Thomas Merton on Guy Patrick’s Life and Death

This Saturday, I’ll be traveling back to Berea, Kentucky where I lived and taught for more than 40 years. The sad occasion will be a memorial service for my life’s best friend, Guy Patrick who died at the very beginning of this year. Guy’s widow, Peggy, has asked me to read at the ceremony an excerpt from one of Guy’s favorite authors, Thomas Merton. What follows is my “translation” the Merton passage as applied to Guy’s life. Afterwards, I include the great Trappist monk’s original words, so you can see if I got them right.

Guy’s death has created a hole in my own life that will never be filled.  

Paradoxically,
Guy Patrick’s life
Affirmed itself
By all the endings
It contained.

He was blessed
To learn early on
The self-transcendent
Rewards and meaning
Of dying to himself and
Of using his time,
Effort, strength
And intelligence
To serve others
By giving them
Everything he had.

Doing so
Made Guy
The very embodiment
Of a mature man.
It set him apart
As uniquely
Productive and complete
Because he wasted no time
Seeking money or power.

So, at the age of 85
With nothing else
Left to give
To family world and humanity
He showed us
How to die
As his final bequest.

For Guy
The “end of life”
Meant culmination
Not termination.
It was an act of love
Of acceptance
And surrender
Of his entire life
With its good and bad
Sins and love,
Conquests and defeats
Into God’s gracious hands
Who then, no doubt,
Fulfilled Guy’s fondest hopes
By finally 
Revealing life’s meaning and worth
Its point and destiny – 
For all of us too.

Thank you, Guy
For your love, generosity
And wondrous example!

Thomas Merton On Worthful Living and Culminating Death

Thomas Merton

As a man grows into other stages of human development, he realizes that there are ways in which life affirms itself by consenting to end. For example, youth begins to discover that by bringing to an end some egoistic satisfaction, in order to do something for another, he can discover a deeper level of reality and of life. The mature man realizes that his life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things for himself, but in giving his time, his efforts, his strength, his intelligence, and his love to others. Here a different kind of dialectic between life and death begins to appear. The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself. It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of immediate satisfactions, which it could once claim without being contested. Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others. Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away, and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others.

But since contingent lives must end — they are not interminable and there is nothing whatever in their constitution that justifies us thinking that they are — it is important that the end of life itself should finally set the seal upon the giving and the sacrifice which has marked mature and productive living. Thus man physically and mentally declines having given everything that he had to life, to other men, to his love, to his family, and to his world. He is spent or exhausted, not in the sense that he is merely burned out and gutted by the accumulation of money and power, but because he has given himself totally in love. There is nothing left now for him to give. It is now that in a final act he surrenders his life itself.

This is the “end of life,” not in the sense of termination, but in the sense of culminating gift, the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance: the surrender of his being into the hands of God, who made it, and the acceptance of the death which in details and circumstances is perhaps very significantly in continuity with all the acts and incidents of life — its good and its bad, its sins and its love, its conquests and its defeats. A man’s last gift of himself in death is, then, the acceptance of what he has been and the resignation of all final judgment as to the meaning of his life, its worth, its point, its ultimate destiny. It is the final seal his freedom sets upon the love and the trust with which it has striven to live.

In Memoriam: John Capillo

Last week Peggy and I received the very sad news that our long-time friend, John Capillo, had died suddenly on New Year’s Eve. Mercifully, there was no long illness. Stomach pains brought him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, suffered septic shock, and suddenly was gone. He was 76 years of age.

For us, it was John’s second death. Years ago, Peggy and I said goodbye to him as he lay in coma in a Lexington (KY) hospital. We laid hands on him as we left his bedside then and thanked him for all his gifts to us and the world. But afterwards the unexpected happened. He was given a reprieve; he came back from the dead to live among us for several more years. It seemed entirely miraculous.

In any case, this time it’s final. And our world won’t be the same without this extraordinary man. He was a priest, a prophet, a teacher, storyteller, and a social justice warrior of astonishing accomplishment.

I first met John Capillo 40 years ago, when he and Terri and their new baby, Maureen, moved to Berea, Kentucky. One Sunday, the three of them showed up for Mass at St. Clare’s Church, where Peggy and I had been parishioners since our own arrival in town 5 years earlier. By then, we had our own daughter, Maggie, who was just about Maureen’s age.

Immediately, I learned that, like me, John had been a priest – ordained in New York’s Brooklyn archdiocese. That did it: we soon became fast friends – as did Maggie and Maureen. Peggy and Terri also shared a deep friendship.

At the beginning, John’s day job was carpentry. He had learned the trade during his first priestly assignment in Puerto Rico (or was it Guatemala? I forget.) John had showed up there to help rebuild after a hurricane or something. However, (as he told me early on) when he declared his do-good intention, an old man took him aside and said, “Padre, we know how to build houses. We need you to be our priest.”

And so, John did just that with the enthusiasm, commitment and insight that characterized his entire life. However, his desire to make the gospel relevant moved him to take chances with liturgy and edgy homilies that rendered him suspect to his superiors. The resulting conflicts with authority eventually drove him from the priesthood and into family life.

Nevertheless, John never did give up carpentry or building. One Sunday shortly after arriving in Berea, he came to Sunday Mass with bandages on his left hand. The previous week, he had cut off a finger with his Skill Saw.

Undeterred, at one point, he built a solar addition onto our house in Buffalo Holler about 5 miles outside Berea’s city limits. The project was designed by Appalachian Science in the Public interest. It caught John’s imagination, because, like Peggy and me, he and Terri were going through a “back to nature” phase. He thrived on environmental harmony, innovation, recycling and simple living.

In fact, years later John built an even more innovative structure for himself. It was made entirely from strong woven-plastic bags filled with dirt. John had done a study on the process and technology. And soon he was filling the required bags and carefully laying out the building’s perimeter. Layer after layer created outside walls, interior divisions, and then a roof.

Everything was laid out carefully to take advantage of the sun, but also to orient the house towards sacred energies John perceived as housed in the east, north, west, and south. He wanted to steep himself deeply in such emanations, even while asleep. The whole project expressed John’s deep and never-abandoned desire for enlightenment and unity with God.

Yes, I saw John as a kind of saint. He was. I’ve met few people like him – always on point, never caught up in trivialities, deeply interested in meaning, and counter-cultural to a fault. That’s the way prophets are.

That’s the way John was. He cared little about externals. His diet was simple; he always ate what was set before him. He didn’t drink liquor. His beard was scruffy, his hair unkempt, his clothes always nondescript. But his soul was absolutely luminescent.  His laugh was raucous and full of joy. His loud Ha-Ha’s punctuated every story he ever told.

And he told many. In fact, he considered storytelling his calling and avocation. He studied its technique. And he always used that skill to talk about things that matter – as explained in the books he devoured as the voracious reader he was. John was an inveterate book clubber. He also read my blog, commented on it often, and frequently had us talking shop at Berea Coffee and Tea. Conversations always revolved around God, politics, philosophy and family.

But John was no armchair philosopher. He was a fierce activist on behalf of El Salvador during Central America’s troubled 1980s. As he put it, he “went to school” there – learning from the people during his frequent visits about the destructive role U.S. policy played not only in Salvador, but throughout the colonial world of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

John was a deeply, deeply critical thinker. At one point, he spent a month in El Salvador with Peggy and her class of Berea College students as they worked with local residents struggling to overcome the disastrous effects of U.S. policy.

John’s greatest activist accomplishments came after he joined our mutual friend, Craig Williams’ Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). It was and remains a grassroots organization committed to environmental justice. KEF’s main focus became delivering Berea’s Madison County from arrogant U.S. Army plans to dispose of World War II chemical weapons containing mustard gas and other genocidal poisons. The Army had planned to simply burn it all in a thoughtless incinerator near our homes, schools and local businesses.

However, with John’s help, KEF stopped the planners in their tracks. KEF mobilized the entire county and state to prevent that particular disaster from happening. It actually defeated the U.S. Army! Eventually, KEF linked up with similarly victimized communities throughout the United States and the world to work for and celebrate analogous accomplishments.

It was all truly heroic. And John was a huge part of all that. For years, KEF was his final regular job. And in that capacity, he mentored numerous Berea College students including our own daughter, Maggie, who had the privilege of working closely with him and Craig as a student-volunteer.

Here’s a list of some other ways I experienced John as activist, prophet, teacher, and friend:

  • Any of us organizers and educators could always count on John to attend and participate in meetings of any kind, anywhere if they addressed issues of spirituality, activism, critical thinking and/or critical living.
  • He was an advocate and friend of Berea’s and Madison County’s large Hispanic community often working as a translator for its members in court and in social services offices.
  • He was a frequent guest in my own (and Peggy’s) Berea College classes where he edified and provoked students with his informative stories and explanations about our country’s Central American wars and about the environmental dangers of incineration. He was so effective with students.
  • For years, John was a faithful and active member of the Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace, which during the ‘80s was organized around nuclear disarmament and opposition to our government’s tragic interventionism in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
  • One January, the two of us taught a month-long Berea College course on environmental justice. The course took place in Alabama, where another U.S. Army incinerator threatened the local mostly African American community. The offering was called “Taking on the Military Industrial Complex.” You can imagine the conversations John and I had in the process.
  • Years later, John joined Peggy and me in Oaxaca for a month-long course with Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva — himself an extraordinary critical thinker – who deeply influenced so many of us through his seminars, lectures, prophetic example and books like Grassroots Postmodernism. John loved Gustavo.
  • John was there for me when I tried to start a home church.
  • He visited me at our lake house in Michigan last summer. We spent the entire afternoon on our back porch talking of our usual things – family, politics, church, theology, books. John was extraordinarily proud of his four children and of his grandchildren. I treasure that memory.

As I said, John Capillo was a saint. He was one of my closest friends. Unfortunately, he won’t be coming back from the dead this time (physically, that is). Peggy, Maggie and I will miss him. The world is poorer for his absence.

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)