Friday, April 25, 2008

merton on nonviolence

[Note: The following collection of notes of Merton’s writings on protest and nonviolence were an effort to, in my own life, find some way through the personal stalemate of my work with a young friend’s excessively harsh prison sentence, as well as the war. In both cases I had been angry and felt stuck. In many ways, my struggle for justice for my prisoner friend and my exasperation with world politics felt like the same thing.

I have decided to add these writings of Merton on nonviolence without taking them out of the original context in which I explored them in 2005.]

I have come to see that there is something in myself that needs to be transformed. Like the old saying: “you have to be the change that you want to see in the world”. But just what is this change? And how will it happen?

According to Thomas Merton, what is missing in protest movements is compassion. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those that they see as responsible for injustice and violence, and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, the protestor tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

And the angrier we get at the Judge’s decisions, the obstinacy of the prosecution, the more they dig in their heels.

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, Jan 29, 1962)

Without love, especially love of opponent and enemies, neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur:

“It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.

“ To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal “law” and to abstract “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who “saves himself” in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)
Peace movements identify too much with particular political groups and ideologies. Any actions taken must communicate liberating possibilities to all involved in the conflict. The message that the opponent will also be “free-ed” has to be clear. A way out of the “we-they” standoff.

“One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and deemphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension …” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)

Peacemaking is rooted in spiritual life, not politics.

If I can, in some way, incorporate (become a channel for) nonviolence (peacemaking) in my struggle for Taylor, then perhaps this power can be unleashed in the world.

Important: The truth can never be used as a weapon. We are the instruments of truth, truth is not our instrument.

This is especially true with Taylor’s case, for we do, indeed, have the truth. But we cannot use it to taunt the opponent. We have to use the truth to open the opponent’s eyes:
“One of the problematic questions about non-violence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations … It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. …

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence. … In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation …We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, February 1962)

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything …

Sunday, April 20, 2008

the dorothy day connection, part 1

“Poverty for Dorothy Day is more than a sociological problem; it is also a religious mystery.” - Thomas Merton (written for the book jacket of Dorothy’s book, “Loaves and Fishes”)

The two most influential persons to rise from American Catholicism in the 20th century are Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Merton and Dorothy corresponded regularly, and Merton contributed essays to the Catholic Worker newspaper. His letters to her show the special respect, even reverence, in which he held her.

In becoming a Catholic, Dorothy Day did not repudiate her social and political conviction; instead she found much that bolstered those convictions in the Gospel. Her role in the American Church was prophetic as she combined a radical position on social issues with a conservative and unquestioning theology of Church and sacraments.

Dorothy lived as one who was poor among the poor, her home was the soup kitchens of New York City's lower East side.

I’d say that Dorothy was Merton’s guide.

counterculture: war, the pope, merton

The newspapers are reporting that the Pope is jarring the faithful with his word “countercultural”. I applaud Benedict. Counterculture is the very foundation of Christianity – opposing the commonly held values and behavior of society. Like exploiting the poor, accumulating wealth, killing our unborn and our prisoners.

But I wish that Benedict could be clearer and more specific about the climate of war that is unabashedly promoted and justified in our world.

In his “Cold War Letters”, Merton also regretted the absence of a clear statement from the Vatican on war:

One would certainly wish that the Catholic position on nuclear war was held as strict as the Catholic position on birth control. It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults, some of whom may be Christians and even our friends rather than our enemies. I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other. (Cold War Letters, page 19)

Friday, April 18, 2008

the power of silence

More from Wayne:

"The Desert Father Ammonas disciple of St. Anthony, said:
Behold, my beloved, I have shown you the power of silence, how thoroughly it heals and how fully pleasing it is to God. Wherefore I have written to you to show yourselves strong in this work you have undertaken, so that you may know that it is by silence that the saints grew, that it was silence that the power of God dwelt in them, because of silence that the mysteries of God were known to them."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

love, openness, and meditation

From Wayne Burns this morning:

"Many of the obstacles to the life of thought and love which is meditation come from the fact that people insist on walling themselves up inside themselves in order to cherish their own thoughts and their on experiences as a kind of private treasure. They interpret the gospel parable of the talents, and as a result they bury their talent in a napkin instead of putting it to work and increasing it. Even when we come to live a contemplative life, the love of other and openness to others remain, as in the active life, the conditions for a living and fruitful inner life of thought and love. The love of others is a stimulus to interior life, not a danger to it, as some mistakenly believe."


Monday, April 14, 2008

awakening according to merton: chesed ("not necessarily like the movies")

The Merton Institute continues to expound on "chesed" in its weekly reflection. I find it essential in understanding Merton, as well as what is really at the bottom of the Gospel.

The mystery of the Good Samaritan is this, then: the mystery of chesed, power and mercy. In the end, it is Christ Himself who lies wounded by the roadside. It is Christ Who comes by in the person of the Samaritan. And Christ is the bond, the compassion and understanding between them. This is how the Church is made of living stones, compacted together in mercy. Where there is on the one hand a helpless one, beaten and half dead, and on the other an outcast with no moral standing and the one leans down in pity to help the other, then there takes place a divine epiphany and awakening. There is "man," there reality is made human, and in answer to this movement of compassion, a Presence is made on the earth, and the bright cloud of the majesty of God overshadows their poverty and their love. There may be no consolation in it. There may be nothing humanly charming about it. It is not necessarily like the movies. Perhaps the encounter is outwardly sordid and unattractive. But the Presence of God is brought about on earth there, and Christ is there, and God is in communion with man.

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 181-182.

Thought for the Day

Chesed, mercy and power, manifests itself visibly in the chasid, or the saint. Indeed the saint is one whose whole life is immersed in the chesed of God. The saint is the instrument of the divine mercy. Through the chasid the love of God reaches into the world in a visible mystery, a mystery of poverty and love, meekness and power.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

heart of silence

"Whatever one may think of the value of communal celebration with all kinds of song and self-expression--and these certainly have their place--the kind of prayer we here speak of as properly 'monastic' (though it may also fit into the life of any lay person who is attracted to it) is a prayer of silence, simplicity, contemplative and meditative unity, a deep personal integration in an attentive, watchful listening of 'the heart.' The response such prayer call forth is not usually one of jubilation or audible witness: it is a wordless and total surrender of the heart of silence."


[Note: this is today's AM WITH MERTON post from Wayne Burns. Thank you, Wayne.]

Sunday, April 6, 2008

being understood on paper

Thomas Merton (Father Louis, O.C.S.O.), Novice Master at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucy. Study by Victor Hammer, 1961, for a lost panel painting.

Toward the end of 1961, Merton was persuaded to sit for a portrait by Victor Hammer. The drawing Victor made is Merton as the archetypal monk – neither young nor old, reflective, elsewhere.

Merton wrote in his journal that day:
“The patient, human work of sitting and talking and being understood on paper. How different from the camera!”

bongo louie

Thomas Merton, early fall 1968, just before his departure for Asia. Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.


I have been reading Merton, seriously, since 1968. Before that I always knew about Merton. I grew up just a few miles from Gethsemane and my family often attended services with the monks. My father brought home Merton’s books as they were published.

My spiritual reading has been broad, but Merton is the writer that I have stayed with consistently, reading many of the same books over and over again, for years. I have begun to realize that Merton is my primary spiritual director – and the voice that I most trust.

Sometimes others who write about Merton help me to better understand Merton. I have especially appreciated the writings of James Finley, Roger Lipskey and Jim Forrest.

But Kathleen Deignan’s writing on Merton is special. In her “Book of Hours”, she has been able to lift from Merton’s writing (and mostly his poetry) not just his thought, but the secret of his soul: Praise.

The following are excerpts from her introduction to the “Book of Hours”:

The Territory of Praise: “Le Point Vierge” of Paradise

“This is the burning promised land, the house of God, the gate of heaven.” (Entering the Silence, p. 473)

In the several decades of his monastic life, Thomas Merton became a dervish of praise spinning around a still point of presence manifesting on the surface and in the depths of everything, especially the human heart. He labored to name this mysterious center of being, “a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will.” (Conjectures of a Guilty
Bystander, p. 158). He called it “le point vierge” – the “virgin point” of the spirit where one meets God, and which is the glory of God in us. It is like a “pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven”… Merton had no program to suggest for this seeing; it was in his experience the wide open secret to which so few attend: “paradise is all around us and we do not understand.” (CGB, p. 132). But the return to paradise, and the delineation of access routes for its discovery, was the passion of his life … (Book of Hours, pp. 30-31)

The Time of Praise: “Le Temps Vierge” of Eternity

“You have given me roots in Eternity” (Entering the Silence, p. 473)

If the territory of paradise is here, it’s time is now – each and every seminal moment that plants seeds of spiritual vitality in the human soul. But few of us are receptive to these pregnant germs of grace because we do not sense time as the field of encounter with divine presence. Rather we live in a time of no room, “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration. (Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 70). There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence; no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence. We are “worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race, and with ourselves, auseated.” (Thomas Merton Reader, pp. 363-364) …

We fear the thief of time that steals from the treasure we did not take the time to discover hidden in the cracks between CHRONOS – “a linear flight into nothingness” (Seasons of Celebration, p. 32) – and KAIROS the time of possibility and abundance that opens as we return to the immediacy of what is real. “Be the son of this instant”, Merton advises because the present is our right place, where the mind is at home. (BOOK OF HOURS Introduction, pp. 32-33)

Probably much to long for a blog entry, but I needed all of it this morning.

[Note: another place in this blog where I talk about Kathleen Deignan's book, "Book of Hours"]