Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

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.

Being a saint: Merton and Pope Francis

Reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and be glad, I thought of an exchange between the poet Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, soon after Merton was baptized.

Jim Forest relates it thus, in Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, based on Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain:

Walking with Lax on Sixth Avenue one night in the spring of 1939, Lax turned toward Merton and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
It was obvious to Merton that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” and “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of freshman English” were not good enough answers.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton was silent. He hadn’t figured that out yet.
“What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.”
That struck Merton as downright weird.
“How do expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to.”
“I can’t be a saint,” Merton responded. To be a saint would require a magnitude of renunciation that was completely beyond him. But Lax pressed on.
“All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is offering a call to holiness, to sanctity. “Don’t be afraid of holiness,” he writes (¶ 32) and adds (¶ 34), quoting Leon Bloy, ““the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

And so Pope Francis urges us, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness, [sanctity].”

This call, from our baptism, is to live this holiness, this sanctity, in daily life – to be a saint in the ordinary.

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. (¶14)

The letter of Pope Francis is direct and practical. It is well-worth the read, a good choice for Easter reading. But even more for Easter living.

Above all, be a saint.

To get started, take a look at the video.

Merton, Barth, and Mozart

Thomas Merton and Karl Barth died on the same day, December 10, 1968. I remember picking up the New York Times on December 11 and seeing their photos and obituaries on opposite sides of the bottom of the first page.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author of The Seven Storey Mountain and many other books, advocate of peace and racial justice, has been an inspiration for me for decades. I know much less about Karl Barth, a Reformed Church pastor and theologian. But he was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany and one of those responsible for the Barmen Declaration that opposed the Reich Church that professed allegiance to the Nazis.

Many years before their deaths, Thomas Merton wrote about Barth and Mozart in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

Barth played Mozart each day before beginning to write. One night Barth had a dream in which he interrogates Mozart on his theology (which was very critical of Protestantism). Mozart said nothing in response.

Merton suggested that Barth listened to Mozart

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. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.
Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.”

Merton concludes his short meditation on Barth, commending Barth (and himself) to the mercy of God:

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.

I wonder what Merton and Barth are now discussing in heaven.

God and the naked Indian

Three Franciscan sisters helped me on Friday and Saturday to do some formation for leaders of our youth groups and communities in the parish.

I had asked Sister Nancy to provide some different prayer experiences for the young people. One she led was an imaginative approach to our understanding of God. She began inviting us to visualize how God might be seen in a tree.

I almost immediately thought of a tree in my neighbor’s year, a tree that I can see clearly from my terrace. It is called “el indio desnudo,” “the naked Indian.’

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The bark often peels away and reveals several beautiful colors.

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Also, at various times during the year the leaves are touched with red or yellow tints.

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It is a beautiful tree – especially at some hours in the morning when the rising sun shines through the leaves and highlights the bark.

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But, reflecting afterword in a small group, I recognized that God, the naked Indian, is deeply engrained in my spirituality.

God comes among us as a poor man. He emptied himself and revealed himself in the simple. He is the God who became vulnerable. He becomes the naked Indian.

There is also a further sense that the glory of Jesus is revealed when the bark is stripped away, revealing the glory beneath.

A second part of the meditation was to consider what tree I am. I identified immediately with “el indio desnudo,” but a smaller tree than God. As I reflected later I recalled the call to become vulnerable, to let myself be stripped of pretensions and more.

This all brings me back to a passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-8) that shapes my life:

Have the same sentiment and wisdom as Jesus, the Messiah:
being in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God a something to be clung to;
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave;
being found in the likeness of humans,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death,
even death on a cross.

The self-emptying God has become a naked Indian with all that means, because in many parts of Central America the native people are despised and the term “Indio” is used to express disdain.

Jesus comes among us as the despised naked Indian – and call us to be like Him.

As I finished writing this reflection I recalled one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Merton from his essay, “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” in  Emblems of a Season of Fury:

The tourist never meets anyone, never encounters anyone, never finds the brother in the stranger. This is his tragedy, . . .
So the tourist drinks tequila, and thinks it is no good, and waits for the fiesta he has been told to wait for. How should he realize that the Indian who walks down the street with half a house on his head and a hole in his pants, is Christ? All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesus.

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A word of warning

Obviously I am not celebrating US Independence Day here in Honduras. Here we celebrate independence from Spain on September 15.

But these words of Thomas Merton, written more than 50 years ago, ring true and provide food for a careful examination of ourselves as persons, as peoples, as nations.

“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”

Fear that enslaves

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,
that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.
Hebrews 2: 14-15

This passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which I was surprised to see is today’s second reading, fills me with hope.

Fear of death does not need to enslave us. That is the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

I see so much fear in our world.

Here in Honduras I hear the fear of gangs and crime that people in the big cities express (and that is found in the US State Department warnings about travel to Honduras – and also El Salvador). I hear it in the concerns of people around me about crime, violence, poverty, and more.

I have noted that fear in what I have been reading about the presidential campaigns in the US, especially expressed in fear of the Other – Syrians, Latin Americans, and more.

But I recall the beautiful essay of Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation, “The Root of War is Fear.”

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

But today in the Gospel (Luke 2: 22-40), Simeon tells Mary that her Son is the Light of the nations but that he is also a sign of contradiction that will cause a sword to pierce her heart.

How can we go beyond the fear of death, how can we be freed from that fear?

Perhaps it means taking seriously the words that the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp wrote from a Nazi prison, especially the words he italicized:

The fate of mankind, my own fate, the verdict awaiting me, the significance of the feast, can all be summed up in the sentence surrender thyself to God and thou shalt find thyself again. Others have you in their power now; they torture and frighten you, hound you from pillar to post. But the inner law of freedom sings that no death can kill us; life is eternal.

But i also think it includes loving, for “love casts out far.” (1 John 4: 18)

Lord, free us from the fear of death and bring us to love.

Tough words of rejected prophets

When St. John Bosco told his mother, a poor widow, that he planned to become a priest, she told him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shall not set foot in your house again.”

When Thomas Merton, in 1949, wrote to the class of Sister Marialein Lorenz,

“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.”

When Jesus spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth of the mercy of God even for a foreign widow from Sidon and a foreign general from Syria (Luke 4: 21-30), his hearers wanted to throw him off a cliff.

The foreigners, the widows, the poor hold a special place in God’s love. We who are rich need to be more carful and caring, opening our hearts (and our pocketbooks) to the poor, being with them, sharing their joys and sorrows.

Isn’t this what real love, God’s love, is all about.

———–

Today is the feast of Don Bosco who died in 1888 and the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton in 1915.

God’s mercy and our shortcomings

A few weeks ago I came across this quotation from Thomas Merton, who died on December 10, 1968:

“But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.”

I struggle with accepting my limitations, my sins, my inadequacies. It’s so much easier to pretend that I am not perfect, but good.

But Merton is suggesting that the start of our life of faith is remembering what is wrong with ourselves – but not stopping there.

If I don’t recognize where I am wrong, I can end up thinking I am right and everyone else to wrong. I can find myself taking on a “god complex.”

A few months ago, I ran across these words of St. Thérèse of Liseux:

How happy I am to see myself as imperfect and be in need of God’s mercy.

Reflecting on these words, which mirror Merton’s, I wrote in my journal that morning. (This is slightly revised.)

How hard it is for me to acknowledge my errors, my failures! How difficult it is for me when I’ve made a mistake, when I’ve not done something as well as I think I could. How reluctant I am to face someone , to talk with someone, when I’ve not done something well or put things off. I am afraid of looking bad.
But St. Thérèse remind me that my imperfections could very well be the path to letting God’s love and mercy touch my soul, transform me, bring me to conversion.

Recognition of our sins and shortcomings, of our imperfections and errors, can open us to the mercy of God.

That too is at the heart of the Jesus prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Living God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.

What makes for peace

If this day you only knew what makes for peace
—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
Luke 19: 42

Jesus cries even today,
because we have preferred the ways of war,
the way of hate, the way of being enemies.
Pope Francis, 19 November 2015 

As war fever mounts, it might be useful to consider these words from an essay of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton from “The Root of War Is Fear.”

The essay can be found in New Seeds of Contemplation. But when it was first published in The Catholic Worker, it included the following words in an introduction which are not found in the original book.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.

At the end of the essay Merton reflects on what we should be praying for when we pray for peace.

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed— but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

So today in the wake of violence let us pray for peace, for our conversion to the way of the Christ of peace, for the abolition of war.

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From the church “Dominus flevit” in Jerusalem

 

Exploring

Today is Columbus Day – a day when many celebrate a man who got lost and thought he was in India. His “discovery” led to the death of millions of peoples in the “Americas” and to the beginning of an exploitation of the resources of an entire hemisphere.

But I wonder if the problem is that he “explored” and “exploited” to fill up an emptiness in the soul – not just his but the soul of an empire.

These thoughts led me to remember what Thomas Merton wrote in The Wisdom of the Desert:

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.
“Proof: the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds, they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.”

But this is not just something characteristic of the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’ also points to the emptiness of our hearts as a factor in the consumerist culture:

The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality.

And so today is a day not to celebrate explorers but to explore in the depths of our hearts where God calls us to love and to embrace the Other, not to conquer or consume.