Desolation Row 1
Every scribe trained for the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things both new and old.2Here is something old...
It struck me for the first time in talking to you and in preparing a few more [conferences] for [the monastery of] Ava, that I say the same thing over and over again in a different way. It's like playing a guitar with one string: I play it sometimes loud and sometimes soft, sometimes quick and sometimes slow. But it seems to be the same string. It occurs to me that I'm much of a gatherer rather than a creator. I'm a primitive type. I don't cultivate and sow and reap. I walk up and down the beach and see what I can find and every now and then I think I find something pretty good. And I look at it...
And so I stumbled on this [song] Desolation Row 3 by Bob Dylan. I don't know anything about Bob Dylan, but this song is very good, and he wrote it. I think some people loathe him, others adore him. But most admit, I think, that his gifts are great and unusual. I don't know what has become of the song in the last couple of years, but it is a series of images more or less connected. Listening to it, you try to get what the message is. And it seems to be a song about the failure of love, and that admission of failure in love is the beginning of healing, and therefore the way to genuine love.
There's a lot of stanzas that describe various characters: some of them from history, some from literature, some of them just types of all kinds. And the overall indictment seems to be: they failed in love. And what happens when people discover they failed in love? They look for someone to hang it on, someone to punish for their own failure. But Dylan's point seems to be at least as I read it; you may read it completely differently that this is not the answer at all. The answer is in the admission that you yourself have failed, and that desolation is not the characteristic of someone else's heart, but of your own. And you realize that you live on Desolation Row. To admit this is to shed pretense and to open the way to a genuine understanding of what love is.
I find it remarkable that so young a man he was only in his early 20's when he wrote it should be so shrewd an observer, so keen in his look into the human heart, so aware of contemporary need. I believe he would know what I was talking about if I told him that I thought monastic choir was a lot like Desolation Row.
In the song they are hanging Casanova because he failed in love. Often enough we act this out in our lives. We seek a Casanova that we can hang with good conscience: we hang the abbot, or the house, or the Order, or the religious life, or the Church, or the priesthood, or the community. Anyone, just so long as it is someone else. For if there is one thing we try by all means to make clear it is this: we do not live on Desolation Row. That's why the song ends: "Don't write me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row." (Not very good English, but it has a message.)
It is by being wretched that we win the Mercy of Christ, and by admitting and accepting our wretchedness that we are healed. You know: you go out into the sunshine and you reveal your wounds. And the sun heals them.
What do you do when you discover that Desolation Row is not only the name of a song, but also the name of the street you live on? When you discover after years in holy vows, pledged to chastity, that you still hunger for affection and seek it greedily, that you have no genuine love? It is a shocking thing to grow into maturity (as I am doing) and discover in your past life that you've had little love. What do you do when you realize honestly that you have no love at all for poverty? That you want it as nice as you can make it under the circumstances? What do you do when you realize truthfully that you live in constant fear that some day God may ask you to do something you don't want to do? That is to say: What do you do when it comes home to you that the field of dry bones4 is yourself? That the abomination of desolation5 is you? That Lazarus6, three days dead in the tomb and stinking is not Lazarus at all, but a man with your name? What do you do, in other words, when you learn you are not real, and that the relation between you and the place you live in and the clothes you wear and the things you do, is no relation at all? When it suddenly dawns on you: I am a resident of Desolation Row? What do you do?? Why, you thank God and you sing out for joy that liberation has come, that the day of redemption is at hand!
Discovery that one lives on Desolation Row is a common experience today, because it is a time of judgment: krisis as in the Greek: "crisis". But the response to this discovery is not always one of gratitude. Sometimes it's flight: people flee from marriage, flee from vows, from Sacred Orders, from society, with the feeling that in this way they will escape the phony. They are mistaken. Marriage is not phony, nor are the vows of Religion, nor Sacred Orders, nor society. It is rather man [who is phony]. God made the world. It's not phony. There's a lot of phoniness in it. Most of it has two legs. Man is not delivered from the phony by taking a trip! If anything, this will make even more clear his unreality.
Which is one reason why men come to the monastic desert: not to escape their phoniness, but to discover it. Not because they are real, but because they wish to become so. That's when men in a monastery begin to discover the dimensions of their own reality. Running does not always seem to be the appropriate answer. Sooner or later you've got to stop running. And "running" anyhow is just a way of talking; it need not be understood literally. Many people who are running as fast as their legs will carry them are not even moving. Even their running has something unreal about it. Which does not mean everyone leaving the monastery is necessarily running. Nor everyone remaining, holding his ground.
It seems to me that the acceptance of desolation is not merely an accessory to the monastic life, but of its very structure. It is so because that is the point in Christ's redemption. For Christ's life, death and resurrection was not just an "adjustment," a "tune-up," but a complete, entire rebirth. And this rebirth was begun in our death and birth-to-life in Baptism and continues all our life. It will never be complete until the last act by which we at once die and are born to life eternal.
But while we live we are constantly being put to death, and constantly being born to life. And the two actions are generally so interwoven and so interlaced, that it is usually impossible to know what is going on. What we take to be our death, may be our new birth. And what we interpret as a new lease on life, may be the beginning of the end. This is certainly true of our residence on Desolation Row. Not many are too anxious to accept the truth of the situation. And when they do, too often it is in terms of being the ultimate catastrophe.
Thus when monks line up in choir to chant the praise of God, how like Desolation Row as the two sides of the street face each other and, as it were, leaning out the windows they look over the scene. What a pity when you think that Desolation Row is only the people on the other side! The desolation you look on in your brother is the desolation he is observing in you from across the street.
What then? We simply stare at another's misery and possibly come to suspect it is also mine? Indeed not. That is to miss the whole point. For Christ made Desolation Row His road. This is the street He lived on. This is the way He walked. And He made it Glory Street, and paved it with gold. And all its creaky residences, and all the mixed up citizenry are aglow with the great Light, an everlasting Splendor. For Desolation Row runs right down the middle of Heaven. If it does not, then there is no Heaven.
If you do not see the desolation of the street you live on, then it is impossible to see its beauty. That is, to see it as it really is. For this is the irony of it: until you recognize the street as the one you live on, it's just somebody else's Desolation Row to you. You live in the suburbs at least you think you do. But there, of course, the desolation is even worse.
Monks have been standing in choir for about fifteen or sixteen centuries, I suppose, and in Gethsemani for a century and more, chanting psalms across the street to one another. There must be something to it for it to last that long. So many other customs have come and gone. There have been eras when there were multitudes in choir, and times when there was only a handful. Times when this action was thought wonderful, times when it was thought useless, a waste. And still, down to this day, monks take their place, take up the psalms, and sing across the chasm. There is something here, that is sure.
Oftentimes people come to Religious life expecting a place of love, especially love experienced as received. They call this an experience of Christianity. Yet is this valid? Is Christian community a place found at last where everyone treats you right, where no one insults you, no one presumes upon you, no one takes you for granted? Thus when a monk throws up his hands in mock horror with the word, "There is no love in this place!"one wonders why he was so long in making the discovery! Christianity is not to find the city of love, but to build it. It is in the building of it that we discover it. "See how they love one another" was spoken of the Christians by an outsider. The Christians did not experience it that way. They were busy building love. And generally we do not begin to love until we learn that we live on Desolation Row. For after a lifetime of building we think we may have produced at least something, after all the prayer, the sacrifice, the service. But when the light of truth is given us, we learn we've built no more than a shanty town.
I say: What do you do then? Why, you rejoice, because victory is close at hand. For in the moment of defeat lies triumph. In our ignominy, glory. And there in the midst of the shambles and the ruins that is you the Spirit of God will hover, and turn all into a splendid vision.
This is Christianity: to acknowledge that it is Christ Who is the Savior. And with Him we are to live, suffer and die, go down into the tomb, and with Him rise.
How long is it going to be before we recognize the street we live on? Before we acknowledge who we are? For we are the residents of Desolation Row. We are the poor, the misshapen, the miss-formed, the bent, the warped, the twisted and the corrupt.
That is why choir is so glorious and so dreadful. Obviously it's a glory, for it is to share in the song of the angels; we join the angelic hosts in the praise of God. We are robed in white and made rich in love and we sing the eternal song of peace and joy. But it is also dreadful. For we see who we are. We look across the avenue at the residents of Desolation Row, and they look across at us. This is the inner city. This is the dialog that matters. This is the desert waste, the asphalt jungle, the concrete nightmare. This is Appalachia and Detroit. In this wilderness we take our stand. It's no wonder that men have found this challenge awesome, no wonder they have sought one way or another to abandon so grueling an enterprise. This is no fairy song and dance routine. What a marvel that it should have lasted!
They tell me that the sound is bad in the church today. That could well be. You suspect it might be so, the sounds being what they are. But the thought has come, perhaps the hearing also is bad? Are people listening? Do they listen for the word, get the message? Maybe they want the acoustics to be poor. In the great choir of the world how chaotic must things become before people recognize what they are and where they live? How loud do the speakers have to be before people hear?
We must then listen a little, slow down a little and hush up a little, and sit still a while and turn on our dreams and listen to the wind, to the woods, to the water. Bend over and look down into the dark pool of your own depths. And do not be afraid.
Because as time moves on I suspect the message is going to get a little louder. The evidence, already great, will grow greater. How long is it going to be before we are able to recognize, to begin the experience of the awesome anguish of discovering that we live on Desolation Row? How good it will be at that time if you are able to help because in your own heart you have already experienced this anguish and discovered that you live on Desolation Row.
We take ourselves as we are, and we take our brother as he is. Together with him we take a stand for love. And all the evidence to the contrary not withstanding: love is all that matters. It is only love that makes of Desolation Row a Glory Road. And Love is already there, because that is where He lives.
The hippie movement may have developed because monks were not doing what they were called to do. There is something poignant about it. Though we may shake our gray heads over dope and dirt and debauchery, there was more to than that. We believe in love, do we not? Is not love the most important thing in the world to us? We too have turned our backs on the affluent society and the social whirl and the cocktail party and Madison Avenue and suburbia. We too believe in prayer and mysticism and contemplation and ecstasy. We too believe in poverty and trust and Providence. We too use bells and incense and beads, and we too have dispensed with worldly clothes and pay no attention to fashions. We too are rebels against the whole of modern society and we too are sick to death of war and bloodshed and violence and hatred. We too are flower children. Perhaps the hippie movement was a stinging rebuke to us that we are not getting through, perhaps a word of encouragement to us. How great must be the need for the kind of thing we are trying to do if the very children cry out for it!
It is when we begin to discover the dimensions of the loveless world around us, the loveless world of our own family, and the loveless quality of our own heart, that good is born. For this is what can lead us to Christ. Love can come only in Christ. Too often we choose to build a world of love on our own. There is no greater folly. We cannot be our own saviors, no matter how good our intentions. It is rather Christ, dwelling in the midst of our poverty, Who is the beginning and end of love, and its all. But so long as we are not willing to encounter our own poverty, we will never meet the One Who lives in it.
Thus I suggest that as many as possible, as soon as possible, plunge into the desolation of their own hearts, and learn what it is to be a Christian, to be a sinner in need of redemption, rather than a pious man in need of praise. Otherwise the lines of chaos in our world are going to be drawn with ever- increasing boldness and clarity, so that the very birds of the air and the dogs in the street will know that Desolation is at hand. And even on that day, you may be sure, men will be busy reassuring one another that they can fix it up in short order with a little work and a little luck, with a few adjustments here and there.
There is no joy akin to the joy of knowing the love of God. But this joy is impossible unless you know what street He lives on.
Monks have been lining up in choir and waiting for the knock to kneel for the Ave here in the Gethsemani church for over a hundred years! It is a great miracle. One can only wonder how long it will continue.
Men today are more frightened than ever. And so it is no wonder that they settle in cozy clusters and gather round the kitchen table in an intimate liturgy to encourage one another, rather than take a courageous stand in the ranks their fathers so nobly filled. No matter. We can still hope that God will send us men unafraid. After all the place is named Gethsemani, and it should attract a man who is acquainted with desolation.
Despite what may become of Bob Dylan, perhaps he was sent
to encourage us. To bid us hold our ground. To encourage us to believe
in love. To continue to sing the song that Christ sings with us in the
garden: the garden of Gethsemani. The garden of Desolation.
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1 This is an original
and unabridged version of a retreat conference Fr. Matthew gave to his
community of Gethsemani in January, 1970. He had previously prepared it
as a conference for the Gethsemani Laybrothers, probably in 1965 or 1966,
when he was Father Master of the Laybrothers. A slightly abridged and edited
version appears in Sermons in a Monastery, Ed., William O. Paulsell
(Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008, 1983).
2 Matt. 13:52.
3 From the album, Highway 66 Revisted, released by Columbia Records, August 30, 1965.
4 Ezech. 37:1-2.
5 Dan. 11:31; Matt. 24:15.
6 John 11:39.