CBFVA Theologian in Residence
I have a favorite Thomas Merton quote. (Doesn’t everyone?) Merton was an American monk, beloved spiritual writer, and theologian in the mid-20th century, who left a remarkable legacy and lasting imprint on Christian spirituality. This quote that I love describes a mystical experience he once had in a crowd of people:
“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 these 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. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (italics mine)
Merton’s mystical experience reveals the divine connection between all people, and the impact that this should make on our understanding of what it means to live in relationship to others. It reminds us that all people bear the imago Dei, the Image of God, and that this simple fact ought to shape how we truly encounter one another in the world.
It’s not hard for me to figure out why I find this Merton quote so compelling right now: I have struggled in the pandemic with a visceral fear of being in crowds of people. Especially early on in the pandemic, when I would go grocery shopping, I’d scurry around Kroger like Pac-Man avoiding ghosts in a maze while trying to snatch up things on my list. When I would see someone in a store who wasn’t wearing a mask, I would often retreat in alarm. It wasn’t a political response (“Stupid anti-maskers!”) so much as it was a gut-level, fear-based response. I genuinely didn’t want to get my family sick. I don’t want to play the Russian-roulette game of “will I be asymptomatic or will I get intubated” if I get Covid-19?
I’ve noticed this anxiety in others as well. I can see it in their faces. More often than not, we are simply afraid of one another right now—afraid that others are infected, that they carry the dreaded disease, that they represent a threat to our lives and loved ones.
Against my better judgment, I went to Walmart a couple of weeks ago. I try not to make a habit of this in global pandemics, but it was for a good cause: I had to go pick up something specific for my wife, which she needed for her summer camp ministry. So I went in, mask on face, sanitizer in hand, steeling myself as if I were walking into an episode of The Walking Dead. I moved quickly and directly to the items that I needed, and was about to hurry to the checkout lanes. But I paused for a minute and looked around. Time froze for a half second in my mind, just like it did for Merton—I looked around at the faces surrounding me, full of fear like mine, but also covered in masks, each and every one. And for a second I wasn’t afraid of them, but I found that I loved them, each and every one.
Now, I am reticent to say that I had a mystical experience in Walmart. If anything, Walmart is much more likely to make me lose my religion. Nevertheless, it was a moment of clarity at the very least, one that has stuck with me in the weeks since.
First, I recognized our shared humanity in the fear and anxiety that we are all experiencing. It is a hard time to be human, and we are all experiencing this together. Let’s continue to find ways to offer care for one another.
Second, I saw in our mutual mask wearing a high level of care and concern for one another, as well. I may be reading into the motivations of others for wearing masks, but I chose to believe that everyone I saw was wearing one for the good of us all. It was a deliberate decision to love neighbor and to care for one another in the midst of this difficult period.
Third, and perhaps most profoundly: Shining from each of their mask-covered faces I recognized the Image of God that they each bear. And it was impossible for me to react to them out of fear or anxiety once I saw this. This didn’t mean that I began to go around giving hugs to them, but I no longer saw them as people to fear. I saw them through a lens of divine love.
It is hard to fear someone when you recognize that they, too, bear the image of God.
There are other ramifications of this awareness, too. For example, it is impossible to hate a person who bears the imago Dei simply because you disagree with them politically. You might disagree with them, but you will love them regardless. You can’t act violently toward someone when you recognize the image of God in them. Furthermore, it is unthinkable that the unjust systems of racism (or any other -ism) could continue to exist in our world when we nurture this awareness. The Image of God breaks down all barriers between people and allows us to see ourselves and others as we truly are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.
Friends, you are beloved, simply because you are created in God’s image. Moreover, each and every person you encounter—today and every other day—is created with that same sacred gift. Let’s live like it.