Merton and the West

Bright Lights Big City sunrise Michael J Fox

Bright Ligths, Big City, by Jay McInerney, doesn’t have a lot of scenes that take place in the full light of dawning day.  But the last scene does.

Jamie* sobers up finally and finds himself hungry.  He meets a bread truck making early downtown deliveries.  Jamies doesn’t have any cash, since he blew it all the during the night.  So he trades the driver his fancy Ray Bans for a loaf of bread–and a fresh start on life.

In the movie, they set this scene near the Hudson.  Jamie wanders out onto a pier and eats his bread facing west.

If we want to understand Thomas Merton–and some of us do, I think; some of us will make a Merton pilgrimage next month to try to understand better–if we want to understand him, let’s consider this fact:  Merton, the consummate Easterner, New Yorker, who grew up mainly in Europe–this man wound up living the better part of his life in west-central Kentucky, about an hour’s drive south from the Falls of the Ohio, where Lewis and Clark met up to start their expedition.

Hope became Merton’s daily bread, of course, as a monk.  We read in No Man is an Island:

Upon our hope depends the liberty of the whole universe.  Because our hope is the pledge of a new heaven and a new earth, in which all things will be what they were meant to be.  They will rise, together with us, in Christ.  The beasts and the trees will one day share with us a new creation, and we will see them as God sees them, and know that they are very good.

The West, our American West–the place into which our American soul has gone in solemn, ceremonial procession, so to speak, through the St. Louis Gateway Arch:  What is it, this West?

Well, for one thing, it’s the land where the French and Spanish, who came before us English, named the towns after saints.

thomas mertonFor another:  in the West, the future opened up–challenging, but welcoming.

I don’t mean that the Anglo-American idea of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny came straight from the mouth of God.  Not sure about that at all.

But I do mean this:  Twentieth-century America’s most conspicuous exponent of ancient and medieval Christian wisdom prayed and wrote in the wide-open land beyond the Appalachians that our frontiersmen ancestors settled.  Merton lived under their western sky.

Now, I bring all this up because:  I think that finding what makes us Americans “us” has become urgent business.  If we don’t try to figure that out; if we instead let ourselves grow more and more desperately insistent on each having our own personal, individual way all the time–or living in our personal abstract theories, instead of living together, on this one land that we all inhabit–if we don’t try to figure out where our common hope as a people has come from, through 240 years–won’t we descend into some kind of civil war before long?  I fear we will.

In the Divine Office today for the Memorial of St. John Chrysostom, we read about the intimate way the saintly pastor identified himself with his people.  He spoke to them about the exile he faced:

Where I am, there you are too, and where you are, I am. For we are a single body, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the body. Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us. For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people.  You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my brothers, my sons, my limbs, my body.


Father Merton had an epiphany in Louisville and wrote this:

At the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to each other…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.

The keystone in the mighty arch of man, the gateway of hope:  Christ.  He wills to share with us precisely the same interior Gift that united Him perfectly with the divine Hand of Providence–with the future, with an ever-dawning day.  May He pour His Spirit into us Americans to help us find the future together.  I think that Father Thomas Merton can help us a great deal.

* In the movie, the “you” of the book bears the name Jamie.

Feast of the Holy Cross

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14?  (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*

On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called…  Golgatha.  After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19:  “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb.  There they laid Him.”  Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there.  Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity.  St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:

[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth…  The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.

Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.

But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were.  We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.

So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.

Tenth Station of the Cross

So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.

And let’s focus especially on this:  our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue.  The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.

Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true.  The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts.  And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.

After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.

Let’s look at it this way.  A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell.  If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution:  zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs.  The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave:  zero.

little last supperIn other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man.  Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten.  And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.

Except for one fact:  He is God.

He rose from the dead.  He poured out His Holy Spirit.  He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass.  He is the hope and the joy of mankind.

This is what Christians have known from Day One.  So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection.  They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.

At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours.  The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity.  The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago.  And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.

We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them:  We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…

Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!


* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.

Blessed Virgin Mary’s Birthday

Cam Newton Panthers

Leave it to our Lady to give us a birthday present on her birthday.  Namely football.  Panthers-Broncos re-match tonight!

Let’s ask ourselves this question.  At Holy Mass today we read a lengthy genealogy.  From Abraham to Amminadab to Shealtiel to Matthan, with a lot of tongue-twisting ancient Hebrew names in between.  What does this long list of obscure names have to do with the meaning of life?

A great deal, in fact.  But first, this question:  Does life have meaning?  What makes us think that life has meaning?  Maybe there really is no more to it than the fleeting thrill of seeing Cam Newton rush for a 20-yard carry and possibly avenge the ugly Superbowl, this very night?

bl-virg-detailNo.  Football is fun.  But meaningful?  Not exactly.  A new iPhone can be fun, I guess. NASCAR can be fun.  But enough to make life worth living?  Hardly.

But:  What about this?  What about the idea that all things have been arranged by a mind infinitely greater and more beautiful than our own, Who has revealed His sublime purpose by becoming a man Himself?  What about a woman giving birth to a son, Who is God, the One Who made and Who governs everything, and Who spread out His arms to endure the Roman death penalty, in order to show us that all of this is for love?

All of it, everything–the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers, the seas, the mountains and hills, time, history, birth:  all an act of divine love.

The Virgin Mary perceived; the Virgin Mary said Yes to; the Virgin Mary co-operated in every way with this:  We find meaning in life by union with Jesus Christ.

The Blessed Mother’s union with Christ involved her body and her soul.  So, by His grace, does ours.  Her union with Christ consumed her entirely, and yet brought out her true self like nothing else could.  So, by His grace, does ours.

She said Yes to the Incarnation, gave herself entirely to it, lost herself completely in it, and became herself by: giving birth to, nursing, helping, feeding, teaching, learning from, following, and suffering with God.

Yes.  We say yes, too.  Yes, we believe that Christ is God, and His cross means that life is worth living.

Sermon on the Plain and the World Passing Away


In the gospel reading at Holy Mass today, we read “Blessed are the poor…  Blessed are those who hunger…  Blessed are those who weep…”  Sounds like the…  Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes come at the beginning of the Sermon on the…  Mount?!  In the gospel according to…  Matthew?!

But today we read from the gospel according to Luke.

And the verses before today’s passage indicate that “Jesus came down and stood on a stretch of level ground.”

It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain.

If you think I am making that up, I could see why you would.  But it’s a thing, a legit thing.  Christ’s Sermon on the Plain, recounted in St. Luke’s gospel–just like His Sermon on the Mount is recounted in St. Matthew’s.

Seems to me that St. Paul reflects Christ’s message in the passage from I Corinthians that we also read at today’s Mass.  St. Paul recommends that we Christians abstain from marriage and sex, as he recommends that we abstain from all inordinate attachment to the things of this world.

Not because marriage or weeping or rejoicing or buying or living in this world all involve pure evil—no.  Rather because the world in its present form is…  passing away.

On Sunday we will mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  The old Twin Towers always meant a lot to me, and I have read a bit about the mechanics of their construction and destruction.

During the design phase in the late 1960’s, they did a detailed study about the potential impact of a plane accidentally crashing into one of the buildings because of fog or a storm.  It never occurred to anyone then that terrorists would intentionally fly planes into the Twin Towers.  No one imagined such malevolence.

I’m not an engineer, of course.  But as I was reading about how they designed the Twin Towers, I thought to myself: it might be interesting to read that study about what would happen if a plane flew into one of the buildings by accident.

But you can’t read it.  The airplane-impact study from the sixties was itself lost forever on September 11, 2001.  There were only two copies, and, of course, they were in the buildings.

The world as we know it is passing away.  Blessed are those whose hearts belong to God.

Facing Death, and the End of White Christian America, with Dignity

The corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind. (Wisdom 9:15)

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, 33)

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Who knows who said these words? Holy Job.

We Christians do not despise life in this world. We do not despise our mortal bodies.  But mortal they are. Our lives on earth will end. Following Christ means exercising humble realism about the earth and our earthen bodies. When we recognize that this pilgrim life will pass, then we can embrace the truth about the divine life that Christ offers, through His own bodily death.

I recently read a thoughtful essay about death, and a review of a book about the end of an era. First the essay.

Jones End of White Christian AmericaThe essayist laments the “indignity” of dying in a hospital. Wearing one of those pathetic gowns that never stay closed in the back. Grim fluorescent lighting. Tests and tubes and aches and pains and cruel anonymity. Family members hunched in uncomfortable chairs.

A grim scene, no doubt. But then the proposal: we need to take control. We need to approach death like consumers who get to choose options and decide the time and place. The so-called “Death with Dignity” movement. Also known as physician-assisted suicide.

This whole school of thought misses the great elephant in the room. Death itself. You can die in a hospital bed, or you can die in your favorite boutique hotel, surrounded by bagpipes and accordion players, with rosewater and peonies beside your canopied bed. When it’s over, you’re still dead. Hospital gowns are a bummer, sure. But death’s the part that really sucks.

When it comes to “death with dignity,” what about the dignity of Christ’s death? On the one hand, it makes suffering in a hospital look like a walk in the park. But who could die with more dignity than the suffering servant Who trustingly commended His life into the hands of the Almighty Father? Nailed to a cross, He exercised royal power, forgiving the penitent criminal and saying to him, “you will be with Me in paradise.” Unjustly tortured and killed by evil men, Christ prayed for them: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Sovereign dignity. Lord Jesus exercised no control, made no consumer choices about his death. Yet no one has ever died more beautifully.

The parables of the tower and the king preparing for battle teach us to exercise this humble realism about our mortality. Dying with dignity does not mean controlling all the external circumstances. No: we live with dignity, and we die with dignity, when we share in the triumph of Christ. When we have a spiritual life. When we have divine faith, hope, and charity. When we humbly receive from God all that He gives. Yes, He gives us life in this world, and bodily death is no picnic. But life in this world is just the beginning.

parable towerWhich brings me to the book. The End of White Christian America. It’s a new book which analyzes population trends and religious affiliation. Newsflash: White Christians no longer constitute a political majority in these USA.

Now, I’m a white Christian. I wish I could call myself a good Christian. But the mirror tells me I’m white, and my baptismal certificate proves I’m a Christian.

We could stay here all day long talking about how America has operated as a Christian country, or failed to do so, over the course of 240 years of history. But the idea of the book is that the hegemony of white Christians has now ended. Meaning that we white Christians must feel all petulant and defensive about it.

I, for one, don’t quite see it that way. Demographics can change. Polls change. How many white Christians does it take to change a light bulb? But tribal allegiances, based only on externals, have no enduring claim on our souls. Christ, on the other hand, does not change. The Gospel does not change.

And the Gospel neither offers nor denies political hegemony. What the Gospel offers is eternal life. Not earthly power, but meaning and beauty for our otherwise dangerously inscrutable existences.

When St. Peter first preached Christ on Pentecost Sunday, no one had any thoughts at that moment about political control. After all, the Romans weren’t counting votes in Palestine in those days. It wasn’t a democracy, even in name. But the Apostles and the first Christians burned with zeal for souls anyway. They longed to share their supernatural joy.

Brothers and sisters, we must never underestimate the difference we can make in other peoples’ lives simply by bearing faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the communion of His Church. What we Catholics have—not because we are so great, but because Christ has given it all to us—what we have to offer is the one real, living solution to the problem of human mortality. And to the problems of human loneliness, and conflicts between races and peoples. Jesus Christ is the real, living answer to all this.

In American history, and in world history, this year—2016—has pretty much sucked, and it continues to suck. But it is our moment. It is the moment when we can give up the pursuit of shallow comfort and silly emotional excesses and embrace the mission that the Lord Jesus has clearly laid before us.

Be My apostles! Be fishers of men! The worst thing that can happen is that they will kill you. And that would be death with dignity.