Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Francis at the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, May 25, 2014
Occasionally on this blog I have dabbled in something that I call "pure act" or "pure prayer" or what I intuit as something that happens without our conscious thinking or preparing. Something given. Something to which (to whom?) we can only be open. (Grace?) A collection of these dabblings are here:


Over the weekend I was glued to the Pope App on my phone as Francis made his way around the Middle East. On the plane back to Rome last night he gave one of his hour long "off the cuff" press conferences with journalists. The journalists asked him if he had planned many of the symbolic gestures that were made during the trip. Francis' reply is getting very close to what I intuit as "pure act":

“The most genuine gestures are those which are made spontaneously. I had thought something could be done but none of the concrete gestures I made was conceived that way. Some things, like the invitation to the two presidents we had thought of doing there, during the visit, but there were lots of logistical problems, many, the place where we intended for it to happen was not an easy one. But in the end, the invitation was accepted and I hope the meeting will go well. But my gestures were not pre-planned, I just do what comes to me spontaneously. Just to clarify about the meeting in the Vatican. The purpose of the meeting will be to pray not meditate. The two presidents and I will only meet to pray and I believe that prayer is important and doing this helps. Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me. I have asked the Custody of the Holy land to deal with the practical side of things.” 
(quoted from the Vatican Insider HERE)

Lax says it best:

“… I think it’s what Merton is saying about prayer, - whatever it is, anything in it that is an impurity, that is anything but the act itself, which is practically unnamable. And if it is what it should be, then the poetry is prayer, the acrobatic act is prayer. 
“Pure act, I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no POTENTIA in Him. But that almost everything else in the universe is IN POTENTIA, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God. But only God is pure act. And that made me think about a lot of things. One of them is that business of the purity of an acrobatic performance, of any performance, at the point where it becomes really pure, is at its closest to the divine and closest to that unity.” 
“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. (p. 437-438)


  1. There's an overlap here, especially in what Lax is saying, with Henri Nouwen's fascination in circus trapeze artists..

    1. I didn't know about Nouwen's fascination with trapeze artists, J, but acrobats figure strongly into this (and impromptu jazz ensembles). The story that really intrigues me is the day that Phillipe Petit walked on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center!

    2. Yes, Man on a Wire is one of my favourite documentaries too!

      Henri Nouwen found so much in the circus which reflected Christian belief and theology. He was particularly fascinated by the moment when a trapeze artist must let go of all support, to fly with open arms, trusting that strong loving hands will be there ready to catch, embrace and save. It was a theme which echoed the significance he attached to the father's presence in the parable of the prodigal son.

  2. Doesn't Lax' reference to purity remind us of the 'point vierge' Merton referred to?

    1. Ah, indeed Thomas. Give me an excuse to read this once again. Just awesome stuff all the way around:

      "The first chirps of the waking day birds mark the "point vierge" [the virgin point] of the dawn under a sky as yet without real light, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes. They begin to speak to Him, not with fluent song, but with an awakening question that is their dawn state, their state at the "point vierge." Their condition asks if it is time for them to "be." He answers "Yes." Then, they one by one wake up, and become birds. They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing. Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

      "Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off "one to his farm and another to his merchandise." Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. "Wisdom," cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend."

      Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: 131-132 Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968: 18-19

      "The most wonderful moment of the day is when creation in its innocence asks permission to "be" once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was."

      Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander: 131

    2. I also like Kathleen Deignan's comments on the point vierge:

      “You have given me roots in Eternity” (Entering the Silence, p. 473)

      If the territory of paradise is here, it’s time is now – each and every seminal moment that plants seeds of spiritual vitality in the human soul. But few of us are receptive to these pregnant germs of grace because we do not sense time as the field of encounter with divine presence. Rather we live in a time of no room, “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration. (Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 70). There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence; no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence. We are “worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race, and with ourselves, auseated.” (Thomas Merton Reader, pp. 363-364) …

      We fear the thief of time that steals from the treasure we did not take the time to discover hidden in the cracks between CHRONOS – “a linear flight into nothingness” (Seasons of Celebration, p. 32) – and KAIROS the time of possibility and abundance that opens as we return to the immediacy of what is real. “Be the son of this instant”, Merton advises because the present is our right place, where the mind is at home. (BOOK OF HOURS Introduction, pp. 32-33)


Christ in the Rubble

The Rev. Munther Isaac lighting a candle next to an improvised crèche this month in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Credit... Samar Hazboun...