rather than outside you: but where?  I suppose you can get to thinking it is in your heart, but it is all over you.

It is easy to realize the life of one's body, and hard to track it down, to place it.  It is even easier to realize the life of your soul when it is made known to you, and even harder to track it down and place it.

And the hardest thing about it is that life is a Person.  Christ.  Vivo, jam non ego, vivit veret in me, Christus.

You know that Christ is born within you:  infinite liberty, that you are free!  That there are enemies which can never touch you, if this liberty loves you and lives within you!  That there are no more limitations!  That you can love!  That you are standing on the threshold of infinite possibilities!  That the way lies open to escape from all these useless words!  That the darkness has been washed out of your spiritual eyes and that you can open them again and begin to see: but above all, that you can know by more perfect knowledge that vision, by the embrace of this liberty and by the touch of this infinite freedom in the midst of your spirit, and above all by rest, peace!  This is the true contemplative vocation, the kernel of it, the inner-most meaning of our life: frui Deo, heaven on earth, the love, the connatural knowledge of God: God as experience.

Thomas Merton, from Christmas Night

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