Sometimes these days, I feel filled to overflowing with gratitude like a vessel brimming with beauty.
Years ago when I first met my friend “A,” we both were working our way through Julia Cameron’s handbook of creativity, The Artist’s Way. The chapter that spoke to “A” the most powerfully was “Recovering a Sense of Abundance.” Cameron explained how artists, writers, and other creative people need to see the Universe as a full and generous place: if you dare follow your dreams, the Universe will provide you with what you need, albeit in simple and sometimes frugal ways.
I think I’m finally realizing what Cameron has been talking about all along. Last weekend while I wandered around New York City with three good friends and a pencam, I was dazzled by ordinary images of abundance: a bead shop full of bright baubles, a corner convenience store stocked with colorful produce and products.
The first time I went on a Zen retreat, I spent a silent and austere week hurting and struggling in a monastery in Rhode Island. For a week I spoke only during 5-minute, every-other-day interviews with the Zen Master; I ingested no sugar, alcohol, or caffeine; and I showered every other day in a monastery-mandated attempt to save well water. When I returned to Boston after my week-long stint of monasticism, I remember standing agape before a Copley Plaza shop window filled with colorful soaps, lotions, and sponges. I was dazzled at the abundance of shapes, colors, and textures. After a week of austerity, my mind couldn’t process the wide assortment of personal care products presumably needed to keep a human body working and presentable from day to day.
The first time Thomas Merton visited Louisville after entering the austere Abbey of Gethsemani, he railed against the rampant consumerism he found in the big city. What need did people have of all the crap that merchants hawked in shop windows? With the typical zeal of a newly converted young monk, Merton wrote a seething rant about the foolish people who spent their lives in active pursuit of material goods while he and his fellow monks held the world together through their contemplative and abstemious lifestyle.
In a future visit to Louisville, Merton’s view changed markedly. Softened by months of prayer and silence, Merton did that most miraculous of things: he changed his mind.
- In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . This sense of liberation could have taken form in the words: ï¿½Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”
In this passage (published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Merton points to the Universe’s most astonishing example of abundance: the wealth of human persons who fill it to overflowing, each of them carrying within them like hidden treasure an untold story.
The abundance found in shops, markets, and busy diners isn’t a sign of wickedness. It’s a reminder from the Universe that we are amply and abundantly loved, and to whom much love is given, much love is required.