Merton and Day

Friday night in a hotel in Tegucigalpa I learned that Pope Francis had referred to Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day in his speech to the US Congress.

Here are some of my initial thoughts.

I was flabbergasted and ecstatic! These two Catholics were both converts and corresponded with each other.

Thomas Merton, after a profligate youth, became a Catholic and entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was a best seller which omitted some details of his pre-monastery life, including the child he engendered.

Dorothy Day, after a young adulthood spent in radical causes as well as a child out of wedlock, became a Catholic, spurred on by the birth of her child. Her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, also omitted some details of her pre-conversion life, including an abortion.

Thomas Merton might have disappeared into the monastery, writing pious books, but he was stirred by his reading of the signs of the times and wrote on race, war and peace, nonviolence, and other religions. His contemplation opened him to the pain and suffering of the world.

Dorothy Day might have continued her work with the poor at the Catholic Worker, which she co-founded with Peter Maurin. But she combined her activism and her direct service of the poor with a deep spirituality which included daily Mass and praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

Merton and Day show us that contemplation and radical social advocacy are not separated in the eyes of God.

They reflect the thought of St. John Chrysostom who wrote:

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior?
Do not despise it when it is naked.
Do not honor it in church with silk vestments
while outside it is naked and numb with cold.
He who said, “This is my body,”
and made it so by his word,
is the same that said,
“You saw me hungry and you gave me no food.
As you did it not to the least of these,
you did it not to me.”
Honor him then by sharing your property
with the poor.
For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

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