Archive for the Thomas Merton Category

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

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

Thomas Merton on Ash Wednesday

Posted in Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 5, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

“Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.”

In 1958 Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled, “Ash Wednesday,” which offers a reflection on the relationship between penance and joy found in the celebration of the beginning of Lent and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. Instead of me rambling on and on here today, I thought it would be good to share more from Merton himself. You can read the entire essay in Seasons of Celebration (FSG 1965), 113-124.

“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.

“There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security. The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence in spite of darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…

“Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before. The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.

“Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focussed on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”

Happy 99th Birthday to Thomas Merton!

Posted in Thomas Merton with tags , , , on January 31, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Today marks the 99th birthday of the late Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton. Today also begins the year-long Merton Centenary countdown.

This is the beginning of the entry in Merton’s journal from January 31, 1968, the last birthday he would celebrate on this earth.

Clear, thin new moon appearing and disappearing between slow slate blue clouds – and the living black skeletons of the trees against the evening sky. More artillery than usual whumping at [Fort] Knox. It is my fifty-third birthday.

He spent the day, admittedly not working, but enjoying the unusual springlike afternoon around the monastery and near the pond. How will you celebrate Merton’s Birthday?

Photo: Merton Legacy Trust

45th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Death

Posted in Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 10, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

merton“[Merton] had died sometime before 3 p.m. Bangkok time. A telegram was sent that night to [the Abbey of] Gethsemani. Crossing the International Date Line, it arrived some fourteen hours after his death, at 10 a.m. on December 10, at the monastery. The tenth of December, 1968, was, to the day, the twenty-seventh anniversary of Thomas Merton’s arrival at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani” – Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton.

On the morning of the day that Thomas Merton died in Bangkok, Merton delivered the talk “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.” The last thing he said publicly that day was in conclusion: “I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear.” And disappear he did. We never know when such throw-away phrases will come to bear a retrospectively clairvoyant status.

We remember a Trappist monk, an amazing writer, a dedicated proponent of peace and nonviolence, a leader in interreligious dialogue, a committed fighter for social justice, a prophet, a brother, a friend, a companion, and someone who continues to influence the world for better. While not yet canonized, he is — as are all the baptized — a member of the communion of saints. May he intercede for us as his work and life continue to inspire others for years to come.

Thomas Merton, ora pro nobis!

Photo: Thomas Merton Center

Thomas Merton and the Feast of the Portiuncula

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , on August 2, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Today, August 2, is the Franciscan Feast of the Portiuncula, the “mother church” of the Franciscan Order. This little church in the valley outside the city of Assisi was one of the most important places for St. Francis during his own lifetime. In the early sources we read that this was the only place that the friars were permitted (if not commanded) to keep. It remains an important pilgrimage site in the Franciscan family. I had the great fortune to visit the the Portiuncula chapel (Portiuncula means “little portion”), while in Assisi in 2004. While it was at one time a freed-standing church, today it stands within a large basilica that was built over the tiny little church. On this day when we remember the place of this church, Our Lady of the Angels — it’s official name, I thought it would be nice to share what Thomas Merton, the 20th-Century Trappist Monk and Author, said about the Portiuncula and the feast itself in his journal.

The Porticuncula always brings me great blessings – and that is the Franciscan side, which continues to grow also…The feast brings graces of contemplation and spiritual joy, because every church becomes that tiny little church that St. Francis loved above all others and everyone in the world can share the bliss of his sanctity. (August 2, 1948)

May you have a blessed day and remember your Franciscan sisters and brothers in your prayers! Peace and all Good!

This post was originally published to DatingGod.org on August 2, 2011. I will be away until August 12, so regular posting of articles on DatingGod.org will be suspended. See you when I return!

The Kind of Writer Thomas Merton Was

Posted in Thomas Merton with tags , , , on June 20, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

“There are people who write and there are real writers, who have to write, no matter what the obstacles and how seemingly interminable the list of rejections. Tom was one of the latter.” — Naomi Burton Stone, the literary agent and friend of Thomas Merton, in her memoir.

Merton at the Intersection of Before and After Liberation Theology

Posted in Social Justice, Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

bible-640Although he died in December 1968, at around the same time that Liberation Theology was coming into existence in an explicit way but before it would be widely known inside and outside of the North American academy, Thomas Merton anticipated similar strands of the Truth of Revelation, which forms the core of Liberation Theology. In his little book, Opening The Bible, Merton highlights the scriptural foundations for theology and action in the world. It is striking how prescient his thought is, how compatible it is with the work of the Latin American theologians at that time and afterward.

We must never overlook the fact that the message of the Bible is above all a message preached to the poor, the burdened, the oppressed, the underprivileged. There is no need to remind the reader ho Marx capitalized on the fact. But Marx assumed that the Bible was essentially a deliberate fraud on the part of a ruling class to deceive the poor and make them accept their lot by means of a mystification. This is not the place to spell out apologetic arguments against the Marxian contention that religion is the “opium of the people,” when in fact we are also aware that even the revolutionary eschatology of Marx himself can be shown to be largely based on a biblical pattern. For precisely one of the central messages of the Bible is that the ultimate meaning of [humanity's] existence on earth is to be found in history, and that the human race is moving toward a final accounting in which history itself will see that the injustice of oppressors will be punished and those they oppressed will receive their just reward.

The Bible also points out that [humanity] is to act as God’s collaborator in setting up a definitive kingdom of justice and peace.

Here Merton anticipates the development of various forms of political theology — particularly that of the apocalyptic — and echoes some of his contemporaries in terms of the historicity of Christian theology, especially a theology of Revelation. It really makes me wonder where his thought would have gone if he lived another ten, twenty, thirty years or more.

Photo: File

Dispatches from the ITMS 2013: Part Two

Posted in America Magazine, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , on June 17, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

SophiaThe thirteenth general meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) concluded Sunday morning with the celebration of the Eucharist at which John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, presided and preached. Preaching on the readings for the day, Bamberger encouraged the congregation of ITMS participants and attendees to seek the place of God within us. Drawing on the imagery of a nucleus that holds a cell together, Bamberger explained the significance for identifying one’s true self – the way of life exemplified by St. Paul’s statement about how it is “Christ who lives in me” from the second reading – and then living in such a way that one’s actions reflect that true self and its authentic values.

The previous day began with a plenary session focused on Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. The panel session included those who knew both spiritual writers personally as well as those who have worked on biographies of Nouwen. The rest of the day included concurrent paper sessions on themes such as Merton’s spirituality of the inner life, Merton’s poetry, the influence of the Carmelite tradition on Merton’s thought, Merton and young people, Merton as an intellectual critic, among others. Additionally, there were concurrent workshops that invited participant reflection on pedagogical themes for teaching Merton, approaches to prayer, and discussions about Merton’s writing.

The highlight of Saturday was the final plenary session and keynote address delivered by Ron Rolheiser, OMI, a theologian, best-selling author on spirituality, and current president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. Perhaps best known for his 1999 book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Rolheiser spoke on the topic: “Merton, Solitude, and Difficulties in Being Present in the Now.”

“We live in a culture which is a conspiracy against solitude,” Rolheiser began. “We try to be attentive to everything,” he added, “I’m not sure that we’re attentive to anything.” Rolheiser’s point, one generally accepted by all who are scholars and or practioners of a spiritual tradition, is that our hurried, over-stimulated, and typically hectic lifestyle is not conducive to developing a practice of prayer and solitude.

Rolheiser defined solitude as “being inside the present moment” and aesthetic such that “we’re able to give the world the gaze of admiration.” Some of the cultural factors that “conspire” against solitude stem from our misunderstanding of solitude as something we can simply “turn on or off” as we please and as “something that we can do and continue living the way we’re already living” as opposed to something we do that changes us and our practices.

The plenary lecture, which was co-sponsored by Sacred Heart University and open to the public, drew a large audience.

With the close of the 2013 conference, Merton scholars and enthusiasts alike are looking forward to June 4-7, 2015 for the next ITMS general meeting, which will take place at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, and celebrate the centenary of Thomas Merton.

This post was concurrently published at America Magazine.

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