Thomas Merton: The Poetry of Pain & Perspective

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For many years now I have been very much a fan of the writings of the monk, writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton. His commentaries and insights into ethics, non-violence, social action, the contemplative life, inter-faith dialogue and so much more, have been of great interest, and application, to me on my own very personal faith journey.

As a poet, Merton was enormously talented, each line and stanza beautifully crafted into a message that is brought to life by the spirit of the writer and the imagination of the reader.  His deeply personal poem – ‘For my Brother: Missing in Action 1943’ – is for me at least, one of his best.  Amidst such a tragedy, Merton intertwines that life of suffering, which although unbearable, is transient, with the redemptive truth of a Divine sacrifice which transcends time and space. It is in this context, of paradox and perspective, that Merton finds meaning in the cruelty of war and the deep sense of personal loss he felt so painfully. And so Merton wrote:

‘When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us’.

You can listen to my reading of ‘For my Brother’ in its entirety below.  If you’re new to Merton’s poetry, I would recommend ‘In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems by Thomas Merton, by Lynn R. Szabo, Kathleen Norris (ISBN: 9780811216135).

‘When I Needed A Neighbour?’

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It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings.  His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.

One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:

When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?

Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.

I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

A Broad & Humble Mind

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One of the most frustrating facets of ‘Cultural Christianity’, where there is a remnant of belief and a minimal adherence at best, is that it often leads people to become intellectually incurious.  In such an environment doctrines and dogmas go unchallenged, and key tenets of the faith are accepted without question and go unexamined.

I have some sympathy with the Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that: “There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.”

Encouraging at every opportunity, and from an early age, the exercise of critical faculties, is essential in all domains. Socrates was right when he said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” 

A faith that is alive with adventure and ongoing exploration is far more fulfilling than a dry and anaemic cultural affiliation. A questioning faith, but not a disputatious one, can lead to a much broader understanding of, and encounter with, the living God of Christianity.

The very best bible studies I have attended have been ones in which there were a broad range of people in attendance, with a myriad of ideas and a desire to learn; I have left such encounters with new insights and, perhaps more importantly, an awareness of what I do not know.

Of course many people will say that a singularly intellectual exploration is not a journey they wish to undertake. I understand that point. There is a very real danger of over intellectualisation, where people feel marginalised, the heart of the Gospel message is missed and elitism becomes the norm. The atmosphere this creates is the antithesis of the one envisaged by the reformers.

Therefore a balance needs to be struck, where we examine and explore, but remain mindful of the fact that, despite questioning, there is a limit to what we can comprehend. Such humility is necessary. Consider as an example Proverbs 3:5 – ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,‘ and Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will’.

I’ll finish with some words of wisdom from Colman, a nephew of St. Columba, who wrote in the ‘Alphabet of Devotion’: ‘What is best for the mind? Breadth and humility, for every good thing finds room in a broad, humble mind. What is worst for the mind? Narrowness and closedness, and constrictedness, for nothing good finds room in a narrow, closed, restricted mind’. 

I like that.

A Call To Service

The concept of self-transcendence and service to others is at the core of Christian belief and practice. Consider as an example Isaiah 58:10 – ‘If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’. Or in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10 makes the point very succinctly –  ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’.

It would be erroneous however to think that religious belief has a monopoly on self-transcendence; it has a rich secular hinterland.  In Viktor Frankl’s classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he addressed his understanding of ‘”the self-transcendence of human existence.”‘ and wrote: ‘It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter’. And crucially, ‘The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”’

The Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was cognizant of the fact that service need not be complicated or restricted to particular occupations; it is open to all of us, regardless of who we are and how we are categorized by society:

 

Understanding Love

In The Art of Loving, the psychoanalyst and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” And he is right. Love takes work and can be counter-intuitive in that it requires us to reach beyond the constraints of ego, and travel beyond our comfort zone.

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The best exposition of love though, in my opinion, is to be found in those timeless words written by Paul the Apostle and Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 –

The Gift of Love

“13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Cultivating and applying the gift of love is a life-long endeavour and is always an imperfect process. We make mistakes, we fail, and we hurt each other, but we go on, strengthened by St. Paul’s words of wisdom and the grace of God.

Thinking Poetry: St. Brendan

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This is the first of a regular posting focusing on spiritual poetry/reflective writing of note. Today I will be reading ‘The Questions’, attributed to St. Brendan.

There is very little concrete biographical information concerning the life of Brendan, but he was a contemporary of St. Columba of Iona.

A printed version of the poem can be found in: ‘The Wisdom of Saint Columba of Iona’ by Murray Watts.

Faith & Wealth

‘Every form of wealth acquired at the cost of other nations, and every kind of economic imperialism, debases the dignity of men and women, and is an infringement of God’s glory.’ Jürgen Moltmann.

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The view of wealth articulated by Moltmann, has a solid biblical foundation.  Specifically, Jesus’ teachings emphasise stewardship and the true value of wealth –  as a means of serving others and preserving, or indeed augmenting, their dignity. Consider Matthew 25:34-45 as an example:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

And then there is, as another example, the strongly worded warning found in the first Johannine epistle (1 John 3:17):

17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Against this biblical backdrop it is perhaps worth remembering the extent of wealth inequality in contemporary society. Drawing on the 2017 Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, published in 2017, Rupert Neate wrote in The Guardian:

‘The globe’s richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, according to a new report highlighting the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else.

The world’s richest people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increased from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn)’.

That this is neither just, nor sustainable, is self-evident; the real test comes in developing strategies that ensure and facilitate a more equal distribution of wealth.

Learning from the Past; Looking to the Future

It was English poet Alfred Tennyson who wrote: “Hope Smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier'”

And so we embrace that hope as we move inexorably towards a new year. For many though, it can be difficult to focus entirely on the future. The year gone by may hold painful memories of illness, bereavement, broken relationships and other negative experiences.  We like to think that a new start and a new year will signal a time to forget that which has left its mark. But by trying to suppress the depth of our true feelings, and ignoring their existence, we make the likelihood of suffering greater.

The American Poet, Theodore Roethke, once reflected: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” He was right. In the midst of darkness and suffering there is meaning to be found and wisdom to imbibe; by applying those lessons to the present and future we can make progress and develop our true potential. Or, as the Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

With these words I wish you all a peaceful, meaningful 2018, my prayer for you is that whatever difficulties you experience, you take comfort from the knowledge that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. John 1:5.

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Taking Time to Reflect on What is Important

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The question of how we best use our time, and the direction our energies are focused on, are not new. Yes, the pace of life has changed, but the core principles are the same.  The biblical narrative – in both the Old and New Testaments – bares witness to this.  There is, for example, the beautiful and poignant words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

‘3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.’

And then in the New Testament we have a number of verses reflecting on time, responsibility, wisdom and the Divine imperative to live a full life mindful of our calling. Consider James 4:14, where it is written:

’14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’

Wise words indeed.