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:

From Power To Peace

This quote and insight from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr still resonates today with the threat of a new arms race on the horizon:

“Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race.’ If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”

‘But The Silence In The Mind’

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R.S. Thomas was a welsh clergyman and talented poet. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and evocative poem on silence.  ‘But the silence in the mind’ is, in my opinion, one of his best:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

Note: This poem, and several others of Thomas’ can be found in Roger Housden’s ‘For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems Of The Christian Mystics’

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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The Horrors of War….

Ben Ferencz, who at the age of 97 is the last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, has issued a powerful reminder of the horrors of war, as reported in the Independent in the UK.

He said this:

“…the Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities were not “savages” but “intelligent, patriotic human being[s]”, and that war can make any normal person do horrifying things.

“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?”, he asked. 

“Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”

A sobering and very insightful statement………

And so we still look to the day when ‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4).

You can read the article here.

Equality, Solidarity & Tenderness – A Unique TEDtalk

I am quite a fan of TEDtalks – there have been many fabulous talks and enlightening speakers presenting on a wide-range of subjects from surviving a suicide attempt to becoming an activist, with almost every conceivable topic in-between.

Strangely enough religious leaders often do not make the best speakers, regardless of the topic they’re exploring. Pope Francis though, unlike his immediate predecessor, has an engaging, well-grounded and warm personality that brings to life the subjects he passionately cares about.  His delivery is straightforward, as are his public messages; they are not couched in convoluted theological language.  In this respect, I often feel that there is a clear parallel between the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury and his predecessor.

Anyway, I digress! Francis’ TEDtalk is not delivered from the typical TED stage; instead he talks from behind a desk in the Vatican.  His message is simple – change starts with individuals; hope begins in the individual heart. From that starting point, hope and solidarity with ‘the other’, those who are marginalised and powerless becomes a powerful possibility. In-so-doing he makes the point that there is really no difference between us – we are all loved by God in our uniqueness and imperfection.

That said, Francis reminds us that the powerful….the significant in worldly terms……are especially tasked by God to use their wealth and influence in ways that bind us together rather than pull us apart.

That our world is in a mess, largely because we have ignored the radical message of Christianity and settled for something that is, in many ways radically exclusive and uncaring, is obvious.  Our world is fractious and riddled with war and cruelty in myriad forms.

But Pope Francis provides a timely reminder that each and every one of us, regardless of creed, can harness the power of hope and promote equality, solidarity and tenderness.  His call, in essence a reminder that we all need each other and that none of us exists in isolation.  In that respect he echoes, in his own words, that wonderful Ubuntu saying, ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’  Hope demands therefore that we should all be ‘team players’, constantly looking at ways to co-operate with each other for the greater good of all.

Never has Pope Francis’ plea, “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the ‘other’ is not a statistic, or a number,” been more important than it is today.  How we work that ethic out in practise in a complex and perplexing world is another matter.  But then again, we need simply start with ourselves, reflecting on the work that needs done within us and amongst us – the rest will unfold against the universal backdrop of hope and love.

You can make your own mind up by watching the whole presentation here:

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