Sunday, July 15, 2007

the daniel berrigan connection (part 4)

Photo by Jim Forest
"this Extraordinary Spirit, Thomas Merton"
In 1996 Daniel Berrigan was speaking at a local parish and my local Pax Christi group honored me by giving me the task of picking Dan up at the airport. I was thrilled, but also a little shy. I brought along that record album (“America is hard to find”), thinking that I would ask him to autograph it, but somehow I never got up the nerve. Instead, Dan and I talked about people that we knew. A mutual friend, Mev Puleo, had recently died so we talked about her. And then we talked about Merton.

Dan told me that for 10 years after Merton had died he could not speak about Merton. People would ask him to say or write something about his friendship with Merton, but the words were just not there. And then, suddenly, after 10 years, the grief was lifted.

In September 1979, eleven years after Merton’s death, the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange opened in Denver Colorado. Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, (Merton’s life long friend and neighbor from the nearby Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Ky.) invited Dan to give the address. This was the first time that Dan had spoken publicly about Merton since his death.

Referring to his friend as “this extraordinary spirit, Thomas Merton,” Berrigan used Merton’s Cold War Letters to illustrate his urgently prophetic voice speaking against the buildup of nuclear weapons. Berrigan talked about Merton’s contemplative work in the world, a work that impelled him to continue to criticize militarism and to criticize the Church’s silence on crucial issues. Insisting that the true contemplative must be aware of what is happening to people “in the world”, Merton saw the monastery as a bridge to that world.

In his own poetic way, Berrigan described the balance required of a contemplative in today’s world:

"The life of the believing human being is a sort of high wire act in which one goes forward unsteadily, but goes forward, trying out a balance which can only be sustained if life is in movement; a balance between life within and life without; a balance between looking within and measuring the danger and the height from the ground; a balance between the distance to be covered and the distance covered, and going on. Somewhere on that high wire, Merton found his own sanity and recommended it to us.”
See also:
[Note: I had intended to continue the series on the Berrigan-Merton connection discussing the confusion and crisis surrounding the death of Roger LaPorte in 1965. The exchanges between Merton and Berrigan at this time deeply explore the roles of activism, risk, and faithfulness to vocation. I decided to lift it from the Merton-Berrigan connection series because it is a theme of Merton’s life that extends beyond just this relationship or event. ]


  1. Beth,
    Thanks so much for your blog. Merton is a huge inspiration for me. I am reading bridges to comtemplative living right now and considering starting a group. Your blog will be very helpful.
    Thanks again,

  2. Thanks for your visit and comment, Sean. There are so many things about Merton to muse and speak about. He is a huge inspiration for me as well, and I guess I use this blog as a sort of creative outlet for all that I gleem from Merton's writings. It's endless! :-)

  3. Regarding the
    contemplative experience, prayer, and faith (I withhold "caritas," for now because It is in a "class" by Itself, q.v., I Corinthians 13, 1-13), I would venture this: there seems to be a great longing at times--almost a hunger--in our hearts for an ideal, full "Communion." Yet, "now we see through a glass, darkly..." That is--and Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner has mentioned this--we can have "experiences" that we would like to mark as "Grace," but, in fact, we really do not ever know. Said another way: God's experience to us is always mediated, never immmediate (q.v., Richard McBrien's book Catholicism). The point is that our inner spiritual life (faith, hope, contemplation, etc.) is asymptotic--we can seemingly get closer and closer but the ideal experience we may long for eludes us--for now. But--and mysteriously--we encounter the Other in each other as we love--i.e., forgive, accept, and act kindly towards--our neighbor. Again, I Corinthians 13--we may have faith great enough to move mountains, understand all mysteries, are able to speak in tongues, etc.--and yet...

    Dean Taylor

  4. Thanks for this comment, Dean.

    You've well articulated the "unkowing" that is at the bottom of Faith. You're right, the only thing we really encounter in this world is each other.

    This is the Catholicism that speaks to me.


From Dorothy Day’s editorial in the Catholic Worker on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.