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’
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.
The question of how we best use our time, and the direction our energies are focused on, are not new. Yes, the pace of life has changed, but the core principles are the same. The biblical narrative – in both the Old and New Testaments – bares witness to this. There is, for example, the beautiful and poignant words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
‘3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.’
And then in the New Testament we have a number of verses reflecting on time, responsibility, wisdom and the Divine imperative to live a full life mindful of our calling. Consider James 4:14, where it is written:
’14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’
Wise words indeed.
Here are a few of my recent reflections/poems:
BY THE WELL
Sychar in Samaria
by Jacob’s well
A shocking scene
A Samaritan and a Jew
Female and male
Countercultural and perplexing, where shame meets perfection.
Jesus does not recoil
He interacts; he listens
A stark reminder that everyone matters
That in the heart of Christ
‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one’.
No-one exists outside the circle of his love
Not the unlovely
Nor the despised
Or the contemptible
Divine love is radically inclusive
Beyond our comprehension
What we turn away from
Where we build barriers
Jesus breaks them down
Where we judge
When we dwell in the simplicity of his message
We are blessed
Our imperfections are contextualised
Our flaws appear universal
But so does God’s overarching grace.
In the light of that grace
We can let go of our guilt
Let our failures rest in the past
Acknowledge our pain
And look forward
To a radiant future
Grounded in hope
Where expectation is infinite
And in the words of Julian of Norwich:
‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
As the coolness of the mid-summer night
enshrouds our physical form.
As the serenity of the eventide saturates our souls
God’s tranquility advances in lovingness
He watches over us in the dead of night, in the obscurity of the wee small hours.
When our minds are at rest, or ravaged with torment.
God is at hand
Supremely proficient in protection
Charged with our care
Captivated by our concerns.
‘At night his song is with me’
The real work of faith begins when we are in the midst of despair; when it is all too easy to give up hope and become spiritually moribund.
To reach out; to cry out when there is nought left to give – that is where we encounter the depth of Christ’s love. Imperceptible at first, in his gentleness…….in his compassion……his presence burns brightly.
It is from that kernel of hope and expectation, the evolution of love dwells in our souls.
‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters’.
In the timelessness of these words we are guaranteed never to be lonely…..never to be foresaken… and never to be lost.
LET US BE THANKFUL
‘May we give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus’
And so let us be thankful for being alive:
Alive to the potential of growth
Alive to receiving and giving love
Alive to grief and its cathartic effect
Alive to grace and transformation
Let our thankfulness underpin our faith:
Faith in the goodness of others
Faith in the power of forgiveness
Faith in the reality of reconciliation
Faith in divine love
Faith in truth
Let our thankfulness allow us to connect:
Connect deeply with each other
Connect meaningfully with God
Connect with, and appreciate the cosmos
Connect with those who despise us
Connect with the pain in our hearts
Loving God, encourage us to be ‘thankful in everything, in all circumstances’.
When life is hard and the future bleak
When life is triumphant and the future glorious
Let us ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his live endures forever’.
An excerpt from Thomas Merton’s beautiful poem, ‘Song: If you Seek…’:
Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers:
For I, Solitude, am thine own self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen!
From Templegate Publishers:
‘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.
I’m looking forward to reading it!
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.
To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Birth, The Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland and Thomas Merton Fellowship Invite you to a One-Day Workshop:
‘EXPLORING MEANING WITH THOMAS MERTON AND VIKTOR FRANKL’
Dr Stephen J. Costello, Director, Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland
Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Thomas Merton Fellowship
Thomas Merton was much influenced by Viktor Frankl’s writings on meaning and often cited the latter’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This day will explore our spiritual search for meaning within a logotherapeutic perspective, relating it practically to our personal quest for purpose and values, through lectures, meditations, and reflective and experiential exercises.
Saturday January 31st: 11am-5pm, Bethlehem Abbey, Ballymena Rd., Portglenone, Co. Antrim (Cost: €55 or £50)
Note: this workshop will have different content to the ‘Meaning with Merton Workshop’ previously held in Dublin.
Bookings/Enquiries to email@example.com
About Thomas Merton (1915-1968): Trappist monk, poet, social activist and author of the spiritual classic, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): Neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.