Yesterday’s gospel text from John 10 talked about Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. This would appear to be a strange thing for a shepherd to do – surely a sheep is ultimately nothing but a disposable commodity, eventually destined for the dinner table anyway. But I wonder whether this tension is not, in fact, the whole point of the story. Perhaps we are being led to think about our own sense of the ‘disposability’ of lives in our own calculations of what costs we are prepared to absorb in order to reach our intended goal.
Jesus, as good shepherd. is the one who demonstrates the extent to which he is prepared to go in order that ‘they have life, and have it abundantly’. He is prepared to go to the extent of laying down his life. Indeed, there is no way to life other than the way of self-giving: no ‘taking up’ without ‘laying down’. There is no way to life if we take the route of self-preservation. There is no way to life as long as we regard any life as disposable. This self-giving, which is a kind of self-forgetting, is a basic recognition of the unity of all that lives (one flock). Existence is not matter of the sum of individual egos but a fundamental unity, so we only serve life if we let go of a commitment to the primacy of my individual ego. This is something more profound than ‘we’ over ‘me’: it is the recognition of the artificiality of these categories.
John’s meditation on Jesus as good shepherd is also, then, the basis for a spirituality and a theology of nonviolence. Violence is founded on the commodification or utilitarian view of life. Other lives are expendable in the name of preserving my values and ‘liberties’. Nonviolence is founded on the essential unity of life – no life flourishes if any life is denied. But, paradoxically, the way of life that enhances life is a way of laying down one’s life. What can this mean? I think it means precisely the refusal to define life in terms of self-interest. My fate and that of my enemy are bound up together, and this radical position is at the heart of Jesus’ revolutionary teaching.
So the good shepherd is much more than the paternalistic dispenser of benevolence beloved of Victorian stained glass artists. He is the exemplar of nonviolence, a revolutionary who bids us realise what is already true – that we are all of one flock and that none must be lost to the violence and exclusion that we imagine to guarantee our security.
Thomas Merton wrote comparatively little about the events of Holy Week or, indeed, about the Cross. His spirituality was of a more ‘cosmic’ nature, though firmly rooted in human experience as well as in traditional Christian theological categories. But here is one little reflection that mentions the Cross in his characteristic style. It comes from his extended meditation, Day of a Stranger, which describes a ‘typical’ day in his hermitage:
One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered be all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant without comment in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. Nulla silva talem profert. There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied. It is not interesting.
The Latin quotation in the piece is from Fortunatus’ hymn, Pange Lingua, which hails the wood of the cross as being without compare. The contemplative depth of Merton’s reflection here is extraordinary and needs a little unpacking. I think it reflects his engagement with Buddhism in his suggestion that the ‘point of pure nothingness’ is one – that is, something akin to the Buddha-consciousness or to sunyata – and that it is ‘uninteresting’ – that is, not an object for speculation or analysis but a pure simplicity of being. It is also profoundly Christian in its presentation of the Cross as a cosmic reality. He draws on that ancient tradition of the tree of the garden of Eden being the tree from which the wood of the cross would be taken – paradise is restored in the self-giving of the Christ. And he is clear that our way to engage with this reality is to enter silence in love. This is no retreat from the world, as all the world is contained in this apprehension of reality, and Merton’s engagement with the wider world, its peace, its creativity, its contradictions is highly visible in this essay.
Merton may not dwell much on the drama of Holy Week in his writings, but his contemplative consciousness would be unthinkable if it had not been formed in the shadow of this one tree.