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.

Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Five years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2021 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

Dan Berrigan: in Memoriam

Dan Berrigan Resist

I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available).  The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!

Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.

All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.

During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.

Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about.  In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.

On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).

I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!

I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.

He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.

Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky.  (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.

Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it.  “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.

One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.

I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”

I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.

In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers.  The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).

I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk.  I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book.  I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.

Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!”  That’s his message to us today!

Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.

Pope Francis Criticizes Capitalism as a “Putrid, Rotten System”

filthy system

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges criticized Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his criticism of capitalism. He said that in the end, the pope was merely advocating charity and not real systemic change.

Hedges is an award-winning journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister. He is one of our culture’s most courageous writers and prophetic critics. He is always worth listening to. So I was surprised by his remarks.

The interview gave the impression that the pope not only should have been stronger in his criticism of capitalism; he should have denounced it as such, and offered some alternative.

My personal response is that the pope actually has done all three – during his six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’. During his visit here, he offered an extremely harsh denunciation capitalism. He scathingly criticized its “American” embodiment as violent and a form of gangsterism. And finally, in Laudato Si’, he offered a workable alternative.

Think about the pope’s criticism of capitalism-as-we-know-it.

Begin by understanding that it is historically short-sighted to argue that something called “capitalism” actually exists and needs reformation. The system has long since been reformed. In the midst of the Great Depression, it became clear to everyone that capitalism in its pure form (private ownership of the means of production, free and open markets, and unlimited earnings) was simply not workable.

So under the influence of John Maynard Keynes and others, the New Deal in the U.S. and the more extensive welfare states of Europe incorporated elements of socialism (public ownership of the means of production, controlled markets, and limited earnings). In other words, economies became mixed (some private ownership and some public, some controlled markets and some free, and earnings limited by progressive income tax).

The problem is that the new mixed economy was blended in favor of the rich. The theory was “trickle-down.” If the rich prospered, the rising tide of their prosperity would lift all boats.

Another problem surfaced with the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions during the 1980s. Reagan called the New Deal a “fifty-year mistake.” So he focused on eliminating or shrinking the elements of socialism that had crept into economies everywhere since the emergence of the welfare state. It’s that counter-reformation that Pope Francis has criticized in polite terms as the excrement of evil personified.

He elaborated his point during his address to the U.S. Congress on September 24th when he referred to economic system we know as “filthy,” “rotten,” and “putrid.” He called the Wall Street speculators “hypocrites.” Moreover, the pope directly confronted the members of his audience by calling the system they represented “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world today. And he called the politicians seated before him a bunch of gangsters.

Yes he did.

Of course the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to do none of those things directly. He did so instead by offering Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton as embodiments of our country’s greatest values.

It was Dorothy Day who is remembered as saying, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

It was King who called the United States itself, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And it was Thomas Merton, the apostle of non-violence, who classified U.S. politicians and military leaders among the world’s gangsters when he said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle . . .”

Moreover, Pope Francis did not leave his audience merely reeling from such heavy blows un-complemented by clear systemic alternatives to the filthy rotten arrangement he addressed. Instead, the pontiff called for a deep restructuring of capitalism-as-we-know-it. This would involve turning the present system’s preferential option for the rich precisely on its head, replacing it with his favorite guideline, the “preferential option for the poor.” Even more particularly, restructuring would require a central international legislative body endowed with power to override national economic practices judged to be environmentally unsound.

Both recommendations are found in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address. Both have already been implemented world-wide.

To begin with, the New Deal, the Great Society and (even more so) Europe’s introduction of the welfare state already represent arrangements which forefronted the needs of the working classes and poor. The reform measures were at the very least strong gestures towards economies mixed in favor of the poor rather than of the Wall Street rich. Such reforms demonstrated that another economic order is indeed possible.

As for the world body with power to enforce environmental legislation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) already has it, though perversely in its present form. According to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (and of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), multinational corporations (MNCs) now have the power to sue before the WTO and invalidate U.S. environmental protection standards if those laws can be shown to diminish a corporation’s expected profits.

What the pope is proposing is an international body that turns the WTOs mandate upside-down.  The body the pope proposes would have binding power to protect the environment from the depredations of MNCs – i.e. is to eliminate their profits if they result from environmental destruction.

So I respectfully suggest that Chris Hedges is mistaken when he says Pope Francis pulled punches in his address before the U.S. Congress. And the pontiff has offered an alternative. As an honored guest, he gently delivered knock-out blows clearly observable to attentive listeners.

It remains for prophets like Hedges and others to highlight and reinforce them and in this way to advance us towards the Other World Pope Francis would convince skeptics is possible.

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!

(Sunday Homily) Towards a Counter-Cultural Christmas: Becoming Nobody

Santa garbage

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121414.cfm

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I had an important spiritual experience last Sunday. It was the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s liturgy of the word on this third Sunday of Advent. After all, in today’s readings, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wonder if I and my family are strong enough to entertain them.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange. (More about this in a later posting.)
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of Mike Brown, Eric Brown and Tamir Rice) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2015 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

Do you have other ideas about where or how to start? If so, please share them. And what about that alternative Christmas celebration involving the whole family on Christmas morning? Can you help with any suggestions there?

On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton

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Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,
Thomas Merton’s hermitage
In Gethsemane, Kentucky,
A stark cinder-block hut
With walls unpainted
Stuck incongruously
At the end of a long muddy path
Covered with stones
And fallen brown leaves
In a bleak December woods.

The journey to Gethsemane was tedious
But grand –
Two hours along twisting roads
Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch
With their stunning landscapes
Of rolling bluegrass hills
And endless farms
Dotted with double-wides
And red brick mansions
With identical Christmas lights
Following the contours of their disparate roofs
And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery
I passed huge black distilleries
of presaging Spirits --
Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,
A bedroom with a narrow cot
On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed
Of that nurse in Louisville
Who won his heart
And made him human
For the rest of us.
There was a kitchen and bathroom
And a chapel too
With a small square altar
And a wall with the Coptic icons
So dear to that mystic’s soul.

We sat in a circle
Twenty of us
In Father Louis’ living room
On folding chairs
Spotted with rust
Between a smoking fire
And the desk where “Louie”
Used to write.
Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,
We were told,
And MLK would’ve as well
Had not the assassin’s bullet
Aborted his planned pilgrimage
To the Great Man’s feet.

We listened to Brother Paul
Read his poetry –
A gloss on Matthew’s words,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In the winter cold,
Some dozed,
One snored.
But brother Paul was on fire,
His breath’s vapor blending
With the hearth’s smoke.
For the wakeful,
His words lit flames
That made wood fire redundant.

All of us are poor
He said.
None of this is ours
Everything is gift.
Prayer knows the Reality
That is always there
But not perceived.
It is coming to realize
What we already sense
But normally do not recognize.
Prayer is a pause
That shifts the atmosphere
Of the soul.
It is encountering a Christ
Who comes in ways hidden,
But not recognized
For a long time.
Paul quoted Emily Dickinson
“I’m nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too? . . .
How dreary to be somebody!”

Suddenly Paul jumped up.
“It’s time for Vespers," he said,
And ran off.
The rest of us scurried to follow him
To the monastery chapel.

“I used to live like this,”
I thought as I stared at the monks
In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.
There were perhaps thirty of them
Mostly middle-aged and older
One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.
“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.
I wondered how.
All men, dressed identically,
Praying together seven times each day,
Keeping long silences
Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,
Now and then catching glimpses of women
And wondering about them
Before driving those thoughts from our minds.
I’m  glad I failed at that.

But Brother Paul was right.
It is all gift.
Trying to be somebody
Is quite dreary
Truly I was born without anything .
So were you.
My goal is
To keep most of it
Till I die.
What’s yours?