The devastating floods in Cornwall have shown us the destructive power of rain and once again confronted us with the truth that we cannot always control nature. However I recently found myself moaning about rain, not the destructive rain that causes floods but the everyday rain we often experience in this country: the inconvenience of it, the greyness of the skies and lack of sunshine. My mood felt less optimistic and then I remembered an essay by the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, called ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros,’ and reread it. Merton wrote it, after a night, sitting in the dark, listening to the rain fall on his secluded cabin, tucked away in the woods. The rain surrounded the hermitage as quietly and mysteriously, as comprehensively as grace or love can surround the human spirit. The rain seemed to have no origin except its own spontaneity, no purpose except its own rhythm, no limit except its own boundary. The rain he describes is unrelenting, God-like in its pervasiveness and its gentleness, in the relief it brings and the challenges it poses. The darkness makes the rain mysterious. The sound is everywhere and yet one sees nothing. Merton tells us as he sits absolutely alone, deep in the forest, late at night, about the rain:
Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By ‘they’ I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they sell you even their rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am still in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognise, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.
Rain: Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes.
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I will listen.
Of course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive, and the noise of the traffic becomes a splashing of fountains. One would think that urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal. But the rain brings no renewal to the city, only tomorrow’s weather, and the glint of windows in tall buildings will then have nothing to do with the new sky. All ‘reality’ will remain somewhere inside those walls, counting itself and selling itself with fantastically complex determination. Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in the skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans, the faces of advertisements and the dim sound of unidentified music. But they must know there is wetness abroad. Perhaps they even feel it. I cannot say.
The word Rhinoceros in the title refers to a play written by Ionesco which exposes what the playwright called the tyranny of usefulness: the reduction of human value to practicality and economics troubled him. Ionesco wanted a flower to be a flower, existence to be existence, justified in their own right without reference to utility for their meaning. The play alerts us, therefore, to the grace of gratuity, to the festivity of speech and relationship, to the celebration of life on its own terms. Eugene Ionesco’s own analysis of his play is that it indicts those who are always in a rush, who have no time, who have lost the need for solitude and have become prisoners of necessity. Such people are depicted as a herd of rhinoceroses. The play is an attempt to summon people to preserve their individuality, to honour their conscience and to resist the pressure to conform at all costs.
Merton catches the mood of the play exactly by his reflection on rain. Ionesco could not want for a more effective antidote to ‘rhinoceritis’ than a monk, committed to silence, attentive to the rain in the early morning darkness of a hermitage. Merton was insistent that the contemplative life not be seen as exotic and the preserve of the few, but a way of seeing the world, where the ordinary becomes sacred, something readily available to all, as is the rain, with the joy and festivity rain brings with it. He believed that grace is everywhere, and that anything can be sacramental. On some nights and days, rain is the sacrament.