CHRISTMAS MEDITATION: The Time Of No Room, by Thomas Merton

no room thomas merton

He who has come to men
dwells where we cannot tell
nor sight reveal him,
until the hour has struck
when the small heart does break
with hunger for him;

those who do merit least,
those whom no tongue does praise
the first to know him,
and on the face of the earth
the poorest village street
blossoming for him.

So there was no room at the inn?  True!  But that is simply mentioned in passing, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, as the Evangelist points to what he really means us to see — the picture of pure peace, pure joy: “She wrapped her firstborn son in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7)  By now we know it well, and yet we might still be questioning it — except that a reason was given for an act that might otherwise have seemed strange: “There was no room for them at the inn.”  Well, then, they obviously found some other place!

But when we read the Gospels and come to know them thoroughly, we realize there are other reasons why it was necessary that there be no room at the inn, and why there had to be some other place.  In fact, the inn was the last place in the world for the birth of the Lord.

The Evangelists, preparing for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come.  Now is the time of final decision, the time of mercy, “the acceptable time,” the time of settlement, the time of the end.  It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come.  But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world.  The time of the end is the time of massed armies, “wars and rumors of wars,” of huge crowds moving this way and that, of men “withering away for fear,” of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction.  The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty.  Yet it is heard by those who are aware that the display of power, hubris (power) and destruction is part of the kerygma (message).  That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power.  Thus it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with the sign of power, aligned with power, and destroyed with it.

Why then was the inn crowded?  Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the “whole world” in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power.  The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed.  To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.

The Bible had not been friendly to a census in the days when God was ruler of Israel. (2 Samuel 24)  The numbering of the people of God by an alien emperor and their full consent to it was itself an eschatological sign, preparing those who could understand it to meet judgment with repentance.  After all, in the Apocalyptic literature of the Bible, this “summoning together” or convocation of the powers of the Earth to do battle is the great sign of “the end.”

It was therefore impossible that the Word should lose himself by being born into shapeless and passive mass.  He had indeed emptied himself, taken the form of God’s servant, man.  But he did not empty himself to be point of becoming mass man, faceless man.  It was therefore right that there should be no room for him in a crowd that had been called together as an eschatological sign.  His being born outside that crowd is even more of a sign.  That there is no room for him is a sign of the end.

Nor are the tidings of great joy announced in the crowded inn.  In the massed crowd there are always new tidings of joy and disaster.  Where each new announcement is the greatest of announcements, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare, every day’s danger demands the ultimate sacrifice, all news and all judgment is reduced to zero.  News becomes merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and meaningless rumor.  News?  There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the “Good News,” the Great Joy.

Hence the Great Joy is announced, after all, in silence, loneliness and darkness, to shepherds “living in the fields” or “living in the countryside” and apparently unmoved by the rumors or massed crowds.  These are the remnant of the desert-dwellers, the nomads, the true Israel.

Even though “the whole world” is ordered to be inscribed, they do not seem to be affected.  Doubtless they have registered, as Joseph and Mary will register, but they remain outside the agitation, and untouched by the vast movement, the massing of hundreds and thousands of people everywhere in the towns and cities.

They are therefore quite otherwise signed.  They are designated, surrounded by a great light, they receive the message of the Great Joy, and they believe it with joy.  They see the Shekinah over them, recognize themselves for what they are.  They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen — the anawim.  And they obey the light.  Nor was anything else asked of them.

They go and see not a prophet, not a spirit, but the Flesh in which the glory of the Lord will be revealed and by which all men will be delivered from the power that is in the world, the power that seeks to destroy the world because the world is God’s creation, the power that mimics creation, and in doing so, pillages and exhausts the resources of a bounteous God-given Earth.

We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end.  The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration.

The primordial blessing, “increase and multiply,” has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror.  We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.

As the end approaches, there is no room for nature.  The cities crowd it off the face of the Earth.

As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet.  There is no room for solitude.  There is no room for thought.  There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.

Those that lament the fact that there is no room for God must also be called to account for this.  Have they perhaps added to the general crush by preaching a solid marble God that makes man alien to himself, a God that settles himself grimly like an implacable object in the inner heart of man and drives man out of himself in despair?

The time of the end is the time of demons who occupy the heart (pretending to be gods) so that man himself finds no room for himself in himself.  He finds no space to rest in his own heart, not because it is full, but because it is void.  If only he knew that the void itself, when hovered over by the Spirit, is an abyss of creativity.  Yet he cannot believe it.  There is no room for belief.

In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living.  The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist.

Why?  Because they are part of a proliferation of life that is not fully alive, it is programmed for death.  A life that has not been chosen, and can hardly be accepted, has no more room for hope.  Yet it must pretend to go on hoping.  It is haunted by the demon of emptiness.  And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the concentration camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all the other crimes of mass society.

Is this pessimism?  Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody really feels?  Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer?  Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better every day, because the time of the end is also — for some at any rate — the time of great prosperity?  “The kings of the Earth have joined in her idolatry, and the traders of the Earth have grown rich from her excessive luxury.” (Revelation 18:3)

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited.  But because he cannot be at home in it — because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it — his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated.  With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.  He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.  For them, there is no escape even in imagination.  They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.

For those who are stubborn enough, devoted enough to power, there remains this last apocalyptic myth of machinery propagating its own king in the eschatological wilderness of space — while on Earth the bombs make room!

But the others: they remain imprisoned in other hopes, and in more pedestrian despairs and hopes which are held down to Earth, down to street level, and to the pavement only: desire to be at least half-human, to taste a little human joy, to do a fairly decent job of productive work, to come home to the family. . . desires for which there is no room.  It is in these that He hides himself, for whom there is no room.

The time of the end?  All right: when?

That is not the question.

To say that it is the time of the end is to answer all the questions, for if it is the time of the end, and of great tribulation, then it is certainly and above all the time of the Great Joy.  It is the time to “lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand.”  It is the time when the promise will be manifestly fulfilled, and no longer kept secret from anyone.  It is the time for the joy that is given not as the world gives, and that no man can take away.

For the true eschatological banquet is not that of the birds on the bodies of the slain.  It is the feast of the living, the wedding banquet of the Lamb.  The true eschatological convocation is not the crowding of armies on the field of battle, but the summons of the Great Joy, the cry of deliverance: “Come out of her, my people, that you may not share in her sins and suffer from her plagues!” (Revelation 18:4)  The cry of the time of the end was uttered also in the beginning by Lot in Sodom, to his sons-in-law: “Come, get out of this city, for the Lord will destroy it.  But he seemed to them to be jesting.” (Genesis 19:14)

To leave the city of death and imprisonment is surely not bad news except to those who have so identified themselves with their captivity that they can conceive no other reality and no other condition.  In such a case, there is nothing but tribulation: for while to stay in captivity is tragic, to break away from it is unthinkable — and so more tragic still.

What is needed then is the grace and courage to see that “the Great Tribulation” and “the Great Joy” are really inseparable, and that the “Tribulation” becomes “Joy” when it is seen as the victory of life over death.

True, there is a sense in which there is no room for joy in this tribulation.  To say there is “no room” for the Great Joy in the tribulation of “the end” is to say that the evangelical joy must not be confused with the joys proposed by the world in the time of the end — and, we must admit it, these are no longer convincing as joys.  They become now stoic duties and sacrifices to be offered without question for ends that cannot be described just now, since there is too much smoke and the visibility is rather poor.  In the last analysis, the “joy” proposed by the time of the end is simply the satisfaction and the relief of getting it all over with.

That is the demonic temptation of the “end.”  For eschatology is no finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation.  It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.

But can we believe it? (“He seemed to them to be jesting!”)

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