Friends of Merton

Posted in America Magazine, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Merton_Berrigan-Daniel-001This column originally appeared in the April 28 issue of America magazine.

On Nov. 10, 1958, Thomas Merton wrote a letter to Pope John XXIII in which the famous American monk shared with the new pope some reflections about the world and the church. In one passage Merton describes how he had begun to understand that being a cloistered monk did not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world in some absolute way. Instead, he discerned the Spirit calling him to another form of ministry from within the walls of the monastery by writing letters, connecting with women and men he might never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.

It is not enough for me to think of the apostolic value of prayer and penance; I also have to think in terms of a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic and social movements of this world—by which I mean a sympathy for the honest aspirations of so many intellectuals everywhere in the world and the terrible problems they have to face. I have had the experience of seeing that this kind of understanding and friendly sympathy, on the part of a monk who really understands them, has produced striking effects among artists, writers, publishers, poets, etc., who have become my friends without my having to leave the cloister…. In short, with the approval of my superiors, I have exercised an apostolate—small and limited though it be—within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship.

Merton came to realize that part of his religious vocation involved connecting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and worldviews.

He corresponded with the writers Boris Pasternak, Czesław Miłosz, Ernesto Cardenal and Evelyn Waugh; with the activists Joan Baez, Daniel and Philip Berrigan; with the theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Abraham Heschel and Rosemary Radford Reuther; with bishops, nuns and religious leaders of other traditions, like Thich Nhat Hanh; and with so many others, including ordinary, unknown people.

I thought of Merton and his “apostolate of friendship” earlier this month while sitting at a pub one evening in England. I was in the company of a diverse collection of people: a middle-age father from Ireland, an Episcopal priest from Scotland and a woman and man from England, both teachers. We were there enjoying some beer after a long but inspiring day of academic paper presentations and workshops on the life, thought and legacy of this American monk. We were in Oakham, in central Britain, for a conference of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an event held every other year. (In the alternating years, the International Thomas Merton Society holds a large conference somewhere in North America; the next will be in Louisville in June 2015.) I was there to deliver a keynote address, but the conference draws a diverse group composed of top Merton scholars, as well as people with a more casual interest in Merton and all sorts of others in between.

Strangers before this evening, those with whom I found myself at the pub all began to exchange stories about how each had come to discover the writings of Merton and what had led them to attend this three-day event. Most shared a version of “the typical Merton story,” which begins with reading The Seven Storey Mountain.

The Irishman, however, recalled a dramatic event that took place in a hospital room. Visiting his father, who was recovering from surgery, he was told that the man in the next bed was dying. The dying man happened to be reading a book, which led my new Irish friend to reflect: “If he’s dying and is reading, it must be an amazing book! I need to know what it is.” The book was Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

This man told us, decades later, that Merton remained a major influence in his life, ever since he read the book after that hospital encounter.

Few writers and thinkers can bring people together this way. Even fewer can do it long after their death. Thomas Merton continues to exercise an “apostolate of friendship,” bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). Follow him @DanHoranOFM.

Photo: Merton Legacy Trust

Easter is about the General Dance

Posted in Easter, Prayer, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

582749main_sunrise_from_iss-4x3_946-710Thomas Merton concluded his beautiful book New Seeds of Contemplation with a chapter titled “The General Dance.” It is a powerful reflection on the reason for the Incarnation, the meaning of humanity in creation, and the time that is inaugurated by the Resurrection — if only we can open our eyes to see it.

To talk about sin in the way St. Bonaventure does is to talk about humanity’s bent-overness, that we can not look up and out, but only down and at ourselves. In a sense, this is what Merton and others mean in terms of when we cannot see, when we cannot look beyond ourselves to see the world as it really is.

Easter is a time to see and a time to join the general dance of creation. To remember not only that which has been fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, but to recall also what St. Francis said in recalling that in the Incarnation we have the promise that salvation is at hand. For, as Merton writes, “The Lord made the world and made humanity in order the He Himself might descend into the world, that He Himself might become human. When He regarded the world He was about to make He say His wisdom, as a man-child, ‘playing in the world, playing before Him at all times.’ And He reflected, ‘My delights are to be with the children of humanity.’”

God has entered our world as one of us, drawn close to us out of a self-emptying desire and love, assumed all of our reality, and consecrates it completely in the Resurrection, where now creation and divinity exist eternally as one. Merton continues: “For in becoming human, God became not only Jesus Christ but also potentially every man and woman that ever existed. In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.’”

Merton ends his book with the following reflection, a reflection that seems to me to speak to the heart of what we are celebrating with acclaims of “Alleluia” today, a celebration beckoning us to join in and dance.

What is serious to men and women is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear HIs call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.

We do not have to go very far to catch the echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are along on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a the wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair.

But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our good, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

Do we hear the divine music playing on the cosmic dance floor of life? Are we willing to look up, to see around us, to recognize the glorification that all of creation has experienced? Can we join the general dance?

 Photo: NASA

Pope Francis’s Easter Message

Posted in Easter, Pope Francis with tags , , , on April 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

pope_francis.jpg.size_.xxlarge.promo_Dear Brothers and Sisters, a Happy and Holy Easter!

The Church throughout the world echoes the angel’s message to the women: “Do not be afraid! I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised… Come, see the place where he lay” (Mt 28:5-6).

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

With this joyful certainty in our hearts, today we turn to you, risen Lord!

Help us to seek you and to find you, to realize that we have a Father and are not orphans; that we can love and adore you.

Help us to overcome the scourge of hunger, aggravated by conflicts and by the immense wastefulness for which we are often responsible.

Enable us to protect the vulnerable, especially children, women and the elderly, who are at times exploited and abandoned.

Enable us to care for our brothers and sisters struck by the Ebola epidemic in Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and to care for those suffering from so many other diseases which are also spread through neglect and dire poverty.

Comfort all those who cannot celebrate this Easter with their loved ones because they have been unjustly torn from their affections, like the many persons, priests and laity, who in various parts of the world have been kidnapped.

Comfort those who have left their own lands to migrate to places offering hope for a better future and the possibility of living their lives in dignity and, not infrequently, of freely professing their faith.

We ask you, Lord Jesus, to put an end to all war and every conflict, whether great or small, ancient or recent.

We pray in a particular way for Syria, beloved Syria, that all those suffering the effects of the conflict can receive needed humanitarian aid and that neither side will again use deadly force, especially against the defenseless civil population, but instead boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue!

Jesus, Lord of glory, we ask you to comfort the victims of fratricidal acts of violence in Iraq and to sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

We beg for an end to the conflicts in the Central African Republic and a halt to the brutal terrorist attacks in parts of Nigeria and the acts of violence in South Sudan.

We ask that hearts be turned to reconciliation and fraternal concord in Venezuela.

By your resurrection, which this year we celebrate together with the Churches that follow the Julian calendar, we ask you to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence and, in a spirit of unity and dialogue, chart a path for the country’s future. On this day, may they be able to proclaim, as brothers and sisters, that Christ is risen, Khrystos voskres!

Lord, we pray to you for all the peoples of the earth: you who have conquered death, grant us your life, grant us your peace!

Dear brothers and sisters, Happy Easter!

Via Vatican News Service

Photo: Wire

‘It Is Finished’ — An excerpt from ‘The Last Words of Jesus’

Posted in Lent, Social Justice, The Last Words of Jesus, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

It-Is-Finished_wide_t_nv1The following reflection offered on this Good Friday is taken from chapter six of my new book, The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

There is a fine line between beginnings and endings. With one the other inevitably follows. There’s a reason that college graduations are called commencements: what at the same time marks the completion of several years of study also marks a new beginning, a new chapter in the life of the graduate. Central to the Christian message of the cross – the very reason that followers of Jesus hang these signs of death penalty and torture on walls and places of worship over the centuries – is that in earthly death one doesn’t find just an end, but one finds also a beginning. It is, as the Franciscan tradition refers to the anniversary of the death of St. Francis of Assisi, a Transitus – from the Latin word indicating a passing over from this life into the next.

What has, in a sense, finished has also just begun.

Curiously, the meaning of the Greek word used in the Gospels that captures what Jesus cried out from the Cross is not as clear-cut as we might at first think. Which, I’m sure, is no accident. Reflecting this fine line between beginnings and endings, what is generally translated into English as “it is finished,” might better be translated as “it is fulfilled.” The word “finished” has such a terminal sound to it. While some scripture scholars believe that tetelestai, the Greek word the author of John’s Gospel uses, is more triumphant than it is evocative of surrender. Francis Moloney explains: “Climaxing these [earlier scriptural] indications of fulfillment, Jesus cries out ‘tetelestai’ (v. 30a), an exclamation of achievement, almost of triumph. The task given to him by the Father (cf. [John] 4:34; 5:36; 17:4) has not been consummately brought to a conclusion.” The exclamation isn’t something from which one needs to shy as much as it is an embrace of all that has come before, yet points toward the future where we are now to go. It is a climactic exclamation – it is fulfilled! – just like college graduation, but it is also the announcement of what is also beginning.

No one understood this better than St. Francis. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells us that while Francis was very sick and near the end of his life, he spoke to his fellow brothers about how they were to look at this point in the Saint’s life and in their lives.

He used to say: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.” He did not consider that he had already attained his goal, but tireless in pursuit of holy newness, he constantly hoped to begin again.

He wanted to return to serving lepers and to be held in contempt, just as he used to be. He intended to flee human company and go off to the most remote places, so that, letting go of every care and putting aside anxiety about others, for the time being only the wall of the flesh would stand between him and God.

As Francis came to the end of this earthly journey, he echoes the words “It is finished” proclaimed by Christ on the cross. His words are not helpless, regretful, or empty in their recognition of one chapter in the pilgrimage of life. Instead, he expresses – perhaps in a way more fully than Jesus’s simple “It is finished” – that, while the other friars and sisters were crying about the imminent loss of their leader in religious life, Francis wanted to remind them of what it means to announce a commencement, a completion, a fulfillment, and a beginning: It is not a time of sorrow or loss, but a time to refresh and renew one’s commitment to the Gospel, to live as one in the Kingdom, and to continue to serve the Lord with redoubled intent.

In this way, Francis’s mirrored expression of those from the cross – “let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing” – is an invitation to make Christ’s words – “It is finished” – our own over and over again in life. There is a sense in which the call to serve the Lord found in Francis’s deathbed announcement is a commentary or explanation of what Jesus might have meant in his own cry from the Cross, for to proclaim that “it is fulfilled” in a Christian context is to necessarily assert, “thy will be done.” Is it no wonder then that Francis, as he lay dying, asked that the reading from the Gospel of John at the Last Supper be read to him?

At his own Transitus from this life to the next, Francis sought to recall what it was that he committed himself to so many years earlier. “To live according the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That life was one of service in solidarity. That service in solidarity is demonstrated on the eve of the Lord’s own death, while at table with those he loved. The reading Francis begged to hear is this:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and me head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.“ (John 13:1-15)

After the reading was completed, Francis “told them to cover him with sackcloth and to sprinkle him with ashes, as he was soon to become dust and ashes.” The last words Francis heard came to form a summary of the saint’s entire life: service and solidarity. Francis wasn’t just one who served others, but lived with and for them in a way that reflected the relationship Jesus demonstrated with all people. This is how Francis understood the Vita Evangelica, the life of the Gospel, and this is how he wished those who were to come after him would live. Francis lived his life as if every day was a proclamation of “It is finished, it is fulfilled.” He strove to obey the words of Jesus as after the Lord washed the feet of his followers and said, “For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Francis then left those who were following him to do likewise.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between beginnings and endings. Perhaps one of the strongest lessons in Jesus’s words from the Cross, those words lived in the life of St. Francis, is that we must not be as concerned about our time as we are about God’s time. In God’s time beginnings and endings are one in the same, because God’s time is not so much a matter of minutes, hours, and days as it is about a way of living in the world. The way we mark the passage of our life is not the same way that God marks our time. It is when washing the feet of others, the giving of ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters, that we live according to God’s time.

The time of the world is a time that sees the crucifixion of an accused criminal on a Roman Cross as an end. The time of the world is a time that sees a blind, poor man dying naked in medieval Italy as an end. Yet, the time of God is a time that sees in all things the potential for a new beginning, a reminder that life is more than an economy of checks and minuses, of winning and losing. God’s time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented and, as St. Paul reminds us, this way of thinking appears as foolishness and remains a stumbling block to the worldly (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

People like Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi were fools for God, abiding in time that was not limited by the priorities of popular culture and society. To be a disciple today, to live up to the claim that you or I are willfully following the one who cried “It is finished” from the Cross, means to risk being foolish in the eyes of the world to be wise, loving, and renewed in the eyes of God. It means living in a time that prioritizes relationship and second chances, of starting over again to serve the least among us, of valuing what it is that God values.

But do you have the time?

PRAYER

God of all time, You call us out of the ordinariness of our everyday lives to see the world anew in your time. Help us to respond to your call to see in all things: both a completion and a new beginning; both an end and a renewed start; both sadness and joy. While our time marks your death on a cross as an end, Your time marks the Transitus from one life to the next. Enflame in our hearts a desire to see in life and death the Transitus and transformation your life, death and resurrection has brought forth in the world. Your time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented, and this way of thinking appears as foolishness to the worldly. Help us to live as your fools, willing to announce your Kingdom. Give us the strength to keep your time, where relationships take priority and we start over again and again to serve the least among us. AMEN.

For more reflections on the last words of Christ on the Cross, consider reading: The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013), from which this excerpt was taken.

Photo: Stock

 

We Are the Body of Christ

Posted in Lent, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 17, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

LastSupperTonight on this solemnity of the Lord’s Supper, a lot of attention will be paid to the institution of the Eucharistic celebration, which is as Sacrosanctum Concilium (Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”) explains, is “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (no. 14). So it is with good reason that we recall when Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room to break bread, pass the cup, and demonstrate the meaning of Christian discipleship and leadership by washing the feet of those gathered.

Yet, while the Eucharistic species of bread and wine are a right and just focus of our reflection this evening, an over-emphasis to the exclusion of the other ways that Christ is made present in the Eucharist is a problem. It is for this reason that I’m thinking about the manifold way Christ is made present when the Church, which is the Body of Christ, gathers together to hear the Word and come to the Table of the Lord. Sacrosanctum Concilium explains:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” [20], but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes [21]. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) [no. 7].

According to the teaching of the Church, summarized here, Christ is made present in four ways: (a) in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine; (b) in the word, that is the scriptures; (c) in the entire assembly, that is the Church gathered in prayer; and (d) in the person of the minister, that is the presider.

Tonight, when we reflect on what happened when Jesus dined with those gathered, altering the traditional table prayers of his tradition, the Birkat Hamazon and the Kaddish, establishing what we would later call the Christian “institution narrative” and the accompanying Eucharistic Prayers, do we only focus on one quarter of the way that Christ continues to be present to his Body, gathered in prayer? Or do we recognize too the sacramental dimensions of the washing of the feet, the call to service, the connection that the table fellowship and the giving of his Body and Blood have to the proclamation of the Word of God, the prayers of all the people, and our being sent outward to do as Christ has done for us?

Photo: Stock

The ‘Unspeakable’ One Year Later

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Boston_Marathon_Explosions1_t607It’s difficult to believe that it has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m not sure how the rest of the country relates to the event, but living in Boston both during those days last year and now it seems like this is something that remains a constant specter haunting the city. During these last few weeks we have been accompanied by hundreds of stories in the media about the event, about the loss of life, about those whose lives have been directly and painfully affected by the attacks, about what the future holds for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, about what it all means.

Yet, meaning and sense do not always come easily in difficult and tragic circumstances such as these. Is there meaning and sense in the thoughtless slaughter of children in Connecticut? Is there meaning and sense in the terrorist attack in an African mall? Is there meaning and sense in the big and little ways that women and men are daily afflicted by suffering and fear?

Sometimes there are no words to articulate the experience and no meaning that can explain such tragedy. Rather than  offer any attempt to articulate or explain, I thought I might just share an essay I wrote last year in response to the events in Boston we remember this week. We continue to pray for those whose lives were taken, for those who struggle daily to move forward, and for those who afflicted such senseless and needless pain and suffering on others.

The Unspeakable: The Boston Marathon and the Beginning of Christian Hope

There some events we encounter in life for which there is simply no language to describe adequately our experience or words capable of consoling the afflicted. The events last month at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the siege of the city four days later might rightly fall into this category. Images of the explosions, biographies of the victims and interviews with the witnesses circulated through cyberspace, on television and in print with hypnotizing rapidity and emotion-dulling saturation, only increasing the overwhelming experience of those days. As a resident of Boston, my memory of that week in April will forever be marked by the surreal nature of a scene that seemed closer to an action movie than to the reality playing out in my backyard.

In the initial silence of that Monday afternoon, as confusion ensued and victims were treated, I thought of the renowned
spiritual writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He had a term that seemed to capture this event: the
Unspeakable. There are times when we encounter something so terrible and terrifying, the experience pushes us to the edges of the effable. Such experiences of sin and violence in our world are concrete encounters with the Unspeakable. Merton explains, in part, what he means in his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said…. It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God…for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.

The Unspeakable is neither a word of comfort nor a greeting of consolation. It is a moniker that is challenging and indicting. It names a reality that most people would rather forget. James Douglass, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, describes Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable as “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech.” However, it is not simply the object of our fear or an enemy from outside. Douglass continues: “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves.”
To confront the Unspeakable requires that we face the ways we too are always already complicit in a culture of violence present in our world. This does not mean that individuals are exonerated from the particular and egregious acts of violence they commit, but it does mean that to look into the void of the Unspeakable involves looking into the mirror of our own participation in systems of violence.

Our Culture of Violence

One temptation we encounter in the face of violence like the events at the Boston Marathon or in Newtown, Conn., is to objectify the source of the violence and place it as an evil in opposition to the rest of us. This happens frequently, for example, in the use of the phrase “culture of death” (which originally comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”). There is a sense in which a Christian might claim to be “for life” and therefore make the “culture of death” an exterior enemy to be fought.

Merton’s approach to evil, sin and violence in the world is more nuanced. To begin, we might realize that “death” is not the most opportune word and recall that death is a natural part of life. Talk about a “culture of death,” while the intention is good and the meaning important, could be taken to suggest that death in itself is a bad thing. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, has a different take on this. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis praises God for the gift of “sister bodily death,” whom all living creatures will inevitably encounter. As a people of the Resurrection, we also believe that Jesus Christ has “put an end to death” (2 Tm 1:10) and that death does not have the last word. Death should not be feared in itself.

But violence, unlike death, is not a natural part of life. Violence is made manifest in little and big ways, in words and actions, in things seen and unseen. Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable captures the significance of this reality in two key ways. First, violence is not something that is ascribable only to individuals who commit evil acts, like murder and terror. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes how we are often quick to blame others and acquit ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.

In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.

It is difficult to accept that all of us are somehow implicated in the finitude and sinfulness of humanity. Merton writes that “we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.”

Here we have the second insight about the Unspeakable, which arises from the realization that we are also sinners and participants in an unnecessary culture of violence. What makes the Unspeakable unspeakable is the masking over and avoidance of this reality in which we too are always already a part. Unlike common conceptions of the “culture of death,” which is an outside enemy to be fought, a “culture of violence” exists in the language, presuppositions, behaviors and attitudes of a population. This is what is hidden, what is reflected back to us when we are forced to look into the void or face of the Unspeakable.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote a sobering piece the day after the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been apprehended and his brother, Tamerlan, killed. He asked pointed questions that shine an uncomfortable light on a society that, in the same week, can shut down a major metropolitan city because of one suspect on the loose, yet fail to pass federal legislation to mandate criminal background checks for gun sales, a reform supported by nearly 90 percent of the population. He asked, with all due respect and sympathy to the dead and maimed in the Boston attack, how a society in which more than 30,000 deaths are caused by gun violence annually could react so drastically to the specter of terrorism when, in the past year, 17 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks.

Cohen’s concluding comments echo Merton’s concern:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others”—jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers, etc. But the lurking dangers all around us—the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day—these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will.

Part of what makes the culture of violence Unspeakable is our strong desire not to face the reality of our complicity in perpetuating injustice through our economic choices, attitudes, language, behaviors, lifestyles, biases, support (or lack thereof ) of legislation and so on.

It is a lot more comforting to blame the “other”— whether a “terrorist” or an amorphous “culture of death”— than it is to accept our individual and collective roles in perpetuating our unspeakable culture of violence.

The Beginning of Christian Hope

On the day of the attack in Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, wrote: “In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today.” There are times—for example, when those who might otherwise run away from danger out of fear run toward others to provide care and assistance—when signs of Christian hope displace the behaviors and attitudes of the culture of violence. Christian hope is not a belief in a far-off utopia that will come from outside. It is a description of God’s presence in the world now, when, like Jesus, we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, embrace the marginalized and forgotten and heal the broken and broken-hearted.

Christian hope is a hope that withstands the challenge as it appears to us when we look into the void of the Unspeakable and realize that we can do something about violence in our world and live a different way. It is a hope that proclaims through the incarnate Word of God that what was once ineffable in the Unspeakable can be named and overcome, but it also requires our honest admission of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Only then do we confront the culture of violence that we would rather forget.

The Unspeakable culture of violence extends far beyond the city borders of Boston and Newtown. It is perhaps more acutely seen in the communities of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in places largely unknown to us. There the experience of the Unspeakable witnessed on a sunny Boston afternoon is an everyday reality: Marketplaces, buses, houses of worship, elementary schools and neighborhoods are all affected by the terror of violence and fear that we in the United States cannot begin to imagine.

In his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” Merton challenges us with a truth that undergirds the perpetuation of an Unspeakable culture of violence on the local, national and world stage: “A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.”

Merton’s challenge for us in Boston and around the world is to overcome the fear that leads us to claim innocence while scapegoating the “other,” to embrace the Gospel and become more human in compassion and to look into the void of the Unspeakable so as to accept our complicity in the continuation of a culture of violence in so many little and big ways. Then we might be able move on to speak and live the word of Christian hope that begins there in the face of the Unspeakable.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Photo: Wire

Thomas Merton Conference at St. Bonaventure

Posted in Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

merton-conferenceThere are only a few days remaining to take advantage of the discounted ‘early bird’ registration for the summer conference on Thomas Merton at St. Bonaventure University (prices go up after April 15). The conference, titled “Merton as Model and Mirror: Coming Home and Going Forth,” is scheduled to take place from June 19-22 and “will celebrate the relationship between St. Bonaventure University and Merton in anticipation of Merton’s 100th birthday in 2015.” This is one of the first of what will likely be many varying celebrations around the United States and world commemorating the Merton Centenary in 2015.

There are many reasons why you should consider coming to this conference, especially if you live in New York, PA, Ohio, or Ontario, Canada, for whom it would be just a couple hours by car. For starters, St. Bonaventure University was the last place that Merton lived and worked — he taught in the English department there before entering the monastery — and it is a place where his discernment to religious life blossomed into what would become his true vocation. SBU in June is absolutely breathtaking, located in Western New York amid the Allegheny Mountains and beside the river. Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and his journals from this time portray his experience walking the campus thinking, working, praying, and discerning. Also, there are opportunities to go out and actually visit the cabin in which he, Robert Lax, and their friends spent two summers writing, talking, drinking, and the like — you’ve likely read about the importance of that place in The Seven Storey Mountain too. You can follow in his footsteps. All this having only to do with the campus itself!

Additionally, and I’m of course biased here, there is a whole host of amazing speakers lined up. For the keynote addresses you have some very familiar names:

    • Dom John Eudes Bamberger, O.C.S.O., Fourth Abbot of the Abbey of Genesee;
    • Christine Bochen, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and the William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies at Nazareth College;
    • Fr. Daniel Horan, O.F.M.,  America magazine columnist, author, St. Bonaventure alumnus, and doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston College ;
    • Michael Higgins, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University.

There will also be a number of excellent ‘break out’ or ‘concurrent’ sessions that include some other important folks from the world of Merton scholarship.

For a little overview of Merton’s time in Western New York and its significance, take a look at a 2013 feature article in The Buffalo NewsShadow of a Soul: Thomas Merton’s Spiritual Path Wound Through Bonaventure Campus.”

Check it out and consider coming, it will be a Merton experience of a lifetime! Visit: http://sbu.edu/about-sbu/news-events/events/thomas-merton-conference

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