February 2004 Archives

Why Merton?

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I have been persisting, albeit irregularly, in returning to Thomas Merton and his book The Ascent to Truth as a topic for posts here over the last few months. I thought it might be useful both to you and to myself to explain why I think Merton, and this book, are important enough to keep me returning to them as the subject for some very inadequate reflections.

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Merton entered the Trappist monastery of The Abbey of Gethsemane, in Kentucky, in 1941, coincident with the entry of the United States into World War II. A few years before joining the Trappists he had tried to become a Franciscan, but because he had fathered a child out of wedlock while going to school in England, the Franciscans wouldn’t have him. For the first few years he was at Gethsemane he did not write, in fact, he had pretty much given up on his earlier hope of becoming a writer. However, in the late 1940’s his abbot encouraged him to begin writing, and in 1948 The Seven Story Mountain was published to great acclaim. With the publication of The Seven Story Mountain Merton became at once a best-selling author and an important literary figure in the United States.

Unlike many literary figures of his time, Merton stood out as not only a practicing Catholic but also a Trappist monk, living under vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and, lets not forget, silence, in a monastery in Kentucky. Merton was unique also in that he wrote seriously, for a popular audience, about “exotic” topics such as contemplative prayer and the works of great Catholic saints such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He engaged a culture that was becoming increasingly secular, not only from the perspective of Catholic teaching and Tradition, but also out of the mystical traditions of the Church. In doing so, he became a living contradiction, which may explain the nervous breakdown he experienced sometime in 1952 or 1953.

However, as influential as Merton was during the last 20 years or so of his life, he was also greatly influenced by the “world” that he had left behind on entering the monastery. Merton’s response to the world, and the evil he saw in it, was God, approached from the point of view of the contemplative.

Merton was like many Americans who lived in the 1950’s and ’60’s: after World War II America and the Soviet Union seemed on the verge of a nuclear war that threatened to destroy everyone and everything. Merton viewed this simply as evil let loose in the world. He saw, correctly I think, the world at a crucial turning point in human history. As a Christian he saw the choice facing the world of his day as either total nuclear self-destruction or a mass turning to God and rejection of evil. The choice for Merton was black and white, good vs. evil. He saw Christianity as the only possible moral and religious choice, but a choice that would only prove fruitful if Christians chose to live out their vocations as Christians. Merton writes that the only way for Christians to really live out their vocations was not through greater activity, not even Apostolic activity, but rather through silence. Merton simply proposes the truth that Augustine wrote in his Confessions - our hearts are restless until they rest in God. There is no other source of grace. He saw contemplation as a vital element of interior growth, and he believed that as individuals grew closer to God they would change, and thus societies would change. Merton saw the Christian faith as vital to the redemption of the world, not only from sin and death, but from absolute self-annihilation. He wrote: “The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution. Christianity, by its very nature demands such a revolution.”

Merton, however, did not end up rejecting the world entirely. He came into contact with an enormous array of people from all walks of life, from Jacques Maritain to Eveyln Waugh; the range of his correspondence is almost staggering. This contact with the world left him open to the other influences of the 1950’s and these affected his later books. Remember, during the 1950’s we had the “Beat” generation, the civil rights movement with it’s non-violence, Americans began to turn to the East and Zen as a possible source of spiritual strength, and there was the call for the Second Vatican Council. All these things had an impact on Merton and his later writing. But they are not so evident in The Ascent to Truth. In this book we have a simple choice presented to us, good vs. evil. And we have a very traditional Catholic presentation of what it means for an individual to choose good and base his life on that choice. “Repent, and turn to the Gospel.”

The Passion

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Perhaps we can learn something from this.

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Somebody Goofed

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"But officer, I never saw the red light."

Faux (Pas) Erudition

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There is an interesting phenomenon abroad in our land today. It is particularly evident in the various ramblings of certain members of the media. I call this phenomena faux (pas) erudition. It appears when a writer or other media commentator makes what is intended to be “profound statement“, on a subject of deep importance to a great many people, without the slightest bit of knowledge of, or experience with, the topic they are addressing.

I have seen two recent examples, one in the national media and the other coming from the Denver Post. The topic of both articles is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

The best recent example is the ignorant rant issued by commentator Andy Rooney earlier this week in which he manages to be stupid, bitter, and blasphemous all in one relatively short column. In this column it is obvious Rooney is trying to affect an air of intellectual snobbery concerning the religious beliefs, not only of Mel Gibson, but of all Christians, while at the same time trying to be cute. I don’t know if there is any 80 something year old man who can pull off being cute without losing whatever is left of simple human dignity, but Rooney is clearly not one of them. Rooney, by virtue of his position at CBS is in a position to influence millions of people and yet he has chosen to ridicule both Mel Gibson’s movie and the Christian faith of millions of Americans. He can treat both only with scorn disguised with an air of intellectual superiority. Both attitudes are false, and so is his intellectual snobbery.

It is clear that Rooney has no understanding, nor does he have any experience, of the Christian faith. Yet he has the arrogance to hold himself up as superior, intellectually and morally, to those who try to live that faith everyday. He seems to feel (not think) that those of us who are Christians are little more than idiot children who deserve nothing but ridicule and scorn. I wonder what Rooney would do with St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Augustine, or St. Francis, or Mother Theresa? I wonder what he will do when he meets his Lord? Clearly, Rooney doesn’t think that will ever happen. But he doesn’t know for sure that it won’t. Rooney, and others like him, are making the most important decision of their (eternal) lives, on the basis of what they think they know. I imagine they think themselves to be cool intellectuals or hard headed realists. But this is like buying a home and never having seen it, or asked the price, or checked its condition. It’s like making the most important business decision of your life without investigating any or every aspect of it. These hard-headed realists would never do such a thing in their personal affairs because they recognize that is not hard-headed realism, its negligence.

Yet, Rooney and those of his ilk are ready to cynically dismiss as nonsense something that could affect them for eternity, without having seriously considered, or even questioned, that there are factors affecting the decision that demand such consideration. That’s not hard-headed realism - it’s stupid.

There are other versions of faux (pas) erudition. For example, there was a review today in the Denver Post of Gibson’s The Passion. I don’t quite know what to make of this review except that the reviewer is not openly hostile to Christianity, she just appears to be ignorant of it. I think her faux (pas) erudition comes more from the desire to be seen as somehow more intellectual than she is. This combination of ignorance and, what, hoity-toityness?, has produced some interesting comments in her review. For example:

“Gibson exerts a directional authority that makes clear that all his choices were intentional. It is a visually tighter film than “Braveheart.” But it isn’t a better story, and given its source material that’s extraordinary.” Huh??

“’The Passion of the Christ’ is a film of artistic ambition and devotion. There’s no arguing that. It is also a movie that assumes too much on the part of its audience by not providing enough backstory on its main character.” I kid you not, that is a direct quote. It appears she assumes that most people who go to see the film have roughly the same level of knowledge of Scripture that she does.

“Gibson has justified the movie’s brutality in the name of ‘realism.’ But in the case of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ that is a misnomer, to put it mildly. At best the word is a kind of shorthand for making as visible as he can the ineffable mystery of Christ’s gift, to make his sacrifice real.” I thought that was the point?

“But there was always a possibility that in trimming Christ’s life from the script, the character of Jesus would not resonate as powerfully as he has in story after story. That’s the other passion of Christ and it’s not here.”

This reviewer, I think has only the most rudimentary understanding of Christianity and it shows in this review.

The point of all this is that there are many people in the media, those in a position to influence a great many people for good or bad, who either dismiss Christianity as silly, not something for grownups to fool with, or are simply uninformed, for whatever reason. Perhaps we at St. Blogs are called to pray for these people during the upcoming Lenten season that they may be converted. Just think what a positive effect a mass conversion among the media would have on this country.

And there’s an additional benefit to this approach -- in the case of people like Andy Rooney it would be like heaping burning coals on his head.

A New Blog

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I'd like to point out a new member of St. Blog's -- Catholic Ragemonkey authored by Fr. Hamilton and Fr. Tharp.

Fr. Hamilton will be doing a series of spiritual conferences each Wednesday and Friday of Lent, at 3 PM Central time which I look forward to. Be sure to stop by.

Welcome to St. Blogs.

Rend your Hearts

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I look forward to hearing tomorrow’s reading from Joel again. It has always seemed to me to be the perfect reading for the beginning of the penitential season.

Joel 2:12-13 (ESV)

"Yet even now," declares the Lord,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments."
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.

Rend your hearts, not your garments.

From the beginning of my initial conversion experience the one concern I had was that of being honest with God, sincere. I thought that the most important part of my relationship with Him and I wanted to avoid becoming a Christian for what I could get out of it, in other words, simply to save my own skin. I knew my skin badly needed saving, (still does, I have done little to improve that situation) but it seemed there should be much more to it. I have always thought it easy to appear to be a Christian and much harder to be a Christian.

There is more to it, as it turns out. According to verse 14, the Lord is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, he is gracious and merciful“, but He does ask something of us. He asks is that we return to Him with “fasting, weeping, and mourning.” It might seem that this verse is an argument for the Protestant idea of salvation by grace alone, rather than “works.” But, as many of you may already know, I think that what we do is as important as what we believe. We can know something in our heads, but if we do nothing about it, that knowledge will have little impact on our lives. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think we can earn salvation, or achieve union with God by our own efforts. The “works” that are pleasing to God are those we are about to renew in our lives over the next 40 days -- “fasting, weeping, and mourning” making a sincere effort at returning to God. We are about to enter a season for the best work of all, repentance. I hope you all have a rich and rewarding experience in the desert that lies ahead.

Pikes Peak

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Now this is my kind of country. Pikes Peak taken last March from Garden of the Gods here in Colorado Springs.

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Puerto Rico in Feb

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A picture I took from my recent visit to Puerto Rico.

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Living in Colorado it's hard to believe I took this picture in February. It was a cultural adjustment coming back here just for the weather alone.

Two Items in the News

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I have a couple of comments on items that will be in the news this week.

The first arises out of an open letter from our bishop here in the Springs that was read in place of the homily at Mass last night. The letter concerned the release, expected this coming Friday, of the report on the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Church over the last year.

As I understand this scandal, it arose, not from an outbreak of pedophilia among priests of the Church, but would be more accurately portrayed as a problem of homosexuality in the priesthood. In other words, the victims were not very young children but for the most part teenage boys between the ages of 15 and 18. However, our bishops letter portrayed the problem as pedophilia and the solutions presented were aimed at preventing the abuse of young children. This tells me that the bishops either still do not get it or are afraid to face the problem and deal with it. This is a very disturbing development, to say the least, because it means that the problem may not be solved.

The second important event that will be much in the news this week is the release of the movie The Passion. I am, of course, planning on attending at the earliest possible opportunity. I believe that, if for no other reason, it is important for Christians of all stripes to support financially any effort by Hollywood to make movies with Christian themes. This movie, of almost any movie made by Hollywood, more than deserves that support. However, I must admit to one reservation that I have. Until now, I have been at least somewhat able to read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection and imagine for myself what those scenes must have been like. I can put myself there and meditate on Christ’s suffering and what He endured for all of us. I am wondering if this movie will not have such a powerful effect on me that this personal meditation may be impossible in the future? I wonder if, whenever I read the Gospels in the future I will see the scenes only as portrayed on film in The Passion. I hope this will not be the case.

Driven to Distraction

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Merton begins Ascent to the Truth with a chapter explaining his insistence on the importance of "contemplation" in the lives of not only religious but also laymen. His approach to the question is, I think, a bit novel, although valid.

Merton uses the terms "contemplation" and "interior life" almost interchangeably. For this reason, and because contemplative prayer is something so few of us are likely to ever experience, I am tempted to say that many of the benefits Merton claims for deepening one's interior life apply also to the ordinary experience of prayer. I think this point is important because it tends to validate what Merton was saying 50 years ago.

Merton begins the chapter with this statement: "The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution." He saw, 50 years ago, that people were becoming much busier and spending much less time in solitude and in quiet. He saw also that this lack of solitude and pursuit of distraction would lead to moral difficulties for the individual and that, in turn, this would lead to the moral collapse of society at large. I think he has been proved correct in his assumption -- there is precious little peace and quiet today and, at the same time, it seems there is an ever-growing moral crisis in society at large.

What are the symptoms? One that I see played out repeatedly in my travels is the behavior of many young people (those under 40) on airplanes. It seems almost an instinctive reaction for many people that, as soon as they are settled in their seats, out come the headphones and CD players. The idea seems to be to seek distraction at all costs. Teenagers seem unable to sit quietly without some external stimulation to keep them distracted. The problem is, these children will never develop the interior resources to think for himself (or herself) nor the ability to spend time alone with himself, much less with God. If the pattern goes unchecked that child will have great difficulty with what Merton calls "the interior life."

Merton goes on:

"If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have order without saints."

Merton recognizes also that Christianity is about personal salvation, not social or political action. Again, I think he has been proved prophetic by events over the last 50 years or so. Society is breaking down, and Merton would say that it is because Christians are not living as Christians. He wrote:

"The big problem that confronts Christians is not Christ's enemies. Persecution has never done much harm to the inner life of the Church as such. The real religious problem exists in the souls of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love Him and serve Him -- and yet do not."

We don't serve God because we are not open to the grace available to us through prayer, our spiritual lives are a barren desert. As a result we suffer and society crumbles.

A New Look

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I decided I had to do something about the style of the blog. Hope you like the new look.

Paz y bien

Hillside Farm

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This is a new blog (at least for me), discovered through a visit to Steven's place. I enjoy this one a lot and I think you will too.

Merton and the Saints, cont'd

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This post is simply a note on my intentions for the next month or so. I admit to having some trepidation announcing my designs for the blog over the next month; it must seem to those precious few who stop by here that I have the attention span of a gnat, so seldom do I adhere to stated intentions. I can only say that I making this announcement in the hopes of imposing a bit of much needed discipline on my blogging activities. Anyway, over the next month or 6 weeks, I hope to concentrate on posting on two subjects -- posts inspired by Merton’s The Ascent to Truth and posts exploring the true nature of Franciscan spirituality.

Merton and the Saints

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Reading Merton's Ascent to the Truth, the first thing that struck me is found in the Author's Note. In this short introduction, Merton credits the work of various Carmelite writers "Regular and Tertiaries" and also acknowledges his debt to a work by Jacques Maritain - Degrees of Knowledge. Although this has little, if anything, to do with what Merton is saying in the book itself, I was struck by the fact that here we have an author, a Trappist, writing about the thought of two famous Carmelite saints, acknowledging the work of a famous, indeed distinguished, Thomist. Only in the Church could one find, under one roof, such a range of spiritualities.

Home Sweet Home

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I have finally returned home to Colorado after spending nearly 3 and a half weeks out of the little more than 6 weeks of this year in Puerto Rico. Needless to say, my routine has been seriously disrupted, as you may have noticed from the lack of posts here. The travel was especially difficult since I had only planned on being gone a week and had packed accordingly.

Home

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After much difficulty and 18 days of travel, I am home. Hope to be posting soon and I'm glad to be back.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2004 listed from newest to oldest.

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