Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Evil in the US is riding in high stirrups

This is a repost of a louie post that first appeared in July 2007. Dan is a few years older now than quoted.
"It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary. But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small and feeble instruments. And now above all when everything is so utterly complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.

[T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive deadening of conscience.

[I] rely very much on your help and friendship. Send me anything you think will be of service to the cause of peace, and pray that in all things I may act wisely."

Thomas Merton. "Letter to Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayer." The Hidden Ground of Love. Letters, Volume 1. William H. Shannon. editor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985: 325-326
The only Catholic Peace group in the US that I know of is Pax Christi. I have been a member of that organization for several years, and am often bemused that it is not better known amongst the Catholic mainstream.

Obviously, Merton was very much in support of organized Peace Movements to active and visibly resist war, the expansion of weaponry, and social injustices. But he had to weigh just how much, as a monk and hermit, he could be involved without sacrificing the contemplative insight that he could bring to the movement.

In times of confusion he felt that the monk, in isolating himself in prayer was a tempting but wrong proposition:

“Sometimes I wish it were possible to simply be the kind of hermit who is so cut off that he knows nothing that goes on, but that is not right either …” (November 11, 1965, Dancing in the Water of Life)
Other times he wondered if the monastery were not an escape from engaging and responding to the “mystery of our times”:

"I am continually coming face to face with the fact that I have lost perspective here, including religious perspective, and that to some extent we monks are out of touch with the real (religious) mystery of our times." (Witness to Freedom)
Merton continued to balance this tension by faithfully following his vocation to solitude ("My place is in these woods!"), while writing powerfully prophetic essays that have become the foundation of the American peace movement.

More than any of Merton’s friends, Dan Berrigan gave expression to the active side of contemplativeness. Merton trusted and admired and supported everything that Dan did – his spiritual commitment, his prison terms, his exiles. Dan Berrigan is now 86 years old. I recently came across something that his brother, Jerry, said more than 10 years ago about Dan. It seems to capture much of the sentiment of the American peace movement these days:

"Dan Berrigan. Who is this post-modern man, this priest-poet? As our mother would put it, “Dan’s not easy to describe, not easy to pin down!” It can be said though, that four decades or so ago, he glanced askance at the new superpower, the American empire. He was becoming skeptical of its official treatment of people elsewhere in the world. What he learned of the U.S. government and its policies led him to reject its PR, its blandishments. Eventually, he became and was to remain a resister of the White House, the Congress, and the Pentagon, places he considered world forces of lawlessness and disorder.

During these years Dan has, little by little, grown quietly subdued. In contrast to his earlier vocal and vociferous denouncings, he’s become gradually aware of the
deadly scope and tenacity of the forces he opposes. As one Catholic Worker put it, “Evil in the U.S. is riding high in the stirrups”! Dan’s recognition of this has come to him through prayer, prison, and exile and has led him to develop a posture of firm but gentle wariness mixed with detachment. Teaching and lecturing he’s come by a style of understatement. He’s learned. “I, we, concerned and caring though we are, can’t do it overnight. Even together we’ll not be able to reverse the duplicity and violence endemic to U.S. government and society today. If indeed the turnabout we work and pray for is ever to begin, it won’t happen quickly, it won’t happen even during our lifetime. All we can do is try to be faithful; all we can do is to keep on doing.”

(from Apostle of Peace, Essay in honor of Daniel Berrigan)

Unspeakable Loneliness

"It is loneliness that cannot be shared, which is “unspeakable” because it is experienced in a way that is so private and humiliating that, were you to speak of it, you would further damage an already over-fragile sense of self that has been made so fragile by the loneliness itself. 
"You experience this kind of loneliness whenever you are alone in something in a way that you cannot share with anyone else because the loneliness itself feels like a private sickness, like a thing of shame, which makes you so vulnerable that any attempt to share it with someone would only make things worse and be a further humiliation. 
"You experience this especially in rejection, betrayal, abuse, powerlessness, and the feelings you have when you doubt your own attractiveness, intelligence, goodness, strength, and emotional stability. Not only are you then alone and outside of something or someone you want, but you are left with a wound, a humiliation, a sense of not measuring-up, an insecurity, and a shame, that is only deepened should you talk of it. 
"You experience this, “unspeakable loneliness” where your relationships become one-sided, where you get walked-on, walked-away from, get dumped, suffer abuse, get bullied on the playground, are the one who is never asked out, get chosen last, are too weak to defend yourself, where your body and feelings aren’t right, where you aren’t bright enough, aren’t attractive enough. 
"There is a solution to “unspeakable loneliness”: it needs to be spoken, to be shared, to be made public. To speak the unspeakable is a risk, an anguish, an irony, but, when the unspeakable is spoken, what once felt shamefully private and sick can become a badge of courage and a distinguishing mark of healthy citizenship insidethe human condition." 
- Ron Rolheiser OMI

(boy, can I relate to this.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

An Opinion and an endorsement - The Many Lives and Last Days of Thomas Merton

Lately (the last 2 or 3 years), it has seemed to me that the cult of Thomas Merton has run its course. The charismatic pull of his personality and his time - the 1950s, Vatican 2, the War in Vietnam, Civil Rights - related to many of our personal histories. Merton personified for us a way to understand our history and time. Our Church. Our country.

Merton died in 1968. My mother died in 1973 and I often marvel that she died before microwave ovens, answering machines, VCRs. Long before computers became integral to our lives. Times have changed. A couple of generations have passed since Merton lived.

There is still interest in and a need for institutional monasticism in our world. Monks have something to offer us, but rather than drawing more people to monasteries (as Seven Story Mountain did in the 40s), I think that monasticism should open out, shining its light toward the world rather than inward upon itself. Pope Francis is picking up where Merton left off.

Over the last 50 years many books have been written about Merton. Films have been made. Merton has become an industry in itself. Just look at this blog, where I’ve been almost obsessively exploring Merton’s art, photography, writing, friendships, every little thing.

Over this time a funny thing has happened: I’ve internalized Merton. Who Merton is/was, is who I am. If that makes any sense. What Merton was doing in his lifetime, in his monastery, I do in my own lifespan. Knowing Merton, and how he did it, has helped me to find my own way. But I no longer need to keep Merton always at my side; I can take off in other directions on my own, confident that what I’ve learned from him is still valid and grounding, but it’s not the whole story. There is more to the story. Can I call it future?

I’m not much interested in the new books that continually come out about Merton. I find very little that is new in them.

However, all that being said, I am endorsing a film that Morgan Atkinson is undertaking: The Many Lives and Last Days of Thomas Merton. The film is focusing upon that final pilgrimage of Merton's life - to New Mexico, California, to the East. Out of the Monastery. This feels like a bridge to me.

Mr. Atkinson is needing funding for this film. Please help if you can. It will be released in 2015 the 100th anniversary of Merton's birth.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Picture taken at Kopua Monastery, New Zealand

The Sufi tell of the disciple who asked the elder, “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”

“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

“Then, of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

Joan Chittister

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Benevolent Glancing

More on Sr. Mary Evelyn Jeger SND, who died this week. This is from an interview that Jim Forest did with her sometime in the mid 1980s:

"As I do not drive, I spend much of my life in buses. What better place, I thought, to experiment with benevolent glancing? At first I felt a bit awkward. I did not try to engage anyone’s eyes, so benevolent glancing was strictly a unilateral initiative. 
"A strange thing happened. I found I was praying. I don’t mean saying prayers. I was being attentive, alert and aware in a way impossible to describe. I was very much “with” a mysterious depth of reality. I was looking at others not merely with curiosity but with love. After all, love is what benevolence is all about: the word means “to wish another well.” 
"After a year of practice, I happened to meet a Buddhist priest. In his family he was of the fortieth consecutive generation of Buddhist priests. He said that the Buddhist way of seeing is different than the western approach. Westerners want to extract data, to “take” what they can from what they see, while a Buddhist tries simply to be present, to allow reality to present itself, to wait for it to come forward to meet the eye.
"What has this got to do with peace? Very much. Benevolent glancing is an art of attentiveness. Paying attention to what is before us is a way of prayer, even a definition of prayer. We know by faith that God is everywhere. Benevolent glancing is relishing God by being attentive to what is before us."  - Sr. Mary Evelyn Jeger SND

Read the full interview on Jim's website HERE.

An obituary for Sr. Mary Evelyn is HERE.

Sister Mary Evelyn Jeger SND b. February 15, 1928, d. July 4, 2014

HT: Jim Forest

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mary Evelyn Jegen SND

Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen SND
Those who would take the time to look with appreciation at another person, or at a rose, a soup bowl, would soon discover that what they see is not completely up to them. What is really there does not reveal itself on demand. Only slowly, gradually, does the truth of the person, the rose, or the soup bowl make itself present. It is only with detachment and time that people can receive the truth of what they are looking at. —Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Friendship and Correspondence of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (Perseverance)

A 6-minute segment of a talk given by Jim Forest in April at St Francis College in Brooklyn.

A couple of excerpts (my selections):

Merton was and remains a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken on various topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton was a critic of much that was happening in the world and also a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity....
...Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative....
...“My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”

Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, often argumentative, ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane.
In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.

In his response, Merton noted that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”

This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]

Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.
HT: Jim Forest

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

radical amazement

Rabbi Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Amongst the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. 
"Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is a result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder, or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite to that which is." 
-Abraham Joshua Heschel

Sunday, June 8, 2014

contemplative identity

Contemplative Identity 
Any "contemplative identity" comes not so much from individual endowment as from the melding that follows on a common search. In the familiar terms of psychology, we would probably be safe in assuming most monks to be introvert and intuitive. It is not the practical aspect of the life that attracts them, but the inner experience born of dwelling on the mysteries of faith. Against a background of psalmody, work, reading, the celebration of the Christian mysteries of faith, and a participation of the drama by way of one's life, is the power that unites. And it is a quest not through ministry and service of the people of God but a quest within. By some instinct, as it were, men so endowed come here. 
The challenge, of course, is one's response to the call and fidelity to it. When these weaken or fail, the love of all will soon wither, for there is nothing to sustain it. Such a one will walk out on the monks without difficulty. We do not love one another because we choose one another as friends, no more than soldiers choose their buddies in the corps, or players their team mates. It is the pursuit that creates love, nurtures and develops it. Call it a contemplative identity if you will, a certain cast of soul that prefers inner to outer, pondering to preaching, quiet to action. In a context of beauty and peace, barren of noise and strife, contention and confrontation, such people thrive. And it is the whole that matters: church, chapter, refectory, prayer, study, silence, solitude. 
Matthew Kelty (+ 2011)
Monk of Gethsemani
From My Song is of Mercy

Thursday, June 5, 2014


Robert Lax & Steve Georgiou, photo by Georgiou
"Think of the freedom, in a world of bondage, a word expelled from Eden; the freedom of the priest, the artist, and the acrobat. In a world of men condemned to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, the liberty of those who, like the lilies of the field, live by playing. For playing is like wisdom before the face of the Lord. Their play is praise. Their praise is prayer. This play, like the ritual gestures of the priest, is characterized by grace; heavenly grace unfolding, flowering and reflected in the physical grace of the player… For we are all wanderers on the earth, and pilgrims. We have no permanent habitat here. Our tabernacle must be in its nature a temporary tabernacle.

We are wanderers on the earth, but only a few of us, in each generation, have discovered the life of charity, the living from day to day, receiving our gifts gratefully through grace, and rendering them multiplied, to the giver…"
-Robert Lax