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’
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.
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).
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:
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.
Wednesday 21st September was a special day in the calendar – it marked the United Nations International Day of Peace. Established in 1981, Peace Day is commemorated globally as a way for all humanity to reflect and to commit to peace, despite differences of religion, culture and race; the day also encourages all of us, wherever we are, to facilitate and promote a culture of peace.
I was privileged to take part in an event in Girdwood Community Hub with my fellow North Belfast Clergy to mark this important day. We joined together as Moravians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics to make our peace pledges alongside three hundred primary school children from twelve local schools. It was a powerful reminder that when we come together, we are stronger and the cause of peace has a much greater chance of succeeding. It was, on reflection, an example of Galatians 3:28 in action, where Paul wrote: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.
And as we come together as Christians, the peace pledge also reminds us of our very personal obligations. Peace, after all, starts with us. As the spiritual writer Thomas Merton once said: “We are not at peace with others, because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves, because we are not at peace with God.”
Peace then, is not an ethereal concept that resides with ‘the other’. It is found within; true peace then, comes from God and we receive it when our relationship with him is fulsome, honest and evolving. As Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
With that assurance of peace in our hearts we can reach out to a troubled world with confidence. Not just on one day, but on every day. Not just in one place, but in every place. And so let us endeavour to make our small Christian community here, together with our other Brothers and Sisters across the denominations, a beacon of peace, today and every day.
As of today I have officially become a Minister of the British Province of the Moravian Church, serving the Cliftonville Congregation in North Belfast. Many people have asked me: ‘Who are the Moravians’? And that’s quite a common question that is hard to answer in a few short paragraphs! But here goes:
The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, with its heritage stretching back to the fifteenth century. Doctrinally it is a mainstream church, with a global membership, and is a member of the World Council of Churches; the British Province is a member of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland andthe Irish District belongs to the Irish Council of Churches.
The main motto of the Moravian Church is Vicit Agnus Eum Sequamur (Our lamb has conquered, let us follow him), which emphasises our focus on Christ as the head of our denomination. Another oft used motto of the church is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”
In a lecture series delivered at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Moravian Bishop Clarenice H. Shawe described the ethos of the Moravian Church as having five guiding principles: simplicity, happiness, unobtrusiveness, fellowship, and the ideal of service.
If you want to find out more about the Moravian Church, the following websites will give you much more detail. Whether you’re interested in doctrine, customs or ecumenical relations, you’ll find that information here:
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)).