By Fr. Joseph Kerrigan, Mepkin Abbey
As I navigated the electronic card catalogue in our Clare Booth Luce Library here at Mepkin Abbey, my eyes quickly arrived at the entry for the book. But I was drawn even more excitedly to what I noticed a few lines lower on the screen: a citation for none other than the late American Trappist Thomas Merton, who had his own contribution: The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction.
Jotting down the call numbers for both books and starting to think where I would head first, suddenly this old lyric from Simon & Garfunkel popped into my head: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
The musical prompting only made sense if you replaced in mind – (but not in the song) – Joe DiMaggio with Thomas Merton. The reason that lyric popped in my head was undoubtedly the same reason I was in the library in the first place – I was looking for another voice to give meaning in the crisis. And to stumble upon Merton’s voice, his prophetic contemplative voice, well, that would be a remedy at least for my lonely eyes and ears. Dead since 1968, and gone from this earth now almost as long as the 53 years he was alive, it would be amazing to have some wisdom from Merton to speak to this moment.
Alas, it was not quite to be. Despite my best efforts and those of a couple of senior monks, we couldn’t find the Merton volume. However, I did find the very weathered The Plague, perhaps dating back to when the Trappists first established Mepkin in 1949, and I’m glad I did.
I was struck by how similarly Camus’ fictionalized citizenry in Algeria reacted to their sprawling contagion with how we are reacting today – the denial, the blundering, the isolation and fear. I found myself drawn to the tireless doctor Bernard Rieux, who could be a metaphor for the throng of heroic healthcare professionals fighting today’s coronavirus. Rieux offered me an additional layer of inspiration by his relational resolve, the unselfish way he challenged, accompanied or encouraged various other characters in the novel.
And although today’s ubiquitous phrase, “flattening the curve,” does not appear as such in The Plague (and without spoiling it for the prospective reader), you might come across those words in a tantalizing similar way in your reading of the novel.
My search for Merton’s insights wasn’t a total loss. Thanks to the internet, I found commentary and some direct quotes from his review of The Plague. My reading the novel felt newly blessed by Merton, because for the Trappist, Camus was one “with whom my heart agreed.”
Merton also commented on the doctor Rieux — whom he called a “‘healer’ who fights against disease and death because living man remains for him an ultimate, inexplicable value.” Perhaps those words of Merton can more usefully be taken as a summons for us in this all-too-real struggle.
For example, Merton said The Plague “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation.” So, just because the pandemic can seem overwhelming, for example, it doesn’t justify surrender. Each of us, as Pope Francis likes to say, “is a mission to the world, for each of us is the fruit of God’s love.” How does that mission take shape in the scale of the pandemic?
Merton also apparently seized on the theme of modesty in the novel, a modesty which “implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom, a hesitancy in the presence of doctrines and systems that explain everything too conveniently and justify evil as a form of good.” In the midst of covid-19, not only does this throw a red flag on simplistic explanations, conspiracy theories and the like, but forces us all to do the hard and probably daily work of faithfully finding our own meaning through the crisis. Where is God in this? Where am I in this for my neighbor?
Finally, Merton felt that, through Camus’ brilliance, we learn anew that life “is to be affirmed in defiance of suffering and death, in love, compassion, and understanding, the solidarity of man in revolt against the absurd…”.
Reading Camus’ The Plague along with some limited Merton commentary in the midst of this dire coronavirus threat reaffirms the call for enduring values to be activated in service of human dignity.