Thursday, October 20, 2022

Awake and Alive


This book wasn’t what I was expecting either.

I haven’t bought a Merton book for awhile. I suppose it was the title that attracted me. Being “awake” is something that I look for in a spiritual guide. Someone who is HERE, fully alive. This is what I reach for in my own life, so I gravitate toward writers who might show me the way, or some shortcuts. 

Merton said once that he felt closer to the writers and artists around the world that he corresponded with than with his fellow monks at the abbey. I suppose that he meant that he felt closer to fellow artists in thought and spirit with what he was trying to do with his life. As a monk AND as an artist. This book gives voice to what Merton’s fellow monks thought of Merton. 

Having just finished “Dearest Sister Wendy”, I could see Merton through the eyes of someone who took her monastic vocation seriously. Sister Wendy didn’t give Merton much slack. Neither do his fellow monks. They are kind, and they give Merton credit for his efforts to teach and guide the novices. But they don’t idolize Merton. 

In some off the cuff and unedited remarks (probably transcribed for oral interviews) from some of the men (now old men) who had been novices while Merton was Novice Master (the 1950s and early 1960s) we hear honest portrayals of a complex and flawed man, nothing really special. Just one of us. 

As a super Merton fan (just look at this blog), I found this refreshing. I think that Merton, himself, would too. 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Sister Wendy, Contemplative


Sister Wendy Becket, Icon by William Hart McNichols

I knew her as the art nun, but I also knew that she lived alone as a hermit. When I caught wind that a book was coming out about her (“Dearest Sister Wendy”, Robert Ellsberg) I was intrigued. 

The book was not what I expected. I was expecting to enhance my appreciation of art, at least a little. Wasn't art the love of her life? But there is very little art commentary in this book, or spiritual insight into the art world. 

Instead, there is personal honesty: a deep look at the inner world of an odd and holy woman who is called to a solitary life of prayer. And her miraculous opening out and sharing of herself in an almost daily correspondence with Robert Ellsberg during the last 2 years of her life. 

It turns out that God is the love of Sister Wendy's life. 

Sister Wendy is delightfully funny. And odd. And very smart. And humble. I'd almost say that she had no ego. Those 7 hours of daily praying must have been at a high order of meditation. And yet, in so many words, without words, she lets you know about this simple prayer of hers.

I’ve been intrigued with solitary monastic life for awhile, most of my life. When I was a child it was the Carmelite monastery in Louisville that most caught my attention. What did the nuns do in that walled and silent place? I’m odd, too - introverted - so I sort of can identify with and understand Sister Wendy.

Sister Wendy knew her way early in life. She joined an order of teaching nuns when she was just 16 years old. She never doubted this move or looked back. She followed the rules; she obeyed. Her life was totally in the hands of God and she trusted that the circumstances of life would guide her to where God wanted her to be. And they did. 

After about 20 years in a teaching role Sister Wendy had a physical breakdown of sorts. Seizures that were diagnosed as epilepsy. She was given permission to live as a consecrated virgin and hermit. Secluded in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, England, Sister Wendy lived her life alone and in prayer. She went to the monastery for Mass every day, but otherwise she was in her little trailer, praying for at least 7 hours a day. She read - about art, about religion, about Thomas Merton, Pope Francis, and others. 

Sister Wendy took the rules of monasticism seriously, which is probably one of the reasons she had such a hard time with Merton. Merton talked a lot about the monastic life, but he broke most of the rules. His engagement with “the world” was relentless. She wondered why his writing did not convey much joy in his life. 

Reading Sister Wendy’s takes on Merton is revealing. Even at 88 years old and in failing health, her mind is still sharp and penetrating. Her insights in to what is happening in the world are compassionate and wise. Most of her life has been spent in silent prayer, away from the world. Not talking to people. When her correspondence with Mr. Ellsberg begins, Sister Wendy is hesitant. How does one speak of a life of silent prayer? There are no words. Nothing, as she would say. 

And yet, over the course of 2 years and possibly for the first time in her life, Sister Wendy relates from a deep and authentic place in herself who she is and who God is for her.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

the new person

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Ilia Delio (The Hours of the Universe) talks about “the new person” emerging in evolution, who is embracing pluralities of gender, race and religion; who is called into a “new type of consciousness where things are first seen together and then as distinct within this togetherness.” (The Hours of the Universe, p. 98.) She affirms that we are being rewired for belonging to the cosmic whole. We are more and more aware that we are one earth community; we have a planetary consciousness that, according to Ilia, evokes a deep concern, especially in younger generations, for the planet and for those who are impoverished or marginalized. She calls younger generations – many of you – “digital natives” because they (you) were “born into a networked world and … think across lines of relationships.” In fact, Ilia says, “we are beginning to see that systems in nature do not work on principles of competition and struggle but on cooperation and sympathy.”

An excerpt from the acceptance speech by Marie Dennis chosen as the “Teacher of Peace 2022” by Pax Christi USA at its 50th Anniversary National Conference, August 7, 2022.


Monday, August 8, 2022

Merton's letter to the Mayor of Hiroshima, August 9, 1962

60 years ago near the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Thomas Merton wrote the Mayor of Hiroshima, Japan:

"In a solemn and grave hour for humanity I address this letter to you and to your people... The events or August 6th 1945 give you the most solemn right to be heard and respected by the whole world. But the world only pretends to respect your witness. In reality it cannot face the truth which you represent. But I wish to say on my own behalf and on behalf of my fellow monks and those who are like minded, that I never cease to face the truth which is symbolized in the names of Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Each day I pray humbly and with love for the victims of the atomic bombardments which took place there. All the holy spirits of those who lost their lives then, I regard as my dear and real friends."

I am the utter poverty of God

This came to me via the Facebook International Merton Society site, who got it from the "Spiritual ... But Not Religious" blog site.  

...The most influential contact Thomas Merton made was with the Buddhist teacher, Chatral Rinpoche, a monk who had spent more than thirty years in the solitary contemplation that was Merton's only real home in this world.

It was Chatral Rinpoche who identified Merton as a pratyekabhudda, and with whom Merton would take a variant of the Boddhisatva's vows, in which he dedicated himself to do all he could to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, in this lifetime or the next.

Merton was already far along that path, as the following entry written in his journal several months before he set out to Asia demonstrates:

"I am the utter poverty of God," he wrote.

"I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness.

"When this is understood, my life in His freedom,
the self-emptying God of me, is the fullness of grace.
Love for all, hatred of none, is the fruit and manifestation
of love of God, peace and satisfaction."

Chatral Rinpoche identified Merton as an independently enlightened being. In doing so, they highlight the Buddhist acceptance of ultimate teachings, irrespective of what religious or spiritual tradition in which they arise.

The Buddha consistently said that his path was not the only path to enlightenment, and that every being must find his own path. His teachings, he noted, were meant only to be guides, and he encouraged all to investigate for him or herself the truth of what he said, rather than merely taking his word for it."

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

 Map of Matter in the Universe

Full sky map from ESA Plank mission showing matter between the earth and the edge of the observable universe.

The bread that Jesus handed to you, to us, is real bread, and if you can eat real bread you have real life. But we are not able to eat real bread. We only try to eat the word bread or the notion of bread. Even when we are celebrating the Eucharist, we are still eating notions and ideas. “Take, my friends, this is my flesh, this is my blood.” Can there be any more drastic language in order to wake you up? What could Jesus have said that is better than that? You have been eating ideas and notions, and I want you to eat real bread so that you become alive. If you come back to the present moment, fully alive, you will realize this is real bread, this piece of bread is the body of the whole cosmos.

If Christ is the body of God, which he is, then the bread he offers is also the body of the cosmos. Look deeply and you notice the sunshine in the bread, the blue sky in the bread, the cloud and the great earth in the bread. Can you tell me what is not in a piece of bread? The whole cosmos has come together in order to bring to you this piece of bread. You eat it in such a way that you become alive, truly alive. . . . Eat in such a way that the Holy Spirit becomes an energy within you and then the piece of bread that Jesus gives to you will stop being an idea, a notion. 

- Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 106–107

HT: Richard Rohr OFM

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A dreadful hatred of life

cover of the Manifesto pamphlet

On this Earth Day, I post a Merton writing that was never published in America, indeed not much known about. It appeared in a small pamphlet published in England in the summer of 1966.

Since factory farming exerts a violent and unnatural force upon the living organisms of animals and birds, in order to increase production and profits, and since it involves callous and cruel exploitation of life, with implicit contempt for nature and for life, I must join the protest which is being uttered against it. It does not seem that these methods have any really justifiable purpose except to increase the quantity of production at the expense of quality: if that can be called a justifiable purpose. However, this is only one aspect of a more general phenomenon: the increasingly destructive and irrational behaviour of technological man. Our society seems to be more and more oriented to overproduction, to waste, and finally to production for destruction. Its orientation to global war is the culminating absurdity of its inner logic, or lack of logic. The mistreatment of animals in “intensive husbandry” is the part of this larger picture of insensitivity to genuine values and indeed to humanity and to life itself – a picture which more and more comes to display the ugly lineaments of what can only be called by its right name: barbarism.

Monica Weiss SSJ, unearths the origins and context of this writing in an article in The Merton Seasonal HERE. Monica is the author of the forthcoming book, The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton.

"Here once again, Thomas Merton is in the forefront of eco-justice, encouraging us to develop an ecological consciousness. How is it that Merton, with his propensity for contemplation and the hermit life, can envision the negative ramifications of apparently salvific and cutting-edge human activity? If ever we doubted that Merton was ahead of his time or supposed that he was prophetic only on the dangers of nuclear war, this issue of factory farming should dispel any doubt." - Monica Weiss SSJ

Awake and Alive

  This book wasn’t what I was expecting either. I haven’t bought a Merton book for awhile. I suppose it was the title that attracted me. Bei...