Monthly Archives: January 2012

Thomas Merton and the Poor

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and spiritual writer, was born on January 31, 1915, in France. His writings on the spiritual life have nurtured many. His  Seven Storey Mountain has inspired many.

But even from the silence of his cloister at the Abbey of Gethsemani, he could not forget the poor of the world and the church’s call for justice and nonviolence.

On June 2, 1949, he wrote a letter to the children in Sister Marialein Lorenz’s class, which included these words:

“I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.”



Fear, Gandhi, and Thomas Merton

Mohandas K. Gandhi (the “Mahatma” – the great-souled one), was assassinated India, on January 30, 1948. Since I first read some of his writings in the 1960s I have been moved by his call for courageous resistance to injustice. This is no easy call – but I think it’s part of our call as humans, especially as followers of the nonviolent Jesus:

“Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for nonviolence. Violence does not mean emancipation from fear, but discovering the means of combating the cause for fear. The votary of nonviolence has to cultivate the capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. He reckons not if he should lose his land, his wealth, his life. [Whoever] has not overcome all fear cannot practice nonviolence to perfection. The votary of nonviolence has only one fear, that is of God.”

As I re-read this quote, I recalled Thomas Merton’s remarkable essay, “The Root of War Is Fear,” found in his  New Seeds of Contemplation. As he wrote:

“At the root of war is fear; not so much the fear that men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves.”

May the Lord deliver us from fear and give us the courage to speak truth to power, not counting the cost.

Real orthodoxy

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican, philosopher and theologian, doctor of the church, whose writings have influenced the church’s theology for centuries, even though his writings were suspect when he taught and after his death in 1274.

In his work on St. Thomas, G. K. Chesterton has this amazing analysis of the angelic doctor:

“He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.”


A sixteenth century bishop for the indigenous

On January 27, 1554, Bishop Pablo de Torres, O.P., bishop of Panama, died. This Dominican priest and bishop had been exiled for defending the Indians.

As Enrique Dussell explains in A History of the Church in Latin America:

[He] attempted to enforce the  New Laws [on dealing with the indigenous], but he soon clashed with the encomenderos [Spanish landowners who had indigenous as their indentured workers] by defending the Indian to the ultimate degree of his authority, even to excommunicating the offenders when it was necessary. But the local governor as well as the Supreme Council of the Indies nullified Torres’ actions. The saddest aspect of the situation in Panama was that the Archbishop himself, Loayas, condemned Torres, a judgment confirmed by the Supreme Council. Pablo de Torres left his bishopric in 155 not only saddened by his inability to defend the Indian, but also because after his return to Spain he was accused of treason and never permitted to return to Panama.

The Church has not lacked those who took up the cause of the poor and the marginalized, even though many, even within the Church, have sided with the powerful oppressors.

May the example of Bishop Torres encourage other followers of Christ to speak up, not counting the cost.

If they offer you a fish…

Monseñor Samuel Ruíz, called Jtatic Samuel by the indigenous people of his diocese, died a year ago on January 24, 2011. He was bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, and an ardent defender of the indigenous.

I am leaving today to attend the wedding of a friend in San Cristóbal and look forward to visiting his tomb. My friend’s father was the bishop’s chauffer and so I hope to hear some stories of this legendary bishop and prophet.

In June 2000, the Des Moines Catholic Peace Ministry Newsletter  published this reflection of Bishop Samuel:

It’s a very well known saying that if someone offers you a fish, you don’t take it. You ask him to teach you how to fish.

So, Pedro learns how to fish. He goes to the store and he says, “I want to buy a net and I want to buy a hook,” And the owner of the store says, “Uh, what’s going on here, Pedro? You learned how to fish?”

He says, “Yeah, I learned how to fish.” Then the owner says to him, “OK, but what you didn’t know is you have to sell me a portion of your fish.” And Pedro says, “OK,” and he goes out and starts fishing.

He’s on the edge of the lake and soon he feels somebody tapping on his shoulder and somebody is standing there, telling him, “What’s going on here? You can’t be fishing here. This is private land.” And so they push him off.

Pedro has been given a skill, but that’s not enough. You can work on the “development” of the individual person, but the other half of that is working on the structural injustices.

The only question at the end of our lives is about entering the Reign of God: the reign prepared for those who visited the least of their sisters and brothers in jail and who fed them when they were hungry, the reign which those who reject the poor will not enter.

So the ultimate question is not a question of orthodoxy [right belief] but of orthopraxy [right practice]. The final question is not was I right or wrong but did I love my sisters and brothers or not. Whether I was loving my brothers or sisters or not — that is the only question.

Great insights from a prophet of our age.

Strip the rich

The saints and teachers of the early church, especially in the East, were often very outspoken in their critique of the rich and their love and care for the poor. St. John the Almsgiver, patriarch of Alexandria from 606 to 616, and died about 619.

He was known for his generosity to the poor, even defending giving alms to a man who was  found out to  not really be poor by saying that “he may be our Lord in disguise.”

But he had strong words for the rich, especially those who hoarded their wealth:

“If, with the object of giving to the poor, anyone were able, without ill will, to strip the rich right down to their shirts, he would do no wrong, more especially if they were heartless skinflints.”

These are words that are hard for most Christians to hear.




The joy of the Reign of God

On January 20, 1979, Fr. Octavio Ortiz, and young companions — Angel Morales, Jorge Alberto Gomez, Roberto Orellano, and David Alberto Caballeros — were killed during retreat in the El Despertar center, in San Antonio Abad, just outside of San Salvador, El Salvador.

Early in the morning the army came in the retreat center, breaking down the doors, and crushing the head of the young priest, Father Octavio Ortiz, under a tank. Trying to hide their crime, the Salvadoran army put the bodies of the four youths killed on the roof of the retreat center with guns and claimed that there was a fire fight. This tactic continues to this day in many parts of the world, lying to cover up government crimes.

At the funeral of Father Octavio on January 21, 1979, Monseñor Oscar Romero said:

“Octavio [Ortiz] found a treasure; he was sharing it with those youths. This is the great message of Octavio and those who  died: the form of this world is passing away and the only thing left is the joy of having worked for the Reign of God in this world. All the pomp, all the victories, all the egoistical capitalism, all the successes in life shall pass away.

“What is not passing is love, the conversion into service of money, goods, and professional talents and the act of sharing and making all people feel like brothers and sisters. At the end of life, you shall be judged by your love. In this, God has judged Octavio and the deceased youths: in their love.”

Martin Luther King’s prophetic words

Today the US celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. He was born on January 15, 1929.

Most of us think of King as the leader of the civil rights movement for African-Americans. Yet he was a strong advocate for non-violence, having been influenced by the Christian scriptures as well as the example of Gandhi.

Many forget that King was also a major critic of US foreign policy – in particular, the Viet Nam war.  Though advised by many to keep quiet he spoke out boldly against the war, especially in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech (transcript here) which he gave exactly a year before he was killed.

Here is an extract that still challenges the nations of the world, especially the US:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.



Seeing with compassion

“I’d rather die young, having lived a life crammed with meaning, than to die old, even in security, but without meaning.”
Mev Puleo

 On January 12, 1996, Mev Puleo, theologian, photojournalist. advocate of the poor, died at the age of 32, of cancer.

A good friend of her teacher, Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., author of Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance,  she was moved as a teenager at the contrast between the rich and the poor on a trip to Rio de Janeiro.

Her photos of the poor (some included in her book with Fr John Kavanaugh, Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ) and her interviews with liberation theologians (The Struggle is One) reveal a woman with a passion for the poor.  You can also see some of her photos here.

I often have mixed feelings about taking and sharing photos of the poor, especially children, as did Mev Puelo.  As she once wrote:

“Dare I invade their lives, steal this moment?” Yet how can I  not  share these children with the world, bringing them back with me to hearts who might receive them, voices who might speak for them?

In today’s Gospel, Mark 1: 40-55, Jesus has compassion on the leper who comes, asking to be healed. The Greek word means to “feel from one’s guts.” But I noticed that in at least one Greek manuscript another word was used that means “filled with anger.” Was Jesus angry at the marginalization of the leper, as we should be angry and compassionate at the marginalization of the poor? All too often the world does not see the poor.

May Mev Puleo’s writings and photos move us and many to anger and compassion – working with Christ and the poor in the healing of our broken world.


The bows of the mighty are broken

The canticle of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, is not heard much in the lectionary readings but is one of the most provocative prayers of the Hebrew scriptures. Today it is used as the response to the first reading.

A barren woman rejoices at the birth of her son – but her joy and her hope go beyond her good fortune. She sees a new world:

 The LORD raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from the dunghill.

And this is the work of the LORD,

for not by strength shall man prevail.

This canticle is clearly the inspiration for Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat, in Luke 1: 46-55, where Mary proclaims that

 the LORD has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.

These two women sing messages of hope for a troubled world and proclaim a revolution, the triumph of the poor.

In our world where the poor are despised and blamed for their poverty, where they are cast out, the words of these two women need to be heard, to be proclaimed, to be sung aloud to the rulers and the rich of this world, so that they be converted.

 For the LORD has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts
…and sent the rich away empty.

May this come true! And may people of faith make it happen!