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Merton and Barth

On December 11, 1968, I woke up in my dorm room at the university of Scranton to see the New York Times cover. On the front page were the opening paragraphs of two obituaries – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth who had died on the previous day. The world had lost a great Protestant theologian and a great Catholic monk and spiritual guide.

Though Merton felt closer theologically to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he had an appreciation for Barth, whom he quoted several times in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. As he noted in the preface:

I simply record ways in which theologians like Barth have entered quite naturally and easily into my personal and monastic reflections, indeed, into my own Christian world-view. To put it plainly, the book attempts to show how in actual fact a Catholic monk is able to read Barth and identify with him in much the same way as he would read a Catholic author like Maritain—or indeed a Father of the Church.

Merton notes that Barth played Mozart every morning before writing, perhaps – speculates Merton – “unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros.” Or, as Barth himself wrote, ““it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.”

Merton suggests that it is not theology that will save us but the encounter as a child with Christ.

And so I wonder how Merton and Barth would greet each other in the presence of God. I think Merton would repeat what he wrote:

“Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”

And so we are called to be as little children, approaching the Lord who loves us.

The world does not want to cry

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Happy are those who weep, for they will be consoled.


Pope Francis, in Gaudete et Exsultate, 75-76, notes how the world wants to avoid crying at all costs. We seek diversions to escape from the pains and the sorrows around us. Not only do we seek to escape pain with medicine, drugs, and alcohol. We try to ignore the pain: Don’t worry; it will pass. We want to deny the suffering.

As Pope Francis says,

“The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed.”

We want a life without the cross. “But the cross can never be absent.” When we let the pain of others penetrate our hearts, we become “capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness.” We let the pain tear our hearts apart – opening them to the healing power of a God of love, who suffers with us.

Pope Francis is eloquent:

Those who open themselves to weep “are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes.”

In such situations we learn and live what the English poet John Donne wrote in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions*:

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thine own, or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Sharing in the pain as Christ became human and shared in our pain is not easy. But I find that when I face the pain and others and try to be present – sometimes in silence, sometimes with an embrace – then I feel the power of God’s love among us, comforting us. In this way the distances between us, even the distances between enemies can be breached.

And even more.

“Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.”

*  Please excuse the non-inclusive language.

Blessing those who mourn

Blessed, filled with joy, are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In the beatitudes, Jesus does not let us rest secure. Mourning is a place of blessing. How counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.


Today I recall those killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue about a week ago. But I also recall the deaths we experience here in Honduras – from poverty, from lack of medical care, from violence engendered by the lack of a functioning justice system or from alcoholism or misuse of alcohol.

As a deacon I have accompanied a number of funerals. It is not easy, but they often are for me times of grace.

People often need to be given a place to mourn, to let their pain, their wound, be healed by the light of day and the presence of loved ones. I never tell people not to mourn.

I hope, though, to offer them a place where they can experience the comfort of God – in the hope of the resurrection and in the love of those around them.

One of the passages of the Bible that sustains me in the midst of all the pain and death I see is this passage from Revelations 21:4, which is a citation from Isaiah 25:8:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes…

If I can be there to wipe the tears from their eyes, sharing in their pain and suffering, maybe God can make of me an instrument of his comfort.

Saints and the spirit of the poor

Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When I tried to think of holy men and women who exemplified poverty of spirit and even actually poverty, I found myself overwhelmed by the vast majority of saints who exemplified this virtue. But today I want to mention two holy women and a man.


Today is the feast of Saint Martin de Porres, a Dominican lay-brother who lived in Lima, Perú. Born of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black woman, he was disinherited by his father. Trained as a barber and a surgeon, he entered the Dominicans. There he served in the most humble task but soon his gifts of healing were recognized. But he also cared for the poor and sick outside the Dominican friary. He would bring them to his cell and care for them. But his superior ordered him to stop this practice. When Martin continued caring for the poor in his cell and was reprimanded, he responded: “Forgive my mistake, and please be kind enough to instruct me. I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

He was truly, as his contemporaries noted, a “father of the poor.”

The second saint I thought of was Saint Clare of Assisi. Though she was from a rich family, she followed Christ, in the footsteps of Saint Francis, much to the consternation of her family. She was soon followed by other women who lived together by the church of San Damiano outside Assisi. These “Poor Ladies” sought to live in poverty – by the works of their hands and begging. They did not want to take up the practice of benefices and property that many convents of nuns had. She fought for this all her life and only shortly before death did she received confirmation from the pope for the Privilege of Poverty.

She not only advocated poverty but lived it. When the sisters came back from begging, she would wash their feet.


The third exemplar of poverty is not yet officially canonized, though Pope Francis spoke highly of her before the US Congress when he visited the US. Dorothy Day started out living a radical and bohemian life, but a life committed to justice. After her conversion, she sought to find a way to live out her faith and her commitment to the poor. After meeting Peter Maurin, they formed the Catholic Worker, first of all starting out with a newspaper. Later, they welcomed the poor. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality still dot the US landscape, serving the poor and marginalized in many ways.

Meditating on the lives of these three holy people of God, we may be able to discover how we ourselves may be called to live out the beatitude of the poor in spirit.

Where is our security

“Being poor of heart: that is holiness.”
Pope Francis

cross-foucauldIn his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate – Rejoice and Be Glad, Pope Francis devotes a large section to reflections on each of the beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

The opening line of his reflection (67) sets the tone: “The Gospel invites us to peer into the depths of our heart, to see where we find our security in life.”

The question is: Where do we find our security?

If it is in wealth, we will fall apart and feel totally meaningless when it is threatened or when we find ourselves stretched financially. I dare say that this may be one of the problems rampant in the United States today and so the other, the migrant, is perceived as a threat.

Wealth can bring self-satisfaction, warns Pope Francis, so much so that “we leave no room for God’s word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life. In this way, we miss out on the greatest treasure of all” (68).

But if we have a poor heart, “the Lord can enter with his perennial newness.”

As one formed in the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, Pope Francis links this beatitude with “holy indifference.” Citing St. Ignatius, he cites part of paragraph 23 of the Spiritual Exercises:

“…it is necessary to make us indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden, in such a way that, for our part, we not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters, wanting and choosing only that which leads more to the end for which we are created.”

If our end is love – praising, reverencing, and serving God – then all is put into perspective and we can face everything, confident in the security of a loving God.

“Being poor of heart: that is holiness.”


The translation of paragraph 23 Spiritual Exercises is by George E. Ganss, S.J., as cited in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by the late Father Dean Brackley, S.J.

The joy of the poor in the reign of God

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Joyful are those who have the spirit of the poor
For theirs is the Reign of God,
For the Kingdom of God belongs to them.


Unlike all the other beatitudes but the last, the second clause is in the present tense. They won’t have the kingdom in the future. It’s there’s now.

That seems so contrary to the facts of life.

The kingdom belongs to the powerful, the mighty, the violent, the rich. How could the kingdom ever belong to the poor in spirit – or, even as Luke puts it, to the very poor? How could it be a blessing to be poor in spirit? How could one who is poor in spirit be joyful?

But that’s what Jesus says.

What could he ever mean?

I don’t think he believes that the destitute are happy; I think he wants to welcome them into his reign, to sit at the banquet table with him.

I think he wants us to be poor, or, at the very least, austere in our living.

I think he wants us to accompany the poor, not just helping them, but being with them in their times of sorrow and pain –  and joys.

I think he wants us to join the poor in their struggles for justice so that we can move toward a world in which the presence of the kingdom of justice and love and peace is more apparent, especially for those at the margins.

I think he wants us to sit down at table with the poor – at the tables in their homes and ours, and above all at the banquet table of the Eucharist, where there are no divisions, but where we are all one in Christ, sharing afflictions and consolations, joys and sorrows, disappointments and hope, where the final word is not death but life and love and resurrection.

Maybe then we can experience the joy of the poor and of the poor in spirit, where the Kingdom of God is present.


Serve in mission

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Notes for a homily at Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, Ames, Iowa, the sister parish of la Parroquia Dulce Nombre de María, Dulce Nombre de Copán, Honduras.

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

I come to you, with deep gratitude, from your sister parish in Honduras, Dulce Nombre de María – for your generosity, for your prayers, for your concern. Our pastor, Father German Navarro, sends you his prayers and thanks.

Our parish, in the mountains of southwest Honduras, has over fifty towns and villages, most with their own church where Delegates of the Word lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word. Catechists help form the children and prepare them for the sacraments. Twenty-nine Communion ministers bring communion to the sick and communion at Sunday celebrations.

I come back this week to St. Thomas, where I served for almost twenty-three years as a lay campus minister, also involved in the parish social ministry. I have been eleven years in Honduras. Two years ago I was ordained a permanent deacon, the first in our diocese, the third in Honduras. I have been serving in some way with the Dulce Nombre parish for almost all my time in Honduras. Now I live in the parish.

Last Sunday I was among about 100 deacons serving at the Mass of the Canonizations of Monseñor Oscar Romero, Pope Paul VI, and five others. When I got the tickets for my pastor and me, I thought this would just be a chance to be close to the Pope. But it ended up that we deacons served, by carrying the Body and Blood of Christ to the thousand or so priests there. We were there to serve.

It is so easy to want to have the best seats in the house – or the seats of power in the Kingdom, as James and John wanted. But the message of Jesus is that we are to serve as he does: “I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give me life as a ransom for many.”


Saint Clare washing the feet of her nuns

The temptation to power and dominion is strong, even in the church – as we have seen recently. But the commitment to serve is also present. I would say it is especially present among the laity who give themselves in service to their families, to those in need, and to the poor.

I think of Adolfo, one of our extraordinary ministers of communion in our parish. Basically illiterate, he walks at least once a week to several of the villages in his part of the parish, bringing communion, most of all to the sick and homebound.

I think of the people who give a day to help out in the parish coffee fields, which St. Thomas helped buy a few years ago. They come, putting aside their own work or a chance to get paid work, and get nothing but lunch. I also recall the women who come and work in the parish kitchen to prepare meals for our parish formation programs

And then there were the forty-two men and women, including five young people, who gave a whole week in mission last month, visiting homes of the sick and those estranged from the church and society. This is our third year of these week-long missions which have borne fruit, including the number of couples married in the church.

This service is not something that is done out of mere idealism or good will, as important as these may be. We make real formation efforts to help our parishioners recognize their calling to accompany the poor and needy as Christ was made flesh and made himself poor, to accompany the suffering.

And there is suffering.

A medical brigade from St. Louis has been coming to our area and I often help them with translating. This last time, an older woman brought her eleven-year old son with Down’s Syndrome, to get some medical attention. He had never seen a doctor in his life.

A more tragic tale is of a man in his early thirties who committed suicide. He had serious mental health problems and was taking medicine. But the medicine ran out and he could not get it locally. It was only available in the capital, about 6 hours away, for about $200. And he could not get the money, even on loan. As I see it, he did not kill himself; the lack of medical care killed him.

Medical care is hard to come by in our parish and it is expensive to get to the hospital and special clinics in the nearby city of Santa Rosa. At times people pay about seventy dollars for the trip. This is in country where over 65% earn less than two dollars a day. With a generous donation of St. Thomas, our parish purchased a car to make these trips for the cost of fuel and a small stipend for the driver. We are also asking each sector of the parish to set up a process to have funds available when the family cannot afford even this. Carro San Rafael is a blessing that you have given us.

The problems are many – lack of easy access to high school education is one. The donations for scholarships to a weekend program have helped.

The cost of living, especially the cost of basic foods, has risen. Fuel costs for vehicles and propane have also gone up significantly. There is also massive unemployment and those who work on the land do not get a good price for their products. Coffee is getting about75 cents a pound. Buying El Zapote coffee helps 14 families who get more than twice this.

Thus there are many people who get into debt – sometimes for their farming costs. In addition, this year some crops have been affected by near-drought conditions, affecting the lives of farmers.

Our area does not have the violence in the cities and other areas affected by gangs and drug-trafficking, but there have been cases of violence, often related to a cycle of vengeance that is exacerbated by a justice system that doesn’t work.

No wonder people flee, seeking an escape from desperation, from poverty, from violence.

In all this we need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and to the witness of the saints who call us to accompany the poor and take on their cause as our own. As the recently canonized Oscar Romero of El Salvador said:

“The church, in its zeal to convert to the gospel, is seeing that its place is by the side of the poor, of the outraged, of the rejected, and that in their name it must speak and demand their rights.”

We do this – not just in Honduras, but here in Ames – because we seek to serve as the Lord calls us, even more as the Lord Jesus himself is.

We need to recover in our prayer lives the image of Christ the Servant, for, as the letter to the Hebrews notes, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” He sympathizes with our weakness, identifying with those at the margins. Jesus, in his sufferings justified many, calls us to have compassion, to literally suffer with those who suffer.

We need to recover the place of service in our lives as followers of Christ the servant.

As Martin Luther King said, we need to recover a new definition of greatness, not the greatness of power and position that James and John sought.

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

All of us can be that servant. Your mission field may not be Honduras. But you have a mission here in central Iowa – to serve those you love, to serve even your enemies, and most all of to serve those at the margins. There we can encounter Christ. There we can find true greatness. For there we can serve as the Lord serves.

This may not be easy. It may be costly. It cost Monseñor Romero his life, but as he wrote a month before he was martyred:

My disposition ought to be to give my life for God, whatever might be the end of my life. The circumstances which are unknown will be lived with God’s grace. He attended the martyrs and, if it is necessary, I will feel him very close when I hand over my last breath to him. But more valiant than the moment of death is to hand over to him all one’s life and live for Him.

In your family, in your work, in your play, be a servant.