Sunday, May 11, 2008

dag hammarskjöld

"In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." - Dag Hammarskjöld
I do not recall Merton ever mentioning Dag Hammarskjöld, yet they were contemporaries. Hammarskjold was born in 1905, Merton in 1915. They traveled in different circles: Merton in a religious, literary world, Hammarskjöld in a secular, political one. But they were on the same page.

As the Chairman of the Bank of Sweden, Sweden’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and later Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld’s life was in the public arena. Yet he was a private person. The contemplative undercurrents of Hammarskjöld’s life were not fully realized until the publication of “Markings” in 1963, two years after his death.

“Markings” reveals the central role of a surrendered spirituality in a life that is totally engaged with the historical tasks of the world. The monastic withdrawal so essential to contemplativeness happened in Hammarskjöld’s inner-world simultaneously with an outward life that was immersed in world affairs. The same could be said of Dorothy Day.

Hammarskjöld named his diary, “Signposts” – “a sort of ‘white book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God”. This is the only attempt that I know of by a professional person to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa - two sides of a single self-consistent person.

For most of my life I have used “Markings” as one of my primary books of meditation. I am forever discovering new insights in the more than 600 entries. Here is just one:


To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from the point of rest in ourselves. Then, how much disappears, and all that remains falls into place.

In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.

-"Markings", Dag Hammarskjöld


  1. I read some of this book when I worked as a security guard for a retirement community in south florida. I remember it as being a series of epigrams, which I liked. I kind of understand what he means by "the point of rest" in ourselves. But I find this passage confusing. The action/contemplation reminds me of "The Bhagavad Gita"

    Too bad nobody like this is running for president.

  2. There are many haiku's at the end of the book. I'm not familiar with the Bhagavad Gita, but I intend to explore a little more the action/contemplation theme - especially as Fr. Delp came to understand it.

    There seems to be something about the political process in this country that rewards shallow extroverts. I think it has to do with the fact that most voters never get beyond TV sound bites when deciding who to vote for.

  3. On the way to work yesterday I was listening to NPR and there was an interview with an author whose new book is a history of political putdowns. One quote was Adlai Stevenson's. A woman approached him when he was running for president and said "I hope you know Mr. Stevenson, that all thinking people are going to be voting for you. His reply was "Yes, but I need a majority".

  4. :-) - Funny but true! (and Mr. Stevenson didn't win.)



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