Also Listen on:
Years ago, we had a guest at the monastery who was interested in Thomas Merton. That is an understatement. He was fanatical about Merton, had read everything Merton wrote and whatever you spoke about with him was immediately brought back to Merton. I admire Merton but with this enthusiast I wanted to avoid even thinking about him. After the guest had been with us awhile, I watched him at a distance and realised he even dressed like Merton. He wore the same kind of beanie, shaved his head and wore dungarees. Eventually to complete the identification he fell in love with a nurse who was also staying with us.
What does it mean to be Christlike? Fortunately, we don’t know have photos of what he wore or looked like. There’s a lot of speculation about his relationships and his first thirty years but it doesn’t offer much material for the ‘imitation of Christ’. The book of that title says more about the author and his kind of world-denying spirituality than about the historical figure. The disciple of Jesus is not a member of his fan club trying to make him relevant to our time by, for example, asking what Jesus would say about the transgender issue. We cannot imitate Jesus, in the ordinary sense, but we are meant to be one with him.
There are not many people in a lifetime, (we are fortunate if there are any), with whom we feel a deep and abiding connection often from our first encounter. This is more than liking each other or having similar interests. It is an inescapable sense of knowing a point of convergence in each other where identity is not so much lost as absorbed in recognition of self-in-otherness. Connection is a weak word for it but it is real; and it opens a hitherto unconscious dimension of awareness.
This connection or resonance may indeed happen between individuals with vastly different personalities and interests. A healthy and active person may find it with another person who speaks a different language and who is suffering a terminal illness. The sick person radiates joy and peace in a way that is immediately recognised and shared by the other healthy person. There is no need for conventional expressions of sympathy. The extraordinary empathy has already shown itself in shared humour and detachment.
If we are to be Christlike, it will happen, not by trying to imitate him, but by resonating with the Mind, the Person of Christ in this kind of direct way. Surprisingly and mysteriously, we know this connection interiorly, but also with someone who remains other. It is recognisable by the peacefulness and joyfulness. Suffering doesn’t break it. It is the most personal of experiences and yet transcendent of familiar ego-identity. Jesus must have felt this with God and it is what he wants to share with us.
Today we again tremble on the brink of Holy Week and the great retelling of the Passion. Once more, Lent is beginning to bear fruit as the desert blooms. To help us to be Christlike and see him in ourselves and ourselves in him, it might help us to call to mind all the deepest connections of our lives.