Even though I am Novice Master and am in the novitiate all the time, the novitiate takes on a great air of mystery and revelation when I pass through it on the night watch. The rooms which I hardly notice during the day seem, when they are empty, to have something very urgent to say, so that I want to linger in them and listen.
The novitiate no longer speaks to me of my own past (see “Firewatch” in Sign of Jonas). To begin with, it was remodeled six years ago, and now it speaks more of the present generation of novices.
As I was going through absent-mindedly on my round, I pushed open the door of the novices’ scriptorium and flashed the light over the desks, and the empty room spoke again. I stood there for a long time before going up to the chapel. Four long rows of desks. Their desks are all they have that is more or less “theirs.” It is there that they sit reading, writing, thinking whatever is most personal, most truly their own. They keep their letters, their own few books, their own notes there.
Looking at the dark empty room, with everyone gone, it seemed that, because all that they loved was there, “they” in a spiritual way were most truly there, though in fact they were all upstairs in the dormitory, asleep.
It was as if their love and their goodness had transformed the room and filled it with a presence curiously real, comforting, perfect: one might say, with Christ. Indeed, it seemed to me momentarily that He was as truly present here, in a certain way, as upstairs in the Chapel. The loveliness of the humanity which God has taken to Himself in love is, after all, to be seen in the humanity of our friends, our children, our brothers, the people we love and who love us. Now that God has become Incarnate, why do we go to such lengths, all the time, to “disincarnate” Him again, to un-weave the garment of flesh and reduce Him once again to spirit? As if the Body of the Lord had not become “Life-giving Spirit.”
You can see the beauty of Christ in each individual person, in that which is most his, most human, most personal to him, in things which an ascetic might advise you sternly to get rid of. But these attachments, too, are relevant to your life in Christ, and I have noticed that novices who try to be too grimly detached from parents and friends, and from other people in general, often lack a most important spiritual dimension in their lives, and frequently fail altogether as monks. Those who are more “human” make better monks, precisely because they are more human and because they simply do not believe the injunctions of those who try to tell them that they must be less human.
In any case, I felt there was something quite final and eternal in looking at this empty room: that though they themselves might not understand what they are going through, and though many of them may fail, may leave, or may have to look elsewhere to get the real meaning of their lives, yet the sign of love is on these novices and they are precious forever in God’s eyes. Certainly, it has been a great gift of His Love to me, that I am their Novice Master. It is very good to have loved these people and been loved by them with such simplicity and sincerity, within our ordinary limitation, without nonsense, without flattery, without sentimentality, and without getting too involved in one another’s business.
From this basic experience one can, after all, recover hope for the other dimension of man’s life: the political. Even though we have the power to destroy the whole world, life is stronger than the death instinct and love is stronger than hate. It does not make logical sense to be too hopeful, but once again this is not a question of logic and one does not look for signs of hope in the newspapers or the pronouncements of world leaders (in these there is seldom anything really hopeful, and that which is supposed to be most encouraging is usually so transparently hopeless that it moves one closer to despair). Because there is love in the world, and because Christ has taken our nature to Himself, there remains always the hope that man will finally, after many mistakes and even disasters, learn to disarm and to make peace, recognizing that he must live at peace with his brother. Yet never have we been less disposed to do this.
The fact remains, this is the one great lesson we have to learn. Everything else is trivial compared with his supreme and urgent need of man.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp212-4