Archive for thomas merton

Thomas Merton and the Feast of the Portiuncula

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , on August 2, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

porziuncolanotteToday is the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, both the patronal feast of the “City of Angels” (LA) and a very important celebration in the life of the Franciscan family. August 2 is also known as 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 have had the great fortune to visit the Portiuncula chapel twice (Portiuncula means “little portion”). 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. Especially as we anticipate the release of my next book, The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought, and Writing, due out in September, which focuses on the intersection of the Franciscan tradition and Thomas Merton.

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!

Photo: File

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

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

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
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