Monday, December 4, 2023

The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968

Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-six, on December 10, 1941, a convert of three years, a pacifist, and a very experienced young man. 
Merton was a man with a monastic soul who brought new levels of meaning to the oldest elements of monastic life. Merton knew what had often been forgotten in monastic history: that monasticism is not about withdrawal; monasticism is about depth.
Merton’s new understanding of the stuff of contemplation led him beyond the boundaries of the order and into the very center of the contemplative vocation. As wars raged and racism consumed the country and feminism began to critique the established order, Merton began to look for bridges across the human divide. He became more and more interested in the monasticism of the Eastern religions, reaching out always for the intangibles that transcend boundaries and races and denominations in favor of that one unity that sanctifies us all, humanity.
Contemplation, Merton knew, was the key to experiencing that unity because contemplation, whatever its denominational origin, is simply coming to view life through the heart of God. It is coming to see the world as God sees the world. As one.
In an age when all of religious life itself was bursting at the seams, shedding one period of history, trying to become leaven in another, Merton began to live into the new model right before our eyes. Merton knew that the role of religious life in the modern world was to develop people of substance who were immersed in questions of social significance. Merton knew that religious life was not the fine art of maintaining monastic museums. On the morning of his death, Merton delivered his last public paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” to the Bangkok conference of Benedictines and Cistercians. The monastic, he said, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures…(saying) that the claims of the world are fraudulent.”
Merton the man taught the world that the spiritual life is not the elimination of struggle; it is the sanctification of struggle. It is struggle transformed to wisdom.

Merton the monk taught the world that withdrawal is not of the essence of a holy life. The essence of a holy life is immersion in the spiritual and commitment to the significant.
Merton the contemplative taught the world that we know that we will have come to see God when we have come to see people as sacred.

         —from A Passion for Life (Orbis), by Joan Chittister 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

First Sunday of Advent 2023

Photo by John P. Walsh

“I see this year’s Advent (December 1944 in Berlin’s Tegel Prison) with an intensity and discomposure like never before….Along with these thoughts comes the memory of an angel that a good person gave me for Advent in 1942. It held a banner: ‘Rejoice, for the Lord is near.’ 

“A war bomb destroyed the angel as well as that good person although I often sense that she continues to do angel-services for me. It is the knowledge of the quiet angels of annunciation, who speak their message of blessing into the distress of our world situation and scatter their blessing’s seeds which begin to grow in the middle of the night which informs and encourages us of the truth of a situation. 

“These angels of Advent are not loud angels of public jubilation and fulfillment but, silent and unnoticed, they come into private and shabby rooms and appear before our hearts as they did long ago. Silently they bring the questions of God and proclaim to us the miracles of God, with whom nothing is impossible. 

“Advent is a time of refuge because it has received a message – and so to believe in God’s auspicious seeds that the angels offer an open heart are the first things we must do with our lives. The next is to go through the days as announcing messengers ourselves. We wait in faith for the abundance of the coming harvest – not because we trust the earth or the stars or our own good sense and courage – but only because we have perceived God’s messages and know about His herald angels – and even have ourselves encountered one.”

From Alfred Delp, S.J., “Figures of Advent,” Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006 (adapted)

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Secular Monk: Fenton Johnson


Montaigne Saint-Victoire, Paul Cezanne

Full disclosure: I sort of “know” Fenton Johnson. I grew up in Bardstown, the town down the road from New Haven, where Fenton grew up. We knew some of the same people. I knew his sister, I dated his cousin, a cousin of his cousin was one of my best high school friends. I don’t have any distinct memory of Fenton (he was 3 years younger than me), rather an awareness of him; I knew he was around. And who forgets a name like “Fenton”?

By the 1990s I was an avid reader of all things Merton and dipped into the more serious magazines.  I noticed an article by Fenton Johnson and immediately knew it was Fenton. He was a good writer. I became a follower / reader. Not exactly a “fan”, but when I came across something he had written, I read it. 

to be continued ...

Sunday, August 6, 2023

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

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Healing Path by Jim Finley


Whoo boy … (another book review):

I’ve been sort of following Jim Finley since I read his “Merton’s Palace of Nowhere” book. I loved reading that book. Not only did Finley get Merton, he was able to express Merton’s spiritual world in a poetic and beautiful way. It felt as if my heart were resonating with his words and he was saying things that I knew in my own soul but had never heard said out loud before. Merton did that too, but Merton’s words were more reasonable. Finley’s words dipped a little deeper into the Unknown and he made some daring leaps. 

But I never came across another book by Jim Finley. I saw Finley on some YouTube videos, and knew that he was giving retreats, had become a psychotherapist, heard the rumors about the monk abuse at Gethsemane, listened to a podcast or two, but as far as I knew he hadn’t written another book until this one: “The Healing Path”. 

I read the book in about 2 days. It’s short. Finley is still pious and can droll on and on with mystical insights. But what is astounding about this book is the humility and rock bottom honesty. Finley takes his place among the screwed up human beings on the earth. He owns his place among the deeply wounded and scarred, who makes hurtful and lasting mistakes in his relationships.

At times I found myself wanting to criticize Finley. Correct him. His passivity and passive aggression is maddening. Get up, man, fight back. He’s supposed to be a “mystic” for God’s sake. One who has wisdom and integrity. Instead, he shows how downright creepy he can be, unable to engage with or respond emotionally to his wife. He checked out. Let her carry the load of blame. The episode that rings most true is when his wife breaks a beloved framed picture of a Japanese Mary and Christ child over his head. This was a moment of grace. Finley says nothing and picks up the pieces of shattered glass. 

Gushing about how he made love to his new girlfriend with 10 minutes of filing his divorce papers left me cold.

In the end, I am left, again, astounded and grateful to Jim Finley for laying this all out. There are nuggets of wisdom and real spiritual guidance here, like: “do not do violence to yourself while you wait for healing”. Once again, in writing this book, Jim Finley has gone where few have gone before him.

Not many people could write a book like this, exposing the wounds and also the wounding, and daring to suggest that this is where we might find our way to God. Only, perhaps, a real mystic. I will be mulling over this book for awhile. 

UPDATE: I guess I did read another book by Jim Finley, “The Contemplative Heart”, and have quoted from it a few times in this blog over the years.

Saturday, April 8, 2023



Judas by Paul-Henri Bourguignon

He is Risen

The March by Paul-Henri Bourguignon

Just came across this Easter homily from Merton (from where else but Facebook). I love the way Merton steers us away from superstition toward a living reality. This excerpt doesn’t do it justice, you have to read the whole homily.

Homily is HERE

"When the holy women arrived at the tomb, they found the stone was rolled away. But the fact that the stone was rolled away made little difference, since the body of Jesus was not there anyway. The Lord had risen. So too with us. We create obscure religious problems for ourselves, trying desperately to break through to a dead Christ behind a tombstone. Such problems are absurd. Even if we could roll away the stone, we would not find his body because he is not dead. 

"He is not an inert object, not a lifeless thing, not a piece of prop- erty, not a super-religious heirloom: HE IS NOT THERE, HE IS RISEN. 

"The Christian life, Christian worship, Christian community, the Eucharist, all these have been obscured by a limited ritualistic piety that insists on treating the Risen Lord as if he were a dead body, a holy object, not Spirit, and Life, and Son of the Living God. 

"Today let us come with faith to the banquet of the Lamb, the Risen Savior, to the Bread of Life that is not the food of the dead but the true and Risen Body of Christ. He who encounters the Risen Christ in the banquet of his Body and Blood will live forever! 

"Come, People of God, Christ our Passover is sacrificed, and in sharing his banquet we pass with him from death to life! He has risen. 

 "He is going before us into his Kingdom! Alleluia!"

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Merton Center

I don't know why it took me so long to get to The Merton Center in Louisville. I've been in and out of KY several times over the years. I have a very good friend who lives within walking distance to the Bellarmine campus. I even stay over night with her, and her husband is a professor at Bellarmine.

Anyway, I finally got there this past autumn, and enjoyed everything I saw there. All of Merton's books, audios of his talks to the novices, many, many photos (both his photos and those taken of him). Photos of his brother, John Paul. His Calligraphies. Original typed manuscripts. The statue of the Virgin and Child he had Jaime Andrade sculpt. His denim jacket. The icon. The stole Pope John XXIII sent to him. It's all there.

All of my photos are on a Flickr site HERE.

I am so late getting this up because I have been very ill the last few months. 

A good monk


Photo via Mepkin Abbey

Celebrating Brother Joseph’s simple and holy life

A beautifully written tribute to a simple and holy Trappist monk, Brother Joseph OSCO, from the Mepkin Abby in South Carolina. A hidden, unknown and deeply contemplative life. 

His innocence was his hallmark, a man at home with himself in any situation, even those in which the more scrupulous might blanch. He was simple in the best sense of that word, which is so freighted in normal usage. For simple was what a monk was to be, unheralded by others, not even his fellow monks, his gaze on a more significant reward.

Read more HERE.

The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...