Thomas Merton: The Core Of Our Reality

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Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . .

Thomas Merton

Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Christianity & A Call to Action.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced that they have moved the Doomsday Clock ahead 30 Seconds, to 2 minutes to midnight (the symbolic point of global annihilation); this is the closest to midnight recorded since 1953, the height of the Cold War.

At the Doomsday Clock announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, it was stated that: ‘North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation …. ‘. Added to that Vladimir Putin’s recent ‘state of the nation’ address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, where he raised the issue of potential additions to the country’s already enormous strategic nuclear arsenal.

The Christian response to the issue of nuclear weapons and the potential for a nuclear exchange, deliberate or by error, has not been uniform in its scope. Some would argue for the deterrence value of maintaining a nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of peace; others would take a radically different view and claim that possession of weapons of mass destruction, never mind their use, is morally indefensible.  For example, Christian CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) advocates on behalf of Christians ‘who want to witness on the basis of their faith against nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while also positively campaigning for peace’. This statement, together with other information on their stance is available at: http://christiancnd.org.uk. Christian CND have produced a helpful summary of the various statements on nuclear weapons from UK churches: Church-statements-poster.

Consider also what Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk, Writer and Peace Activist wrote in is article entitled ‘Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility’ published in the Feb. 6, 1962 issue of Commonweal (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/nuclear-war-and-christian-responsibility):

‘In atomic war, there is no longer question of simply permitting an evil, the destruction of a few civilian dwellings, in order to attain a legitimate end: the destruction of a military target. It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for their military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihilation. Often the selection of the target is determined by some quite secondary and accidental circumstance that has not the remotest reference to morality. Hiroshima was selected for atomic attack, among other reasons, because it had never undergone any noticeable air bombing and was suitable, as an intact target, to give a good idea of the effectiveness of the bomb’.

Each one of us – Christian and non-Christian – is called to reflect on our position with respect to nuclear weapons; the stakes could not be any higher – it is after all undeniable that they pose an existential threat like no other. So, I want to leave you with a very sobering TEDtalk by atmospheric scientist Brian Toon; he explains how even a small nuclear exchange could destroy all life on earth and suggests ways that we can prevent such a horrific scenario coming to fruition:

Merton & Frankl: Meaning & Responsibility

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Thomas Merton Plaque, Louisville (Photo Source: I.W. Marsh)

The following quote, from the Cistercian Monk Thomas Merton, on responsibility and meaning could easily have been written by the Psychiatrist and Founder of Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl:

“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for ‘finding himself.’ If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence”.

As a Logotherapist, I understand that the ‘meaning of our own existence’ functions at two different levels: proximate meaning and ultimate meaning.  The former can vary from day to day and hour by hour and can be characterised, among many other things, by fulfilling relationships or a purposeful career. The latter represents a higher order of meaning, which underpins the proximate, and has been described by Frankl in ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’ as the ‘unconscious desire for inspiration or revelation’.

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Prof. Viktor Frankl (Photo Source: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely)

Frankl, like Merton understand that free will, or the freedom to make a stand, is mirrored by an individual’s absolute responsibility to respond to life’s questions and to chart a unique path in line with their calling and individual values.

Frankl and Merton have much in common; their understanding of love, responsibility and meaning show a degree of sophistication and insight that is enhanced by their divergent backgrounds and unique experiences.

Thomas Merton: The Transforming Nature of Reality

Thanks to a friend I was reminded that it is 60 years and 1 day since Thomas Merton’s ‘epiphany’ moment in Louisville. Kentucky, when he recognised that our being is deeply rooted in God and each other.  Contemplation and revelation is not confined to the monastery and a select few; it is a calling from God that is open to each and every one of us, even, and perhaps especially, amidst the noise and chaos of life.  You can read the relevant passage from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ below, or you can listen to me reading it here:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

 

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

 

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

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).

A New Year Call to Action: Empathy & Compassion in the Midst of Diversity

This is the text of my New Year sermon, shared today at Cliftonville Moravian Church in Belfast:

Moving into 2017: Recognizing the Value of All Human Life

Last night, and in to the wee small hours, and across the globe, the words of one of Robert Burns’ most famous song – Auld Lang Syne – would have been sung.  Sentiments of togetherness and a looking forward to the future in friendship mean so much to so many at the dawning of a New Year and the leaving behind of a turbulent old one. Auld Lang Syne is a song that reminds us of the values we possess across geographical and religious boundaries.

I love these displays of togetherness; it is so important that we come together whenever we can and wherever we can.

But all of this comes in the midst of global turmoil.  Crucially, as I have been reading and watching the news of late, I have been struck by a number of things.  One in particular: It strikes me that today, and throughout human history, life is often cheap, dispensable and non-consequential.  Now that is a very bold statement, I accept that.  But let us start at our New Testament Reading for today, where we encounter an enraged King Herod, lashing out in his paranoia, ordering the killing of male children under the age of two. What a ghastly and unthinkable thing to do.  Herod’s narcissism was all-pervasive.  As he aged and his behaviour became increasingly erratic and unstable, he clearly had no concept of the intrinsic value of life; the life of others was only important inasmuch as it served his purposes.  He clearly did not grasp the fact that life was precious, a gift from God, as we read in Genesis 1:27: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. It was this divine imprint that makes the life of each one of us valuable.

And we think of our experiences today.  The first example: the war in Syria, where we see night after night on our TV screens, or our newsfeeds, young children being pulled lifeless from the rubble of a bombed house…or hospital….or school.  It is unbearable to watch.  But, we hear those words ‘collateral damage’ used by the protagonists in the war, and somehow this is supposed to make the situation less desperate and appalling – these children were not directly targeted. Implicit in these situations, and the explanations that emanate from those involved, is the notion that some lives are worth more than others…..some lives are expendable in the rush for military and political conquest. The echo of Herod can be heard loud and clear amidst the din of the shelling and gunfire.

Then there is another example.  Just yesterday there was news breaking of a market suicide bomb in Iraq that killed dozens of people and injured at least fifty.  The area in Baghdad that had been targeted was packed with shops and the bomb (or bombs) went off during a particularly busy time.  Yes, there was news coverage, but it was quite far down the list, the global response was muted, and the story will most likely have disappeared into the ether today or tomorrow; we’ve almost become conditioned to expect such atrocities in Iraq.

And then there is the situation in Myanmar, or Burma.  Just the other day a group of 11 Nobel peace prize winners wrote to the United Nations pleading for it to ‘end the human crisis of the country’s Rohingya Muslims.  There have been widespread claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and somewhere in excess of 30,000 people have been forced to flee the military onslaught.  That’s a huge number of people – women, children, families. And we hardly hear anything at all about it.

From these three examples, we might be tempted to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.  Is it just because these atrocities are committed so far from home that we here little of them? Or is it because they have little impact on our own lives that the media does not focus in on them as it might?  Or is it because the people affected are different to us in some way or another?  Or even more uncomfortable is the notion that, in the collective subconscious, not all lives are equal?

I read an article, some time ago now, on the ‘Big Think’ website.  It was called ‘The Geography of Empathy and Apathy: Some Countries We Care about More than Others’, and it was written by a man called Frank Jacobs.  He concluded that, from a Western perspective, when there is a tragic event, ‘Those feelings of empathy decrease as the cultural, economic, and geographical distance to the disaster and its victims increases’.  In other words, we care most for those who are most like us, and less for those who are less like us.

Now that really is really difficult reality to reflect on, but as our New Testament reading reminds, us, it is nothing new; our generation is no different in this respect from any others.

But, the challenge comes when we pause to imbibe what Luke wrote in Acts 10:34, ‘Then Peter began to speak: “I now truly understand that God does not show favouritism’. Indeed he does not; and neither should we.  Each life, wherever it is lived, regardless of the circumstances, is as valuable as any other. Imagine how radically different our world would be if we truly took this on board?  It would be revolutionised.

Francis Schaeffer once so perceptively wrote: “Man, made in the image of God, has a purpose – to be in relationship to God, who is there. Man forgets his purpose and thus he forgets who he is and what life means.” 

He is right.  Let me suggest to you that we do not always take on-board fully our mission, who we are in relation to God, and the life we have been given to live.  We do not always adopt unequivocally that intention to live out the Gospel message, to show compassion to all and to live out our faith in this broken world, difficult though that nay be.  Acknowledging our connection to God is the key that unlocks the ethic of love for one another, despite our differences.

Now, this might all seem quite overwhelming.  And it is.  How can we, ordinary individuals make that difference, to reflect more deeply on how we relate to others?  How do we do something that, is quite frankly, so difficult?  Well, we start with what we have and what we have been given; we start here.  Once we have acknowledged the intrinsic value of the other, whoever that might be, then we can reflect on what our response might be.

And here is just one more thought.  Even within those most like us, for example those who share our Christian faith, there can still be a hierarchy of empathy that develops.  Consider then these words from Thomas Merton, which were written in the context of segregation in the US, but the sentiment undergirding it is more broadly applicable, and surely causes us to stop and think: If we realize that we are each bound to the other members of the human race in the Mystical Body of Christ, that we must love the human race as a whole, and love all the groups which constitute it, then we can scarcely fail to realize the evil as well as the stupidity of hating any part of the Mystical Body of Christ…. There are persons who feel quite acutely the duty of individual kindness to persons of other races, and yet who seem to be totally unconscious of the injustice of race relations as a whole…who are violently antagonistic to any effort to reform the political, economic, social, and even religious oppression of the coloured race. Would this be possible to anyone who really believed in the doctrine of the Mystical Body?’

Merton’s point is well made.

Now personally, I do not really ‘do’ New Year Resolutions.  But this year, the closest I have come to one is to think more deeply, more prayerfully on how I affirm the God-given identity of others.  I need to take on-board, not just intellectually, but emotionally, the profundity of that truth that we are all made in the image of God. You too will, I have no doubt, make your own response to this call.

As we collectively go forward into this New Year, we have the opportunity to take on board the biblical injunctions we have explored, to listen to the prophetic words of people like Thomas Merton and Francis Schaeffer, and yes even revisit Robert Burns and his calls for brotherhood and a recognition of the value of the other.

With the help of God, Let us do just that.

AMEN

Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton

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Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton

My Sermon from Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, 25th December 2016

We come here this morning, in the midst of a hectic time of commemoration and celebration, to sit in this sacred space – a place of calm and reverence.

This year has been a tough one – it is no exaggeration to say this.  As I speak there is geopolitical turmoil, terrorism, refugees dying, war and enormous uncertainty on the world stage.  Many think that this is unprecedented.  And yes, it is in some ways – the scale of refugees on the move is enormous; tyrants and dictators are wreaking havoc and poor governance and maladministration rears its ugly head in the form of hunger and poverty.

But none of this, in the broadest terms, is new.  Consider the nativity narratives – amidst the darkness of turmoil and uncertainty there is the unquenchable light of hope, love and expectation in the form of Jesus Christ. And as is so simply, yet eloquently written in John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And indeed the darkness will never overcome it – as Christians, we have hope in abundance and peace that can never be subdued.

Now, it is certainly true to say that the life of faith is one of constant reflection, and I do think therefore that it is fitting that today we reflect on the writings of two very different, but equally insightful and influential Christians – the Lutheran Pastor and Nazi Resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Cistercian Monk, Poet, Mystic and Peace Activist, Thomas Merton.

I’ll read some their words now, and then we’ll very briefly contemplate what they are saying to us.

We begin with Bonhoeffer:

“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in the lowliness of a stable and not in the glories of material wealth and opulence.  He is a radically different Leader.  And yes, we see him, not just in one snapshot of historical time, but we encounter him every day, time and time again; we see him in the eyes of those we meet, especially those on the margins – the disenfranchised, the dispossessed and the forgotten. There is nothing more radical than this; with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the world, with its love of hierarchy and power, has changed forever.

And now back to Merton:

“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” 

Here Merton does not mince his words.  Again, we are drawn in to the reality that the religious elite, then and now miss the point of faith and how it should be lived in the light of the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Faith has nothing to do with titles, buildings and being seen to be doing the right thing.  Rather it is about recognising and adopting an attitude of love, compassion, humility, sacrifice and service.

With this insight in our hearts, let us turn to Bonhoeffer:

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” 

God is in the manger! It doesn’t get any more radical than that! And so if we entrust God with all that we have and all that we are, all will be well.  Even during those times when life seems unbearable, and we struggle to carry on, nothing ultimately can harm us. Yes, there may be tumult all around us, but within the depth of our being, there is peace.  God is with us, no matter what.

Now back to Merton for the final time:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room”.

This offering from Merton is a fitting quote to end on, largely because it sums up the previous themes we have hear explored.  The reminder that the Christian faith is often counterintuitive, that God has, as one Liberation Theologian put it, ‘a preferential option for the poor’ is there in bold and unambiguous language.  Why? Well, because it is a perfect echo of the Gospel message, not just that which we glean from the infancy narratives, but beyond through Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection.  Making room for Jesus in the midst of the prevailing culture, which drowns out the Christian message, is a calling we all receive. Looking in the right place for that voice, for that presence, is the journey we are asked to undertake, again and again. Christmas, and our reflections on it, is just the very beginning.

The world was never the same following that first Christmas time.  God calls us each and every Christmas time, to never be the same in the light of that message.  And so Christmas is a time of newness and reflection; Christianity is not easy – it was never meant to be, and the nativity narratives are a testament to that. But we need to lose heart; Jesus Christ is the ultimate beacon of hope that reaches out to us in our lostness and brokenness.  And as such, we never journey in faith alone.

Finally, on this special day, let us then dedicate ourselves to growing in faith and service; let us take the radical nature of the nativity to heart, where love and compassion drown out the noise of darkness, this Christmas Day and forever more.

AMEN