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).
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.
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 greatblessedness 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.
‘Robert Lax, (1915-2000), was a poet, hermit, sage, and peacemaker. Thomas Merton said of Lax, “He had a natural, instinctive spirituality, an inborn direction to the living God.” Jack Kerouac called him “a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.”
A native of New York, Lax graduated from Columbia University in 1938 with a degree in English Literature. After much wandering he traveled to Greece where he made Patmos, Isle of the Revelation, his spiritual and creative workshop. There he quietly resided for over three decades, writing the “ascetic” and experimental verse that would rank him “Among America’s greatest poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words” (New York Times Book Review).
In the Beginning Was Love is a unique introduction to Lax as contemplative. These spiritual selections, mostly gathered from his poems and journals, portray Lax as a mystic filled with a deep love for both Creator and creation’.
This new book is edited by a friend – S. T. Georgiou, Ph.D. He is the author of some very significant publications: The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit-Lessons with Robert Lax, (Templegate), Mystic Street, and The Isle of Monte Cristo. He teaches religion and spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You can order the book on Templegate Publishers website: www.templegate.com, and it should soon be available via Amazon.com.
The University of Notre Dame Press has just announced a new publication that may interest the many followers of Thomas Merton. The book is The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton, edited and annotated by Patrick Samway, S.J., with a foreword by Jonathan Montaldo.
Fr. Samway’s book is the press’s contribution to the 2015 centennial celebration of Thomas Merton’s birth. As editor-in-chief at Harcourt, Brace & Company and then at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Robert Giroux not only edited twenty-six of Thomas Merton’s books; he also served as an adviser to Merton as he dealt with unexpected problems with his religious superiors at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani as well as those in France and Italy. Arranged chronologically, the letters in Samway’s volume offer invaluable insights into the publishing process as well as into the friendship between the two men, one forged when they first met as undergraduates at Columbia College in the mid-1930s.
Fr. Samway had unparalleled access not only to the materials in the volume but to Giroux’s unpublished talks about Merton which he uses to his advantage in an introduction that interweaves the stories of both men with a chronicle of their personal and collaborative relationship. The result is a rich and rewarding volume which shows how Giroux helped Merton to become one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Sometimes words and sentiments need no commentary. Here Viktor Frankl and Thomas Merton reflect on love:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning).
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” Thomas Merton (No Man Is An Island).
This is my opening lecture from the ‘Exploring Meaning With Thomas Merton and Viktor Frankl’ workshop held on 31st January 2015 at Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, Co. Antrim (and co-facilitated by Dr. Stephen Costello of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland):
We gather here on this beautiful day, from many different places across Ireland, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a man who was gifted with so many talents and interests. That man, Thomas Merton was born in France, on January 31, 1915 to Owen Merton, a talented New Zealand artist, and Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker and artist.
Merton himself reflected on his birth many years later in the classic ‘Seventh Storey Mountain’ and described it in these words:
“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
Powerful words indeed.
Today, and indeed in the run-up to today and for the remainder of 2015, there will be many lectures, retreats and get-togethers across the word celebrating, and reflecting on, the life, work and impact of Thomas Merton. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the International Thomas Merton Society have recently produced a press release which serves as a reminder to the wide-ranging impact Merton still has:
“Events celebrating the Merton centenary will be taking place around the world throughout 2015. A sampling of notable festivities in the United States includes events to be held at Bellarmine University, Columbia University, Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center, and Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY, and Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Celebrations and conferences are being planned in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, and Ireland”.
Merton’s relatively short life, he died after all in a tragic accident at the age of 53, was one characterised by diversity – he has been, and still is – described variously as a monk, a mystic, a priest, a social activist, a writer, a proponent of non-violence and a poet. In the latter half of his life in particular, he reached out and engaged in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. He counted among his friends Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians and many more besides, as well as Muslims, Jews and Buddhists – and even Atheists, whom he reached out to in a spirit of humility and a common desire for understanding.
Today, Merton reaches out to people who want to understand the contemplative or mystical dimension of life. Ironically, as the monasteries slowly empty, Merton retains his popularity, and in fact this popularity to continues to grow, impacting on people of all faith backgrounds and none. Here in Ireland for example, the Merton Fellowship was borne out of a wide-ranging interest in how we apply Merton’s thinking in contemporary society, particularly as it relates to peace-building and contemplation. And so perhaps it is of no surprise that our events have attracted a wide-range of participants from across the denominations – Moravian, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and Non-Denominational, and across the faiths – Buddhist and Baha’i as examples.
In today’s workshop, we’re going to be doing exactly what the International Thomas Merton Society/Thomas Merton Center suggests in their press release: “The centenary offers an opportunity to consider how we too might set aside easy answers and wrestle with the urgent questions of our day”.
The questions of our day are many. But let me suggest to you that there is nothing more urgent, compelling and requiring attention than the issue of meaning. Whether we collectively, and individually, wrestle with questions of ultimate and/or proximate meaning is one of the core questions of our time. When we lack meaning, we lose focus and drive and our humanity is degraded.
Merton knew all about meaning. In fact it could be said that the framework around which his own theology and worldview was constructed was rooted in meaning. For him the ultimate was God and the proximate many; he derived proximate meaning from writing, activism, dialogue and contemplation, as well as those deep interpersonal relationships he cultivated throughout his life.
Merton has much in common with the second man in our workshop title today – Prof. Viktor Frankl. An extraordinary character, Frankl was a holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, philosopher, neurologist and founder of Logotherapy & Existential Analysis. And although they never met or conversed, Merton and Frankl understood the centrality of meaning; Indeed, Merton was aware of Frankl and recommended to his students (novices at Gethsemani Abbey) that they read him in order to get a better understanding of the subject.
There are many points of contact between Merton and Frankl, and I’ll leave it to Stephen to talk about those in more detail. But there are two key issues it seems to me, that merit some thought in the meantime.
Both Merton and Frankl had a common understanding of striving for success, which is often seen as a positive attribute in contemporary society, and recognising and accessing meaning. Merton said this in ‘Love and Loving’:
“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
And likewise, these famous words from Frankl in his seminal publication ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
So both Merton and Frankl are clearly on the same wavelength in this respect. But there’s something else that links the two men in their thinking that perhaps is a bit more unexpected than their understanding of success and meaning. And it’s the issue of love.
Merton writes, again in ‘Love and Living’:
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”
And here’s Frankl, writing beautifully in ‘Man Search for Meaning’:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
We could spend the entire day unpacking these statements and exploring them in great detail. But suffice it to say that these points of contact provide us with a vantage point from which we can see the bigger picture; it’s the bigger picture that Stephen, and to a lesser extent myself, will be looking at and guiding us through in the next few hours. And it’s our hope that today will be a starting point for that inner dialogue and that we leave here with much to think about and to apply in our daily lives.
At the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, I, like so many others, pray for peace. In a world torn apart by conflict and war, peace is sorely needed. And so I pray for peace in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, as well as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. And then there are those conflicts and insurgencies that we hear little about – the Mexican drug war, the Libyan civil war and the Kashmir conflict – I pray for peace there too.
Praying for peace is essential, but so too is listening to those wise words by that monk, spiritual writer and activist Thomas Merton, when he reminds us the genesis of war and peace takes place within our souls. Thus he wrote:
Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
That we need to first look inwards is obvious to Merton; may that seed planted in Merton’s mind be transposed into our souls in 2015 and beyond. And so I wish you a peaceful and reflective New Year!
(P.S. Please do like the Merton Fellowship for Peace & Contemplative Living in Ireland’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MertonIreland) or bookmark our website (www.mertonfellowship.wordpress.com)).