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.”

Julian’s Revelations

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

As always, we began the session by giving participants time to share in small groups their experience of prayer during this past week with Thomas Merton. Following the sharing and question and answer period, I offered a reflection on this week’s mystic – Julian of Norwich.

Following a medical crisis, Julian had a series of “showings” (her term) – dramatic revelations of God’s love. These visions led her to decide to live the life of an anchoress – a person who lived a life of prayer and contemplation. My talk focused on Julian’s emphasis on God’s love and her understanding that God is all we need, which she talks about in the one book she wrote, Revelations of Love (sometimes called A Book of Showings.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. (I accidentally hit stop before talking about the prayer material for the week, so the podcast is missing the brief remarks I made about those.) The podcast runs for 22:07. You can find the handout I distributed (which I refer to near the end of the podcast) here.

Note: Although our reflection series has two remaining sessions, I will not be present at those, since I leave Tuesday for my Camino walk. Jennifer Wright will be facilitating and offering the reflections at those last two sessions (Marjorie Kempe and The Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing). You will be able to access the podcasts of those two talks here.

Learning from Teresa of Avila

A new law school year is upon us and today was the first gathering of the Fall Reflection Series, on the theme of Praying with the Mystics. The first fall reflection series I offered at UST (five or six years ago) was on this theme and I decided to return to it, albeit with a slightly different cast of characters.

The series will have five sessions. The first three, which I will facilitate, are on Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and Julian of Norwich. The last two, which Jennifer Wright will facilitate (during my Camino walk) will be on Margery Kempe and The Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing.

Today I gave in introduction to the series, talking about what is a mystic, and then giving a reflection on Teresa of Avila. In talking about Teresa, I began by describing some of that qualities that made her so open to hearing God and then talked about her explanation of the soul and its journey to God.

With respect to what it means to call someone a mystic I quoted Ursula Kay, who in her book Christian Mystics, defines a mystic in this way: “A mystic is a person who is deeply aware of the powerful presence of the divine spirit: someone who seeks, above all, the knowledge and love of God and who experiences to an extraordinary degree the profoundly personal encounter with the energy of divine life.” I also shared Robert Ellwood’s definition of mysticism “simply as a contact with the deity. … Mystical experience is experience in a religious context that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as encounter with ultimate divine reality in a direct nonrational way that engenders a deep sense of unity and of living during the experience on a level of being other than the ordinary.”

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 39:43. You can find the handout I distributed (which I refer to near the end of the podcast here.

Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Edith Stein, who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family and converted to Catholicism, eventually becoming a Carmelite nun and taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1942, together with other Jewish Catholics, she was arrested and was put to death in Auschwitz that same year.

Edith was a contemplative, but at the same time an internationally known lecturer, philosolpher, author and advocate for the rights of women who spoke out courageously against injustice. In explaining how she did all that she did, she observed, “[t]he only essential is that one finds, first of all, a quiet corner in which one can communicate with God as though there were nothing else, and that must be done daily…One is to consider oneself totally an instrument, especially with regard to the abilities one uses to perform one’s special tasks…we are to see them as something used, not by us, but by God in us.”

Edith is a model of our lives as Christians. We pray, allowing ourselves to be infused with God’s spirit…aligning our will with that of God, and then we go forth to be God’s instrument in the world.