Merton and Advent

Today, December 10, is the 47th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, poet, peace activist, Trappist monk, prolific writer, mystic, lover of nature, champion of social justice and contemplative.

Merton once wrote, “The Church’s belief in Christ is not a mere static assent to His historical existence, but a dynamic participation in the great cycle of actions which manifest in the world the love of the Father for the ones He has called to union with Himself, in his beloved Son.”

It is a great thought to keep in mind as we approach Christmas.

Our minds fill with images of a young couple who cannot find room in an inn as the woman approaches pregnancy. We focus on a star and shepherds and wise men. We listen to the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah.

And it is right that we celebrate the birth of Jesus into the world. But, even as we do, we need to keep in mind that our faith is about more than the historical existence of a man named Jesus.

Ultimately, it is about the love of God – a God who longs for nothing less than our total union with Him. A God who chooses to become human out of love – to show us what it means to be fully human – and fully divine.

And, as the Merton quote suggests, our realization of this reality demands a response. Not mere a passive enjoyment of that love, but our commitment to “manifest in the world” that love.

As we move through these days of Advent, days in which our world is groaning in suffering, we might ask how we might more fully manifest God’s love in the world.


Remembering Thomas Merton

Forty-five years ago today, December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died. Merton was a Trappist monk, a poet, a peace activist, a prolific writer and a contemplative. Ignatian Spirituality is about being “contemplatives in action.” That is a label that can easily be applied to Merton.

In a work written in the year he died, Merton described his life and life work like this:

My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In those depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is a kind of submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt, when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith.

I’ve spoken about Thomas Merton in several retreats I’ve given focusing on mystics. Most recently, I did so at a retreat in daily living offered at the law school. My reflection that day focused on the foundational mystical experiences that shaped Merton’s life journey. You can access a recording of that talk here or stream it from the icon below.

P.S. This Merton quote came across my desk yesterday and it asks a question we would all profit from reflecting on: “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”

Talking about Thomas (Merton, that is)

Yesterday was the second gathering of the Fall Reflection Series on Praying the Mystics we are offering at UST Law School this fall.

Last week, our “mystic of the week” was Teresa of Avila, and during the first part of our session, participants shared in small groups the fruit of their prayer with Teresa this past week. We then had some general discussion about the week, which included addressing the challenges (for busy law students, faculty and staff and lawyers) of finding regular prayer time and of focus during prayer. We also talked about what Teresa referred to as detachment; what in Ignatian spirituality we would refer to as “active indifference.”

Following the general discussion, we turned to our mystic for this week. I offered a reflection on Thomas Merton (like Teresa, a favorite of mine), talking a little about his life, the stages of his spiritual journey, and the foundational mystical experiences that shaped that journey. In the course of my reflection I read two Merton’s description of two of those experiences. (The participants will pray with a third this week.)

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 22:00. You can find the handout I distributed (which I refer to briefly near the end of the podcast – we were running short of time) here.

Everything is Held in Stewardship

As I’ve said before, every day my prayer includes St. Ignatius’ Suscipe: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”

This morning as I prayed it, I heard more deeply than ever the truth that EVERYTHING – all I have, all I am, everything – is gift from God. Not mine to do with as I will, but mine only in trust to use for the benefit of all.

We use the term “stewardship” a lot. For many people stewardship is just about how we use the goods of the earth (sustainable farming, etc.). But while that is certainly an important part of it, my stewardship of my self, of what I have, of the gifts I have been given, is at least as (if not more) important.

Earlier this week I sent to those who had participated in our UST vocation retreat this past weekend an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island. Given my reflections on the Suscipe, it is a fitting quote to share here:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others?

Total stewardship over all is easier to understand when we realize our deep interrelationship and interdependence. My use of my gifts can be no “for me” separate from “for others” or “for others” separate from “for me.” It is all “for us.”

Losing the Faith of our Childhood

In so many areas of our life, we appreciate that children and adults have different capacities for understanding, that children cannot understand things in ways adults can. As we grow, our understanding becomes more nuanced, more sophisticated.

We don’t always have that appreciation when it comes to our faith. As we mature, we have to lose the faith of our childhood and replace it with an adult faith. (I say have to, recognizing that there are some people who neve take this step.)

Part of growing into an adult faith is appreciating that God isn’t always about feeling good, or even feeling reassured.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes:

How many people are there in the world of today who have “lost their faith” along with the vain hopes and illusions of their childhood? What they called “faith” was just one among all the other illusions. They placed all their hope in a certain sense of spiritual peace, of comfort, of interior equilibrium, of self-respect. Then when they began to struggle with the real difficulties and burdens of mature life, when they became aware of their own weakness, they lost their peace, they let go of their precious self-respect, and it became impossible for them to “believe.” That is to say it became impossible for them to comfort themselves, to reassure themselves, with the images and concepts they found reassuring in childhood.

Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, of spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this. Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine, who are able to pick you up and set you back on your feet and make you feel good for three or four days-until you fold up and collapse into despair.

We needn’t lose our faith when things get rough. But we do need to find out how to have faith in the midst of a world that is not all sunshine, and that does have moments of despair. That is difficult for children, but it is part of the task of developing a mature faith.

To Die So As Not to Die

In yesterday’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” and that those who love their lives lose them, but those who hate their lives in this world preserve them.

Or, as Fr. Dale Korogi put it more simply in his homily at Christ the King yesterday: We need to die before we die, so that when we die, we don’t die. Get it?

It is actually quite easy to understand as soon as we realize that the death we are asked to undergo before we die is not a physical sacrifice of our lives like that of Jesus on the cross. Rather, Fr. Dale explained, we are invited to die to our false selves and embrace the poverty of being human.

His explanation reminded me of Thomas Merton’s description of the false self. For Merton, the false self “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.” The false self sees itself as separate and apart from others and from God, as a completely self-sufficient unit.

Merton believed that all sin stems from the assumption that this false self “is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” It is this false self that must be abandoned in order to us to live as we are meant to live. It is this false self that we must die to so that we may live fully human lives – and “preserve [our lives] for eternal life” (in the words of the Gospel).

Fr. Dale ended his homily by quoting an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, The Gift Outright. The lines he quoted are worthwhile to reflect on in the context of yesterday’s Gospel:

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

Trust in God

St. Ignatius’ Suscipe is part of my prayer every day – a prayer that acknowledges that God’s love and grace are all we need. Take everything – my liberty, my memory, all of it – because your love and grace are enough.

The Merton Institute posted a reflection last week that was Merton’s version of that sentiment, and it is worth sharing. In Thoughts in Solitude, Merton writes

Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources.

If I trust You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.

It conveys a slightly different flavor than the Suscipe, but the reminder is an important one. If I trust in God, everything else will sort itself out. And if I don’t, nothing will.

As Merton prayers, let me grow in my trust in God, not in myself.

We Are the Word of God

Yesterday I went to St. Benedict’s Monastery to have lunch with my Studium friends, Srs. Ann Marie and Theresa. I timed my arrival so as to be there for noon prayer, something I always love attending during the periods I stayed there to work on my writing.

The second reading for the noon prayer was from Thomas Merton. From which of Merton’s writings the passage came, I don’t know, but in it, Merton spoke of us as being the Word of God. I can’t recall the actual words of the passage, but I was struck by the description of us.

We think of the Scripture of the Word of God. And from the beginning of John’s Gospel, we speak of Jesus as the Word.

I had never before thought, at least in those words, of us being the Word of God. But it makes perfect sense to think of it that way (God spoke and we came into being, in God’s image and likeness) – and it is a very powerful thought. We, of course, don’t echo God perfectly in our words or deeds, but hopefully we grow closer and closer to doing so as we proceed on our life’s journey.

Although not the passage I heard today, in New Seeds of Contamplation, Merton writes that

God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself…[I]f I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to thought of Him I was meant to embody, I shall be full of His actuality and find Him everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere. I shall be lost in Him.

You might spend some time reflecting on what it means to you to be the Word of God.

A Person’s Identity

One of the Facebook features I enjoy is the portion of the profile information section where people can put quotes. Every once in a while something prompts me to look to see what a particular Facebook friend has posted under that section, and sometimes I find some real gems.

Although I’ve read a lot of Thomas Merton, I had never before come across the following quote before seeing it listed as a quote by one of those friends:

You think you can identify a man by giving his date of birth and his address, his height, his eyes’ color, even his fingerprint… But if you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. The better answer he has, the more of a person he is.

If Merton is correct that the better answer one has to those two questions, “the more of person” one is, the two questions might offer fruitful ground for individual reflection.

I love the conjunction of “what I think I am living for” with “what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” I’m guessing that more people are intentional about asking themselves the first question than the second. Yet I think Merton is absolutely right that both are important questions – knowing the answer to only the first would not only give a very incomplete picture of a person, but would be insufficient to lead one to becoming more fully alive.

So ask yourself today what you think is keeping you from living fully for the thing you want to live for.

Being A Mirror of God

“Contemplative” is a word that makes many people uncomfortable. “I’m not a contemplative,” many people have told me, adding something like “I can’t really sit still and be quiet.”

There is an important place in our lives for quiet prayer with God. But living a contemplative life means something far broader than taking that quiet time with God.

I received a mailing form the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living which had a piece titled, Contemplative Connections: Being a Mirror of God. The title comes from a line in Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude: “We find God in our own being which is the mirror of God.”

It is a beautiful image and one that helps us to understand more broadly what it means to be a contemplative. Merton’s quote continues: “We find God in our own being which is the mirror of God. But how do we find our being? Actions are the doors and windows of being.”

What Merton was expressing was what Ignatian spirituality would term “contemplative in action.” William Barry, S.J., explains:

This Ignatian notion [or contemplative in action] can be understood as analogous to the kind of friendship that develops over a long time between two people. They are aware of each other even when they are apart or not engaging directly with each other. Although they may not be talking, at some deep level they are in touch with each other. Ignatius’s contemplative in action has such a relationship with God. Engaging closely with God over time, we allow the Spirit to transform us into people who are more like the images of God we are created to be—that is, more like Jesus, who was clearly a contemplative in action.

Being contempetive means letting our thoughts words and deeds mirror God’s love and compassion. We won’t do so perfection – being human means we will fail miserably at times.

But I think the reason I love the image of a mirror of God so much is that I think if we consciously see ourselves that way, that itself will help us better actualize the reality. If I am conscious of myself as a mirror of God, perhaps I can be more aware of of what I am projecting by my thoughts, words and deeds.