Friday, May 2, 2008

remembering merton (part 1) - finding unity deeper than our differences

I happened upon a transcript of a round table discussion of some of Merton’s friends: Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest, and John Wu, Jr., which was held in the late 1990's (1996?). These memories of Merton are especially personal, and make Merton feel much more real to me, so I will be excepting some from that transcript.

Isn't that interesting the way Jim Forest refers to Merton as "one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century"? I'd concur, and I agree with what Jim says about Merton being rooted in traditional and liturgical Catholicism, but I tend to think that Merton was radical - not conservative or liberal. He went deeper, to the root.

"... the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church. Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It's quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It's a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it's not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.

I'm trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn't see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky. It's a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it's simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was. "

~Jim Forest


  1. "A dance" - very good -

    I don't get much out of the standard mass : I like the way the mass is celebrated at the pre-vatican 2 schismatic churches and at the Catholic Worker.

    Have you read about Merton's and Dorothy Day's reactions to Daniel Berrigan's mass method? At first, Merton was taken aback, but then appreciated its quality. Dorothy Day did not appreciate using a paper cup as a chalice.

    Ran across a "karass" I didn't know about before - beat poet Ed Sanders and Daniel Berrigan met at a mimeograph machine in eastside New York back when they were doing their early poetry/pacifist 'zines and became fast friends: he said that they became "types" that hangers-on began to imitate.

    A person here at work provided me with Dan Berrigan's address: I feel a need to write to him but not sure what to say.

  2. Interesting tidbits, Marc.

    Somewhere in this blog I have Merton's reactions to Berrigan's Mass. Merton was quite fond of Dan, as was Dan of MErton. Dan was so shaken by Merton's death that he could not speak of Merton of 10 years. Both being poets, I think that they understood and conected with each other at a deep place.

    I wrote to Berrigan back in the early 70's after I had read a book of his psalm/prayers. I appreciated something about the boldness with which he expressed the Old Testament writings. I was hearing something that I had not heard before.

    I have followed Berrigan's life since then, and met him a few times at different retreats or Church appearances. (He did write back after that first letter). Once I had to pick him up at the airport and had some time alone with him. He was very easy to be with. I remember him saying something to me about staying close to the Sacraments ...

    He's quite old now, over 85, I think.

  3. You've probably noticed the influx of media (TIME and NPR) stuff about the year 1968 the past month: I've noticed no mention of the Catonsville Nine action.

    When I saw "Investigation of a Flame" for the first time and the part where Dan Berrigan was interviewed I turned and said to my wife with a sudden realization "I love this man" She said "Yes, I know". That doesn't happen to me often.

    I've read and read his poetry : I've reviewed three of his books on Amazon

    "Stay close to the sacraments" I wonder why?

  4. I haven't noticed the media attention on 1968, Marc - but I don't watch TV too much. Too bad they don't include the Catonsville Nine, was that action in 1968? I saw a DVD documentary of that not too long ago, and I think I posted about it on Quotes and Musings.

    I remember the Catholic Church of those years as being much more relevant than it is now. It was definitely much more "liberal". So many of my friends (including me) can't seem to find a place in the American Catholic Church now.

    I think that Berrigan told me to "stay close to the Sacraments" because he knew that I needed some kind of spiritual nourishment from them, and he also knew how easy it was to fall away from Church as it is usually defined.

  5. P.S. - nice review of Berrigan's book. Looks like a good book. I like the title, "Prayer for the Morning Headlines ..."



  Kelly Latimore Icon "You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as aw...