Not Being Like the Gadarenes + Charlie Gard

thomas merton

The Gadarenes foolishly begged the Son of God to leave their district. They begged the Savior and Light of the World, the revelation of the love of the Father–they begged Him to go away.

We might say to ourselves: We would never make such a colossal spiritual mistake! But before we do, let’s remember these words of Father Thomas Merton:

We all tend to be pagans at heart, and this blinds us to the true meaning of our Christian faith. There is a great difference between seeking God as a Christian, or as unconscious pagans. The pagan has no Christ, no Holy Spirit, perhaps even no personal God at all. He has to struggle upward to union with the ‘Supreme Being’–the ‘Absolute’–by sheer force of his own will and by his own fortitude, relying on his own battery of religious practices. His task is one of almost unbelievable difficulty…

Christian holiness is not a Promethean exploit. We do not have to storm the halls of heaven and bring down the fire of God, we do not have to raid his treasure rooms in order to obtain the good things He has reserved for us… Christ really descended from heaven, taking our flesh, re-uniting the human race in Himself, giving all men light in His light, sending us His Spirit to unite us to the Father.

Seeing that we would never come to Him, He came to us. Seeing that we could never attain Him, He surrendered Himself to us… He has shown us how to comprehend Him not by knowing, but by loving.

So let’s say to the Lord Jesus:

Don’t leave our district, Lord–no matter what! Stay with us, O incarnate Mercy of God! We prefer having Your company to anything else, especially our own pretenses of spiritual expertise. Our pretenses only reveal the extent to which we have failed to believe in You.

We know that You love us not because we have attained great things, but precisely because we stumble along like little toddlers, relying totally on You to guide and support us.

Please, Lord, banish forever from our minds any temptation to think that we could ever offer the Father anything worthy–except You!

We will read about the Gadarenes at Holy Mass tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple notes…

1. El Pais published an editorial about the president of the United States, every word of which bears reading. One word in particular appears to be an ingenious neologism. Tuitorreada for “tower of tweets” or “twitter-geyser.”

2. Speaking of tuitorreadas… That part of the world not currently busy making hamburgers and hot dogs finds itself concerned about young Charlie Gard, an infant in Great Britain suffering from an apparently fatal genetic disease.

If you have followed the case, you know that Charlie’s parents and the doctors treating him could not agree on the answer to this question: Could Charlie benefit from any further therapies?

A court convened and followed an established procedure for adjudicating such disputes. An American doctor had proposed a possible therapy. But the doctor admitted to the court that the proposed therapy had never before been tried on a human being. The judge concluded that Charlie should not be taken to the U.S. solely to serve as an experiment.

Charlie’s parents have appealed this decision. They have exhausted all legal options, apparently. But now the case has become a subject of papal and presidential tweets.

I just want to make this point:

When doctors and a patient (or the patient’s next of kin) cannot agree, the regrettable need for an impartial judge can arise. Advocates for “parents’ rights” in this case have tried to portray the judicial process here as an act of immoral euthanasia, which the parents now valiantly resist.

But: No one has an absolute right, in such a situation, to make the decisions. Because prudence must bow, ultimately, to the medical facts. We believe in God, and in His omnipotent power to work miracles, to be sure. But never has He shown greater, more miraculous health-giving power than when He endowed us with the skills that have led to modern medicine, practiced in a scientific manner.

I certainly don’t hold myself out as an expert in the medical questions involved in this heartbreaking case, which has now become an international sensation. Much less do I call myself an expert bioethicist.

But I think we all know that sometimes even babies get sick and die. Acknowledging that fact does not, in and of itself, mean that you favor euthanasia.

Of course we Catholics stand for the right to life, from conception to natural death. We also stand for everyone’s right to die in a holy and dignified way, when the hour of death arrives–as it will arrive for us all.

Facts can come at you cold and hard. The subtleties of genetic therapy involve facts that neither twitter nor facebook will ever be able to convey. I think we fail in charity if we conclude, without good reason, that this whole situation has obvious good guys and bad guys.

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St. Andrew, Pasternak’s Magdalene, Lara and Zhivago

St Andrew

Saint Andrew watches over many Christian institutions. These include: our beloved parish here in Roanoke, Virginia, and the nation of Russia, among many others. Today we keep the saint’s feast.

dr-zhivago-boris-pasternakAt the beginning of his letter closing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invokes the memory of St. Mary Magdalene. Actually, the pope recalls two women: the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who bathed the feet of Christ with her hair. But, according to tradition, and according to the great 20th-century Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, those women are one woman, namely Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalen by Boris Pasternak (translation by his sister Lydia Pasternak Slater)

I

As soon as night descends, we meet.
Remorse my memories releases.
The demons of the past compete,
And draw and tear my heart to pieces,
Sin, vice and madness and deceit,
When I was slave of men’s caprices
And when my dwelling was the street.

The deathly silence is not far;
A few more moments only matter,
Which the Inevitable bar.
But at the edge, before they scatter,
In front of Thee my life I shatter,
As though an alabaster jar.

O what might not have been my fate
By now, my Teacher and my Savior,
Did not eternity await
Me at the table, as a late
New victim of my past behavior!

But what can sin now mean to me,
And death, and hell, and sulphur burning,
When, like a graft onto a tree,
I have-for everyone to see-
Grown into being part of Thee
In my immeasurable yearning?

When pressed against my knees I place
Thy precious feet, and weep, despairing,
Perhaps I’m learning to embrace
The cross’s rough four-sided face;
And, fainting, all my being sways
Towards Thee, Thy burial preparing.

II

People clean their homes before the feast.
Stepping from the bustle of the street
I go down before Thee on my knees
And anoint with myrrh Thy holy feet.

Groping round, I cannot find the shoes
For the tears that well up with my sighs.
My impatient tresses, breaking loose,
Like a pall hang thick before my eyes.

I take up Thy feet onto my lap,
Wash them clean with hot tears from my eyes,
In my hair Thy precious feet I wrap,
And my string of pearls around them tie.

I now see the future in detail,
As if it were stopped in flight by Thee.
Like a raving sibyl, I could tell
What will happen, how it will all be.

In the temple, veils will fall tomorrow,
We shall form a frightened group apart,
And the earth will shake-perhaps from sorrow
And from pity for my tortured heart.

Troops will then reform and march away
To the thud of hoofs and heavy tread,
And the cross will reach towards the sky
Like a water-spout above our heads.

By the cross, I’ll fall down on the ground,
I shall bite my lips till I draw blood.
On the cross, your arms will be spread out–
Wide enough to hug the whole wide world.

Who’s this for, this glory and this strife?
Who’s this for, this torment and this might?
Are there enough souls on earth, and lives?
Are there enough cities, dales and heights?

But three days–such days and nights will pass–
They will fill me with such crushing dread
That I’ll see the joyous truth, at last:
I shall know Christ will rise from the dead.

Mary Magdalene is one of Pasternak’s “Zhivago Poems,” that is, the poem is included in the novel as the work of the fictional hero.

I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago because Thomas Merton thoroughly recommends it in his book Disputed Questions. Many people love the picturesque movie version of Dr. Zhivago, with Omar Sharif. If you want to continue to love the movie, don’t read the novel. The movie becomes laughable once you’ve read the six hundred pages of prose-poetry that Hollywood managed to turn into a lugubrious comic book.

Prose poetry like Lara’s description of the love she shared with her Yura (the doctor of the title), as she reflects after his death:

They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did.

Ah, that was just what had united them and had made them so akin! Never, never, even in their moments of richest and wildest happiness, were they unaware of a sublime joy in the total design of the universe, a feeling that they themselves were a part of that whole, an element in the beauty of the cosmos.

This unity with the whole was the breath of life to them. And the elevation of man above the rest of nature, the modern coddling and worshiping of man, never appealed to them. A social system based on such a false premise, as well as its political application, struck them as pathetically amateurish and made no sense to them.

Much more to come re: Pasternak and Zhivago, dear reader. In fact, I want to offer you a different translation of Mary Magdalene, which I can’t dig up just now, but which I think is actually better than his sister’s translation–which, to my mind, sacrifices too much for the sake of retaining the rhyme scheme. Just wanted to share this much with you in honor of our parish’s patron today.

Pro-Life Candidate, Etc.

john paul ii loggia be not afraidTomorrow some of us will keep the Memorial of Pope St. John Paul II on the road.  We will pass through a Holy Door in Charleston, WVa., and then hightail it through Kentucky, headed for Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani Abbey.

The good Lord gave me two fathers to grow up under, Kirk White and Pope John Paul. At my dad’s funeral, we read the same reading we read at Holy Mass yesterday, which includes:

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named.

(Ephesians 3:14-15)

I semi-resent this translation.

The word ‘family’ renders the Greek word πατριὰ, patria. You don’t have to qualify as a scholar to see that patria has something to do with pater, father.

“Family” is a beautiful word, to be sure.  But I think we have had more than enough gender neutrality.  I myself kneel before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named. (And Eddie Vedder singing “Man of the Hour” runs through my head.)

I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the e-mails and phone calls from my people, asking me to tell them which of the two distinguished presidential candidates they’re supposed to vote for.

When I witnessed the following on Wednesday evening, I had some thoughts…

1. How did we wind up here, we the proud Pro-Life Movement?  With a pro-life candidate who can barely manage to articulate the pro-life message? And who has practically no credibility as a champion of our movement?

2. As a body politic, poised for yet another post-Roe v. Wade presidential election, how can we not see the full significance of killing so many of our of innocent and defenseless unborn children?  Isn’t it the decisive political issue of our age? Hasn’t widespread abortion had a profound economic impact? A crushing psychological impact? Hasn’t it distorted healthcare and the medical profession? Hasn’t killing so many of our children cost us dearly in family and community life? And doesn’t the fact that we never talk about any of these things show how much of a devastating impact abortion has had on the truthfulness of our public discourse?

Never in a million years could I counsel anyone to vote for either of these two candidates. Except under one set of circumstances: when these are the only two real candidates on the ballot. Then we face the duty of choosing one. Say your prayers and do your best.

thomas mertonAs you may know, Thomas Merton loved Boris Pasternak’s novel about the Russian civil war, Dr. Zhivago.  In one chapter during the final third of the book, the Red army tries to recruit Siberian townsmen who are sitting and eating leftover paskha for a late-winter lunch.

Again, no one need qualify as a scholar to recognize the word origin.

Easter will come.  Even with Bolsheviks on the march, Easter came in Siberia a century ago. Easter comes. France has had five republics. Easter has come every year. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln led to the secession of the southern states. Easter came.

I don’t think either candidate mentioned God even once during any of the three debates. True enough, neither of them aspire to a religious office; our US presidency has to do with temporal matters. But we do need to pray.  With confidence in the love and wisdom of the triune God.

…Just in case you’re interested, for our spiritual reading while on the bus during our little pilgrimage, we will listen together to the following:

1. The homily of Pope John Paul II’s Inaugural Pontifical Mass, October 22, 1978

2. Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, chapters 2, 5, and 8.

3. Merton’s novice conferences on “the Spiritual Journey,” and “Prayer and Meditation.”

P!nk and Merton on Personal Individuality

Just like fire burning up the way, if I could light up the world for just one day.  Watch this madness, colorful charade.  No one can be just like me anyway.

We get a name in baptism.  The depths of our souls are stamped, by that holy sacrament, with a supernatural identification which will eternally tell us who we were meant to be.

Baptism gives us a divine vocation to find ourselves in Christ.  It gives us our identity in Christ. Baptism gives us our personal vocation to reproduce in our own lives the life and sufferings and love of Christ in a way unknown to anyone else who has ever lived under the sun.

–Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, “The Word of the Cross”

Question:  How can you possibly tell me that my becoming myself depends on an obscure rabbi who died during the Roman Empire?

Answer #1:  If not on Him, then who?  Who else has revealed the beauty of God like Jesus of Nazareth?

Answer #2:  Join us sinners who gather around the holy altar, and you’ll see.

Merton and Conscience

a-ceremony-at-st-raymonds
a ceremony at St. Raymond’s Maronite cathedral

I have traveled west for a few days, chasing the spirit of Fr. Thomas Merton–and trying to get out of my dear parochial vicars’ way, which I thanked my pastor for doing sometimes, when I was young.

I have reached the west bank of the Mississippi River; now it’s about time to turn around for home.  But last Sunday I made some new Maronite Catholic friends, when I subbed for the abouna at St. Elias in Roanoke, and I want to let them know that I got as far as St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral, on Lebanon Drive, near the St. Louis Purina factory.

..The best Mertonian advice I have found so far (which he gives in his reflections on conscience in No Man is an Island):

We ought to stop taking our conscious plans and decisions with such infinite seriousness.

…Our dear Virginia-Senator Tim Kaine apparently has predicted same-sex “marriages” in church.  In response, our Bishop DiLorenzo temperately affirmed that such a strange fantasy cannot come to pass.

My own words for Senator Kaine:  You have misdiagnosed our national problems, brother.  We have a baby shortage.  We need more babies.  And I think we all know where babies come from, amigo.  You are barking up the wrong tree.

Pope Francis shoes Paris
Holy Fathers’ shoes participated in the canceled cimate march in Paris last year

…Speaking of politics, now that the presidential debates shortly will descend upon us, let’s remind ourselves:

We Catholics are pro-life, pro-baby, pro-immigrant, pro-real-health-care, pro-good-old-fashioned-marriage, and pro-Paris-Agreement on carbon-emission reduction.

Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ that our USA and China have agreed to the Paris agreement now, making it much more likely to come into effect.

…Also:  apparently Pope Francis wrote to the bishops of Argentina about some guidelines they had given for Catholics in second marriages.

Knowing anything about pastoral problems in Argentina certainly exceeds my paygrade. But Father Merton offers some profound insights into conscience. He expresses himself beautifully, and I recommend reading his own words, but allow me to summarize a few points.

1. On the one hand, “conscience” means that I act freely, making a choice for myself.  Animals don’t have consciences.  But on the other hand, conscience presumes the guidance of a higher authority.  God governs things, not me. Acting out of “conscience” means submitting myself to the truth.

2. Faith underlies the operation of conscience.  I believe in God, and I believe that God exercises His authority through properly established laws.  Holy Mother Church’s laws, above all.

3. Ergo, I act freely when I make decisions guided by just and true laws. That’s how I discern the will of God.

The Lord gives us holy inspirations all the time.  But we have to sort those inspirations out from all the interior impulses that we experience, many of which are not holy.  The most-basic principle for sorting it out:  If what I want to do involves breaking a just law, then that impulse doesn’t come from God.

I don’t mean to minimize the pain and confusion that divorced people may feel about receiving Holy Communion.  But we have a much more fundamental issue to face:  the law of conjugal love itself demands lifetime fidelity, and there’s nothing any priest or pope can say to anyone that can change that.

No one can have a peaceful conscience and a tranquil soul without attaining some level of chastity–that is: true joy in exercising sovereign command over my sexual expression of love, so that I am always honest with it.

What I’m getting ready to say may involve some over-simplification, but not much more that a few percentage-points’ worth:

We can solve most of our sixth-commandment problems by going for a walk instead.  If it’s raining, use an umbrella.  Just keep your pants on, and go for a walk instead.

Repeat 100 times.  Then the whole situation will become immeasurably clearer.

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.

St. Bernard Articulates Our Lady’s Annunciation-Day Desire

Francisco Ribalta, Christ Embracing St. Bernard, at the Prado in Madrid

 

If anyone could get inside Our Lady’s head, the Mellifluous Doctor, who died 863 years ago today, could do it.

Did the Blessed Virgin react with blank and passive submission to the Annunciation?  Or did the archangel find a woman full of intense, pure, feminine desire?

Every year on December 20, we read a dramatic sermon of St. Bernard’s in the Divine Office.  The whole world awaits the Virgin’s response to the Archangel Gabriel.  Speaking on behalf of the human race, the preacher begs her to co-operate with the plan the angel has laid out.

In his next sermon, St. Bernard expressed the spiritual longing that moved Our Lady to say yes…

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word.

May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word.

May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived, that is, clothed in flesh which may remain.

May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time.

“God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1), to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures.  Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me, not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me.

In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.”

Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me.

Thomas Merton loved St. Bernard almost more than life itself. Merton explained the Doctor’s words like this:

The Incarnation of the divine Word is due entirely to the desire for Him which the Holy Spirit enkindled in the Immaculate Heart of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.  The hunger and thirst of Mary for the incarnation of the Word are the cause of our own hunger and thirst for Him.

 

Merton Alaska-Talks Catena

Man does not die in a ditch like a dog–but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is in full swing; he dies sharing in this work.  –Boris Pasternak, quoted in Merton, Disputed Questions

 

thomas merton

During the month before he traveled to Asia (and encountered untimely death), Father Thomas Merton gave some talks to priests and nuns in Alaska.  I thought that some passages from these talks from September 1968 might encourage us, so I made this little catena of quotes…

“God asks us to be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is enough, God is sufficient.  That is the root of peace.  We have that peace when God is all we seek.  When we start seeking something besides Him, we lose it.  That is His call to us–simply to be people who are content to live close to Him.

…We have made an agreement with God, an agreement to trust His promise.  That is what the covenant is, as God said to Abraham.  He called Abraham out of his land:  leave your people, leave your father’s house, and come to the land I will show you…The covenant consists in listening to the call and believing the promise, and always listening and always believing…We have not covenanted to do any great work.  We have simply promised that we will listen and that we will believe His promise.”

 

icon“We have to know Christ and respond personally to Him as the one in Whom all the promises of the Father are fulfilled.”

 

“If our life loses this sense that God has promised everything to us and that His promise cannot fail, then we are disturbed or upset, running from pillar to post.  But God has said that if we will be quiet and will trust in Him and live in peace and not in turmoil and not get too involved in anything that takes us too far away from Him, then He will do the rest.  He will be close to us, and He will work through us and save souls through us.  We need not worry about it–He is going to do it, and once again this returns us to an atmosphere of peace…Think what it means to be called to this specific kind of peace–in a world in which there is so such peace–in a world in which peace is almost impossible…’Why did He pick us out?’  Well, He did; that’s all.  And we are called to keep alive a little flame of peace and awareness and love in a world where it is very difficult for it to be kept alive.”

 

“The basic principle of education is to teach people to speak to God as their Father and to bow down to no one but God.”

 

pentecost_with_mary“It isn’t that the world is necessarily evil, but built into it are certain processes which tend to stamp out the life of God and the light of God and the Word of God.  So we have to face the fact that to preserve our own peace we have to know how to fight.  We are in the middle, called to peace and love and simplicity, called by the spirit of freedom which we learn to experience in a life of prayer.  Somehow we have to learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit towards this freedom which can hardly be defined.  And at the same time we are surrounded by conflict and criticism.”

 

“How does God run His household?  This is what is revealed in the Bible…  The Bible explains what God does with us, His promises to us; how, in fact, He runs His household.  This economy, the plan of God is centered on the fact that man is the image of God, and that God comes down to earth and empties Himself to save man, and the restoration of man is the work of the Holy Spirit.  So the reality of the Christian mystery is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit…the Holy Spirit given as a fruit of the Resurrection, as a result of the Resurrection, and the Holy Spirit is here transforming us, overcoming death in us, and communicating to us the incorruptibility and the risen life of the new creation, which is the Risen Christ…victory over death…

“You may say, ‘There are a lot of people following their consciences and making a lot of noise about it.’  I think the reason they make so much noise about it is that they are insecure.  If a person is securely following his own conscience, he doesn’t have to challenge the whole world about it.  If in order to justify following my conscience, I have to break down the doors of the Synod or set fire to the White House, there is something the matter with my conscience, and I am probably a pretty insecure person…If you think you are following the Holy Spirit and are hitting somebody over the head, then you have a pretty good indication that what you are following is not the Holy Spirit…See authority [in the Church] not as an abstraction but as embodied in superiors who have feelings.”

 

“The real Christian conscience is way down in the depth where one feels at the same time a complete personal conviction–it is my conviction, it is personally mine.  I am free, and it is my freedom that is saying this, and at the same time I know that I am basically united with all that  the saints and the Church have ever thought.  You can have this and still disagree…People who love one another very well and know each other very well can disagree and even fight like cats and dogs, but yet on a deeper level they are in agreement because of their love and their knowledge of one another…We are all really one in a certitude which is maintained not by anybody being right but by the Holy Spirit holding everybody together in a love and in Christ…And of course the place where this is experienced above all is the liturgy.”

 

“Too often instead of announcing Christ we are apologizing for Christ.  This is one of the sad facts about the turmoil in contemporary Christianity.  All of a sudden we say such things as ‘You know it’s not all that serious when we present Christ.  Christ is only trying to help us solve our sociological problems,’ and so on and so on.  We try to get around the seriousness of Christ, the seriousness of the Cross, and we transform them into dimensions which suit the secular world, the press, and so forth.

“This is not right:  this we cannot do.  We don’t apologize for Christ, we simply announce Him as a fact.  This has happened; the Lord has come.  His kingdom has been established, this is it and we are a part of it, and we’re living as Risen and Redeemed people in Christ.

“We can be fooled into thinking that we can take care of ourselves with all our modern know-how, and then just go to God on Sundays only.  The more our technological know-how grows and the more equipment is available, the more God is pushed to the periphery these days.

“But this is not the issue.  God is not there just to solve problems, problems or no problems.  God is the center of everything, and Christ is the center of everything.”

 

 

Merton and Weeds among the Wheat

devil sewing tares

Satan operates in this world, resulting in evil weeds growing among the wholesome plants—that is, good, holy lives.  Therefore, we undergo strife and struggle during this pilgrimage.  The final sorting-out of good and evil has not yet come to pass.  So the battle rages, and we find ourselves in the middle of it.

We do not doubt, though, that, in the end, it is the good God Who will do the sorting.  The Good will sort good from evil.

Thomas Merton gave a little retreat to some cloistered nuns in Alaska 48 years ago this September, not long before he died.  He said to the sisters:

Never has the world been so violent and in many respects so insane, and so given to pressure and agitation and conflict.  Although men have made brilliant technological advances, they cannot handle them or use them for good.  They even seem to turn against man’s good…

In such a society there have to be specialists in inner peace and love…

It is not that society is bad or wrong, but that it is extremely complicated and fast-moving, and there is a tendency to get confused in it.  They key word in this regard is ‘alienation.’

What is alienation?  …A person who is never able to be himself because he is always dominated by somebody else’s ideas or somebody else’s tastes or somebody else’s saying that this is the way to act and this is the way to see things.  We live in a society in which many people are alienated in that sense without even realizing it.  Their choices are made for them, they don’t really have ideas and desires of their own; they simply repeat what has been told them…

What happens to a person in this condition is that, without realizing it, he does not have any real respect for himself.  He thinks that he has ideas and he thinks he is doing what he freely wants to do, but actually he is being pushed around, and this results in a sort of resentment, which in turn leads to hatred and violence…

Good father Merton could preach the same words this September, and they would ring with just as much truth, wouldn’t they?

The Lord gave us the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares for a very precise reason.  Not to inspire us to judge others or do violence in the name of weeding the garden.  Quite the contrary.

The parable instills in us the absolute, serene confidence that good will win in the end.  For those who love God and obey His commandments, the struggle with evil will pass, a merely temporary phase.  The specialists in inner peace and love continue loving–fighting alienation, and fighting the devil, by peacefully loving–until the Good Judge judges all on the Last Day.

Bagpipes at the Ocean, Dogs, and Fr. Louis

This lovely morning I heard a bagpiper saluting the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean, and I thought:

We all live in the household of the Almighty Father, where the board overflows with food. Some sit at the table and eat their fill, and some of us linger like dogs underfoot. But we, the curs of the divine household, eat plenty, too, from the scraps that fall. The only thing that matters is to be inside the house.

Merton Seven Storey MountainClick HERE for a short homily on Matthew 15:21-28. Click HERE for an even shorter one…

Okay: Seven Storey Mountain

Thomas Merton entered the Catholic Church at age 23, while a student at a big-city university. As did I. Before leaving the house to go receive his first Holy Communion, Merton worried whether brushing your teeth violated the prescribed fast. I did, too.

During his first year as a Catholic, Merton undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, sitting on the floor of his bohemian downtown apartment. Me, too. He found a way to quit smoking and felt like a new man. Yes.

During his twenties, Merton made a retreat at a Trappist monastery, and the indulgent love of the heavenly Father wrapped him up like a silent blanket. Ditto.

Merton visited Rome. “I started with the misconception common to Anglo-Saxons, that the real Rome is the Rome of ugly ruins, the Rome of all those grey, cariated temples…then I began to haunt churches…And without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim.” Sounds familiar.

After joining the Church, Merton had to wait to embark on the path to the priesthood, so he taught school. Me, too.

Merton wrote a lot of religious poems. Merton could not stay away from the tabernacle. Merton adored Christ crucified. Merton kept copious journals. Merton rode a lot of trains and took a lot of walks by himself. Merton wondered if a real Christian had to go live in Harlem or East Baltimore like the Catholic Workers. Merton loved Shakespeare and Dante and admired T.S. Eliot. Merton studied Spanish. Merton had one sibling, a brother, a couple years younger. Merton fell in love with St. Therese. Merton did some hitch-hiking in upstate New York. Yo tambien. Yo tambien

I have read Seven Storey Mountain three times. Each time, it seems more familiar.

But the differences are much starker:

Thomas Merton was a real writer, genuinely brilliant. Merton was born in France and grew up on Long Island (It is wonderful to imagine rural Long Island, as it was in the 1920’s!) and England. No one in Merton’s family frequented church regularly. When WWII came, he submitted to the draft, but he didn’t have to go, because his teeth were so bad.

Woody Allen ZeligOn the other hand, I have some of the best teeth I know of. And I grew up going to church. And, even though Merton and I both visited the Trappists and thought of staying there to live in our coffins until the final bell, I knew I was really supposed to be a parish priest–in spite of how difficult this would make things for the poor people of the parishes.

Seven Storey Mountain contains not a few jeremiads, tirades against the world–the world that deserves damnation. At 22, I did not understand these passages. At 29, I loved them. At 44, well…

Merton always includes himself among the guilty. He practically blames himself, all his youthful sins, for the eruption of World War II. But: While this book contains stunning, enormously consoling interior honesty, it, meanwhile, contains precious little human connection with other people.

(For example, without getting into anything disedifying here, my dear reader: I read with not a little disgust the cursory manner in which Merton dismisses the young ladies with whom he had been in love–without so much as a trifling description of any of them as recognizable people. Were they not his friends? It seems odd that they pass like inhuman props through the storyline. I promise that I will never write my own One-and-a-half Storey Mountain, because it would itself provoke the divine wrath for its tediousness. But, if I did, there is a woman or two who would receive more fulsome and respectful treatment.)

Fr. Basil Pennington wrote in Thomas Merton, My Brother, that Fr. Louis changed significantly, and disavowed Seven Storey Mountain, because of an experience in Louisville.

Here’s how Merton describes the experience. (From his private journal, March 19, 1958):

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream–the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race–and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are–as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.

Beautiful. But Pennington gets carried away with this, I think. After all, Merton had profound experiences as often as most people drink coffee. If we all had a nickel for every profound experience Thomas Merton had, we would have some money to give away if and when we became Trappists.

To be altogether blunt: I think the idea of invoking “later” Merton against the “pre-Vatican II piety” of the genuinely famous Merton (Seven Storey Mountain has never gone out of print) is patently stupid. Statements like the following, which can be found in a “Note to the Reader” by a Mr. William H. Shannon in the 1998 edition of Seven Storey Mountain, simply boggle the mind:

The pre-Vatican II church into which Merton was baptized was a church still reacting–even three centuries later–to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons-circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity.

Can this man have possibly read the canons of the Council of Trent? Anyway, the idea that Vatican II gave us a New World Order in our Church–this idea has been thoroughly exposed as a fraud. Time has made mincemeat of the idea. And if we look at the whole question of early vs. later Merton that way, our thoughts will linger on altogether too shallow a plane anyway.

Let me speak solely for myself. Yes–I can say, “Me, too,” to an awful lot of what Thomas Merton wrote in Seven Storey Mountain. I found enormous consolation in my twenties from Merton in his twenties. But, now that I am older than Merton was when he went to Louisville for a doctor’s appointment in 1958, I find the jeremiads of Seven Storey Mountain somewhat uncharitable and pretty pointless. So let me say:

I love being a secular priest. I am no good at it, interiorly or exteriorly. But I love God, His Christ, His Church, and His world. I love the fact that the second Vatican Council gave us not a New World Order in the Church, but the mandate for the New Evangelization. Which we pursue, in the immortal words of Woody Allen, in the exact same place where you can get a good steak.