I surprised even myself with this “Thomas Merton moment.” Where did THAT come from?
Early April 2020. Coronavirus, coronavirus… all day, every day. The first time I wore a face mask on my daily trip to the post office. It seemed like the right thing to do. To help prevent ME from unknowingly spreading the contagion, I can wear a mask. So, I did.
All of a sudden — as I stepped out of the car — I had a great sense of connection to everyone I encountered. It bordered on compassion. Definitely caring.
I thought, “Old lady slowly moving toward the door, I’m doing this for you.” “Office worker pulling mail out of your P.O. box while I wait to get to mine, I’m doing this for you.” “Postal worker now behind plastic, I’m doing this for you.” “And you two who are six feet from me in front and behind in line, I’m doing this for you.”
No words were spoken. And the ones I saw with masks, I secretly thanked them. “Thank you for caring about me.”
My first mask-wearing venture into the United States Post Office in Oxford, Mississippi, immediately brought to mind an experience of the Christian mystic Thomas Merton on the street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The monk found himself away from the monastery and in the midst of crowded sidewalk.
“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 these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world.… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966).
Some people believe wearing a mask shows weakness. I believe it is a way to show others I care. Even Jesus told us, “If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me.”
I don’t think I was as generous as Merton who said he “loved all these people.” But I did genuinely have a sense of connection and caring for each one. In these uncertain times, more caring and connection can’t be a bad thing. Can it?