All of my writing, like my life, is experimental. I am ever on a journey. We all are—through space-time into God. That is the nature of life. Whether I write below is more prose or poetry, I do not know, nor shall I plan. It may be formless, as fits the subject, the problem with which my soul now wrestles: the movement into the void.
My heart is a void. I would say a “vast void,” a large emptiness, but it may be a small void, but it is empty. When everything is dark and unseen, it may appear infinite, even if very small indeed. I am a little man, not great-souled, not significant, nearly fully unknown to the dying crowds—and that is the way I want it. Fame or attention would defeat the kind of life to which I feel and am drawn. But this also is true: every human soul borders on God, is in God, and God is boundless. Hence, in reality, the soul is boundless in God. Vast indeed is the human psyche, and how mistaken are those who treat the mind or soul as if it were a bounded, limited “thing.” Truly to know any human being well, one must also know God, who is the bonded partner with a human being. More on this issue at another time.
Now I seek to enter into the void of my heart, the wasteland of my soul, if I may say so. There is no way I could survive as a hermit or in strict isolation. Why not? Because I intensely need human companionship, communion heart with heart, mind with mind in God. Although a loner in the sense of avoiding crowds, social activities, parties, committees, and other things that have no attraction to me. I am not a loner in the sense of being a man who could spend three weeks in strict solitude, and be happy doing it. When a friend recently shared some issues in his heart with me, I said, “Now I feel on cloud nine.” What did I mean? I feel communion—a most delightful communion—when friend opens up to friend.
As a child, I was on a number of occasions punished by being placed in complete isolation from any human being. No one would or could speak with me. My father apparently knew how much I loved being with people and communicating. So when he considered it right or just to punish me, he did it in two ways, usually combined: he would hit me with his hand or with a flat garden hose; and then he would isolate me in a corner, or in a car with no one speaking to me, or in the basement, or in a room by myself. On happier occasions I was isolated without being hit first, but often these two forms of punishment were combined. Forced to sit alone, and feeling rejected and shunned, I wept. Even when I stopped crying as I aged, I wept inside. Now some of these tears flow out: years of pain held in.
This isolation may or may not still affect me, but I think that it does. If someone wants to punish me or “teach me a lesson” as my father would say, he or she can do so by refusing to speak with me, for us not to listen to each other, to be together. Isolate me and I feel as though I am in hell. That is a part of the void in me, and part of the personal “baggage” I must carry, day in, day out. It is part of me.
I am embarrassingly needy of human communion. The very threat (not intended as a threat, but felt as one) that my monastic superiors would require me to take vows as a hermit wrecked havoc in my life. It scared the dickens out of me. Ask my friend, Sandra, who witnessed what I went through several years ago when superiors were planning for me to become a hermit. Or ask Fr. Lou, my one priest friend in the Diocese of Great Falls, who said to me on several occasions, “Paul, you are not a hermit.” No one who truly knows me could think that I could be happy living alone and in isolation from human beings—especially from having a few truly close friends. And if one is so needy of real friendship, why deceive oneself with the name of “hermit.” It is unlikely enough calling me “a monk.” As I was told in my monastery, “We do not have a charism for friendship here.” It was evident that I needed close friendship, and several monks let me know that, as far as they were concerned, that need or “charism” excluded me from being a genuine Benedictine monk. Note well: I do not live in the monastery to which I took solemn vows. I simply “do not fit in,” to use the words so often applied to be at St. Anselm’s. And rightly so. I do not fit into the tight boundaries and conformities of Benedictine life.
Out of the utter blackness in me, the void that is painful and ever-present, I know with everything in me that I need one or a few truly good, reliable friends in life. With close friendship, I feel that I am able to be the man God wants me to be. Without a good friend or two on life’s journey, heaven would feel to me like hell. All of the friends I made in childhood were stripped away after a few months, as I attended some eighteen schools in eleven states before graduating from high school. Where were my friends? Gone. I had my family members, with whom I was often caught up in strife and conflict. Such was my life. How, I ask, could such a wounded human soul be expected to thrive and be happy as a hermit? (Or perhaps as a monk in community, for that matter.) What were these monastic authorities thinking? “Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.” If someone truly wants to make me suffer greatly, then put me in strict isolation—or throw me into “a cell,” as monks call their rooms.
It is not that I cannot be at peace alone. Well, perhaps I cannot be. With the trust that I have one or two good, reliable friends, I am not lonely when alone, because by love they dwell in my heart, in consciousness. When I pray, they are with me. When I read, they are with me. Without real human friends, I would not want to exist. Life in isolation would not be worth living. I utterly disagree with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French intellectual “existenialist,” who said, “Hell is my neighbor.” For me, hell is myself in utter isolation.
One can say, “But if you really believed in God, that would be sufficient.” Perhaps for Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, who was a wholesome and holy man. He had the benefit of a close loving family in childhood, and was not jerked around from place to place. But not for Paul McKane, who is neither wholesome nor holy, but in many ways, full of holes. These holes, these moth holes, eat up the fabric of my soul and character. That is just the way I am, whether I or others like it or not. I cannot be what I am not. “We all have our crosses to bear,” and “I am my own cross.” That much I know, and if you know me, you know how I can be a cross to you. Forgive me, friend.
I feel the draw to move by faith alone into the void, into what I often call “the divine abyss.” But it seems clear to me that I have one precondition for making this journey: I need to carry one or two dear friends in my heart, in consciousness, trusting that I am accepted and loved for who I am, and not because of some title or role, such as “priest,” or “monk,” or “man of God.” I am simply a wounded human being seeking peace and happiness with others in God.
Is it enough that Christ loves me? I think that for a while after my conversion to Christ, yes, that sufficed—or did it? I was horribly lonely and often did not want to exist when I was an undergraduate (ages 18-21). Once I was converted to Christ (age 20, I believe), I felt an intense sense of his presence in me and with me. Still, I needed human friendship. Yes, Christ; but also, a good friend.
“A friend is someone you don’t go to bed with,” as my former fiancée, Judy, would quote from her English professor. A friend is someone who stands with and for each other, accepting one another “warts and all.” A friend as friend does not seek sexual union, but spiritual union, a “meeting of the minds,” and attunement of the hearts. Or so I believe. A self-enclosed, secretive soul cannot truly befriend another human being. Or God.
I am willing to descend into the divine abyss in prayer—“truly to seek God,” in St. Benedict’s words—if and only if I am assured that I have a friend who may drag me out of the cave if I descend too far, for too long. If for a few days, Willy Boy is totally silent, someone better check on me, because that is not my style. God will have me silently in death, and then I will speak only in silence, as does God. For now, words. If you hear nothing from me, ask, “Is that man still alive?” And so I write for you, whomsoever you are.
Now I need to take steps to enter into the divine abyss. Let’s see what happens.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
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