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).

‘Man Cannot Stand A Meaningless Life’

Carl Jung was a fascinating, engaging and pioneering Psychiatrist who had an in-depth knowledge of theology, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology and mythology; he was a unique polymath and very much ahead of his time. Jung’s ‘Analytical Psychology’ has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact in various fields of human endeavour.

Jung was interviewed in his home by the BBC in 1959; here he discussed autobiographical details, his difficult relationship with Freud, as well as the findings of his clinical work which spanned many years and included psychological types, the unconscious, and the effect of religion and death on the collective and individual psyche.

For me, one of the most intriguing insights came when he was asked about his belief in God; his response, after some thought, was “I don’t need to believe, I know.” In essence he was pointing out the intuitive nature of the psyche, and also that the word ‘belief’ has unfortunate, and erroneous connotations; the nature of God is complex and our rush to reductionism is cautioned against by Jung.

Significantly, he ends the interview by stating, quite correctly in my opinion, that “Man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that: “We need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exist is man himself”. Indeed.

You can watch the interview in its entirety:

 

 

A Broad & Humble Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like that.

A Call To Service

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

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

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

 

Understanding Love

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

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

The Gift of Love

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Robert Burns: The People’s Poet

“Is There for Honest Poverty”, frequently referred to as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, is a Scots song published in 1795 by Robert Burns, Scotland’s pre-eminent poet and lyricist.  It is a classic, and timeless expression of egalitarianism. It has long been one of my favourite pieces; its critique of pretentiousness is clear, as is its reminder of the innate worth of each individual, regardless of ‘class’ or any other labels we may burden them with.
Tonight is Burn’s Night, celebrated all over the world in memory of Burns’ life and contribution to poetry.
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

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If you’re struggling to work out what Burns is saying and the wider meaning, have a look at https://allpoetry.com/A-Man’s-A-Man-For-A’-That, where you’ll find a synopsis……in English! There are many other sites too that provide line by line translations – just google it……..

I would also recommend this short article by Patrick J Walsh entitled ‘Robert Burns – Winter’s Poet of the People’; it provides a Christian perspective on Burns’ poetry and song: http://www.thechristianreview.com/robert-burns-winters-poet-of-the-people/

Walsh finishes his article with these words with which I concur: ‘There is a mystery and eternal element to poetry. Burns needs no defense. Poetry defends itself by surviving. Listening at my window. I hear winter still whispering in its own white way as it did in Burns’s time. And in a fallen world such as ours, mankind will continue to seek the echoes of their own fallen greatness in his rhymes’.

The Perennial Quest For Ultimate Meaning

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As a Logotherapist and a Christian Minister it comes as no surprise to me that Logotherapy is compatible with, but not exclusive to, the practical expression of a Christian worldview.

The best book on the subject, in my opinion, is ‘Logotherapy and the Logos of God in Christic Wisdom’ by Jeremiah Murasso, a Priest and Therapist. Murasso briefly elucidates the key similarities between Jesus’ ministry of healing, and the principles of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, that is Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis.

These words from Murasso strike me as being particularly meaningful (note: he uses masculine references as gender-generic):

Although man has often become distracted and at times despondent in his search for ultimate meaning, he has never abandoned this quest.  The reason for man’s persistence lies in the resiliency of man’s spirit, which although buried and at times bruised by the world, yearns for wholeness and completeness. The Christic Wisdom of the New Testament describes Christ nourishing the bruised yet yearning human spirit as he seeks to rekindle man’s awareness of his noetic core.

‘It Is Still A Beautiful World’

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Amidst the turmoil of life, the triumphs and the frustrations, the laughter and the pain, we are called to introspection.  Such self-examination takes many forms, and occurs at different points in our journey; it is a reflection the growing awareness of the truth of Carl Jung’s insightful observation: ‘who looks outside dreams who looks inside awakes’.

Desiderata, a wonderful poem by Max Ehrmann, is a beautiful expression of that reality; I personally find the first and the last verses, reproduced here, as being especially meaningful:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.