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Toothpaste Priorities

The most prophetic thing that Thomas Merton ever did was to say to a drugstore clerk who asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred, "I don't care."  Intrigued by the clerk's response, Merton wrote, "He almost dropped dead.  I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest…. And they all have a secret ingredient."  He concluded that "the worst thing you can do is not care about these things."

Merton wrote in the early 1960s, long before the art of making us care about "the secret ingredient" had so aggressively entered into every aspect of American life. We can't ride a bus, open a magazine or go online without being asked to consider which insurance company offers the best rates or which paper towel picks up the most dirt. Advent is a good time to reclaim our senses and reply with a resounding, "I don't care!"

During Advent the voices of the prophets come through loud and clear. In preparing us for the coming of God in human form, God calls out the big guns to get our attention. And what better, if unwelcome, wake-up call than Isaiah proclaiming that "we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth." Just what we want to hear on a Sunday morning, as part of the good news—thanks be to God—that is proclaimed and pondered in church.

- Kathleen Norris, "Apocalypse Now," a Living the Word column in The Christian Century, November 15, 2005.