The Annuncation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898, oil on canvas
When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul and she saw that, in containing Him, she contained the world besides.
The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and the end of all things came before her in her deepest heart.
And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm Mary slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence.
And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.
-- Thomas Merton
The Ascent to Truth (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951, p 317)
In 2000, I spent the first week of Advent alone in Thomas Merton’s hermitage on the grounds of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. How I was given that chance is a long story, which I shall not burden you with. But here is a little something I wrote exactly ten years ago today.
Wednesday, December 6, 2000 – 10:40am, Merton’s Hermitage. After breakfast, I sat quietly in front of the fireplace. The house was really cold and I had not started the furnace, thinking I would wait until later this afternoon. After meditating for about 20 minutes, a picture flashed across my mind: the interior of an abandoned building in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, where squatters had set fire to the staircase to keep warm during a bitter cold night. I had been in the building – and many more like it – while making the documentary on the St. Francis Inn. One day, Fr. Francis Pompei, OFM found a young man in the abandoned building. He was bundled up against the cold night. His name was Efrem and he had been homeless for about a month. He said, “It’s rough.” A towering example of an understatement. Sitting alone in Merton’s hermitage – living in “rough” conditions – I’m reminded of the plight of the poor who live in far, far worse conditions because of injustice and not out of seeking a “spiritual” experience. We cannot walk toward God and turn our backs on our suffering brothers and sisters at the same time. If you are reading these words in the comfort of a home, put the book down and go show God’s mercy and love to someone who does not have a home. Get up. Do it now. To forget the poor is to forget God.
“It is the hour for prayer; if you hear the poor calling you, mortify yourself and leave God for God, although you must do everything you can not to omit your prayer, for that is what keeps you united to God; and as long as this union lasts you have nothing to fear.”
-St. Vincent de Paul
Morgan Atkinson has produced a documentary on the remarkable life of John Howard Griffin. Griffin figured significantly in Merton's life, and Merton in Griffin's. This blog includes a collection of posts reflecting on Griffin's life, spirituality, and art (as if they could be viewed separately!).
Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin is Morgan Atkinson's documentary on the remarkable life of a son of the American South, who became a citizen of the world and stirred the conscience of a nation.
John Howard Griffin is best known as the white man who in 1959 disguised himself as a black man and then traveled anonymously through the heart of Dixie. From his experiences he wrote “Black Like Me”, a groundbreaking best seller that today stands as a testament to Griffin’s moral commitment and a document of one of the more extraordinary events of the Civil Rights era.
“Uncommon Vision” focuses on Griffin’s social activism but will also examine how a spiritual commitment led him from a segregated childhood in Fort Worth to fighting with the French Underground, sustained him during ten years of blindness incurred by war injuries and inspired him during a prolific creative life as a writer/photographer.
It’s an inspiring, entertaining and edifying story. Studs Terkel, one of the great chroniclers of 20th century American culture and a frequent interviewer of Griffin, summed him up thusly.
“John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered … He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” Studs Terkel
Here is a video. I remember being fascinated with the book, Black Like Me, when I was a child. I look forward to seeing this documentary:
Click HERE to listen to an America Magazine podcast about the documentary.
“A waiting person is a patient person. The word ‘patience’ means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb.” -Henri Nouwen