Haunted by God: Merton & New York

Perhaps there is in places a certain value: they make it possible for you to seek and find certain things in your own soul. When you have found them, you begin to know the place has served you: if the place is pleasant and pretty doesn’t mean much anymore. It has only one further value: the value of a sacrifice. The only good thing that can be done with the place, the type of life, is to give it up.”

Merton ends this journal entry from November 17, 1941 with an aesthetic argument with an ethical conclusion—an argument for going, not for remaining. Merton is a prophet of going who longed to remain. But he died as he lived: going. I resonate deeply with Merton’s constant tension of going and staying. Of finding “the place” to remain.

But the first part really hits me between the eyes. What he says about places having value because they force us to discover something sums up precisely how I feel about New York City. Do I love this place? Yes. But I don’t like it. I love it because I have discovered something about myself here—not all of these things good, but I know myself better, I know virtue better, and I have worked to become a better person, because of what New York asks of me. It asks of me to be better: to be more aware, more loving, more open, more fearless, more conscientious towards others.

I don’t live here because I love it, I love it because I live here. And I live here because I belong to it. I belong to it because it has made and continues to make possible depths of discoveries in myself I had never discovered growing up in an enchanted Minnesota woods tucked into suburbia. This place has served me, because I have served the place. Perhaps this is what is missing from Thomas Merton’s vision of a place—we do not live in places that serve us, but in places where we find our gifts have an irreplaceable role to serve. We dwell in places where we discover we learn how to serve and love our neighbors—whatever sort of neighbors those may be.

I don’t know that I have chosen this place as much as it has been chosen for me—at a certain point, however, choosing and being chosen are the same fiat.

New York has taught me—continually teaches me—that the gap between me and my neighbor is smaller than I think and that it is my duty to cross that expanse, to bridge that gap each day. Fear widens the chasms between us, but love crosses the divide.

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