So as many of you know, I am currently in (the snowy) Louisville, KY. I’m happy to be here despite the cold weather and the Southern lack of driving-in-the-snow skills because Louisville happens to be the home of two of my favorite things: Thomas Merton and Bourbon (and lest my friend David feel neglected while reading this post, he too is from Louisville, so a shout-out to him and his family). While this trip is about working on two of my current Merton research projects, perhaps if the weather cooperates I might be able to swing by a distillery, although I doubt there will be time.
I spent most of the day in a quiet reading room in the library at Bellarmine University, the home of the Thomas Merton Center and Archives. I am grateful for the International Thomas Merton Society for the Fellowship that financed this research. Amid the hours of transcription, attempting to decipher several important Merton manuscripts and reading mimeographs of his unpublished lecture notes and typescripts, I was struck by a two-fold realization.
The first part of the realization is the gratitude I had for the ability to step away from the noise of the world, especially the chaos afflicting our political and news conversations of late. There I was able to work in the quiet of a library on a snowy day in Kentucky examining some important (at least to me) texts. I was also grateful for the subject of my study, Thomas Merton, who I oftentimes consider to be a spiritual companion as one looks to a patron saint. He was there in his writing and in the spirit of the Communion of Saints.
The second part of the realization follows from the first: I was then struck by what I would consider to be a “Mertonian” response to the Arizona tragedy, the contemporary political and media climate, the unnecessarily heated discourse, the violent rhetoric and the lack of respect that impedes true dialogue and reconciliation.
See, I was a little upset this morning that so little has changed since the weekend. In fact, as I later discovered while flipping between MSNBC and FoxNews while running on the treadmill this evening, the screaming, the accusations, the impatience, the blaming only continued to get louder.
Part of me is concerned that my response would be (and has been) perceived to be too partisan. And perhaps that is a fair reading. Nevertheless, one cannot prevent nor control interpretation. Merton too was concerned about how he was interpreted (although in one letter I transcribed today, he tells his literary agent that “I don’t care what people think” only to prove the opposite a few lines later) and even wrote in 1964 that he was, on some level, aware that he could be “kicked off” (i.e. killed) or be “shot by local patriots after my latest book.” For Merton was, at that time, writing some very strong material against war and violence in a time of war and unrest.
That line struck me as haunting given the rhetoric that comes from camps of those who identify themselves as “patriots” some 47-years later. Those, like Merton, who speak out against violence — verbal or psychological (inducing mental fear is violence) or physical — run the risk of being marginalized, dismissed or worse.
I do not have my Merton library with me for obvious reasons, but if I was at home with access to the right texts I would certainly offer you a reflection or two that he presents to us today as a challenge to truly live the Gospel and stand up to the absurdity that saturates our public life today. It is absurd because it is without honest or authentic meaning. It is saturating because it is everywhere and at all times polarizing.
WWMD? What would Merton do? He would speak out against the evil of violence, striving to live the Gospel command of peace. And, if he had time, he might have a little Bourbon too.