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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Thomas Merton's Curriculum Vitae

Once in a while I walk up to the Merton Center here at Bellarmine University to chat with the director and the assistant director, and it seems like each time I do there's a different Mertonian treasure I've never seen before.  One time I walked into the office of Paul Pearson, the director, to find stacks of paintings leaning against a wall. "Oh, those are painting by Owen Merton [Thomas' father] that we've acquired over the years," Paul replied when I asked him about the paintings. "The place where they're stored is being worked on right now, so they needed to be stored here for a few days."  Another time Paul showed me a cross that Pope Paul VI gave to Merton, which the Center had just received from Br. Patrick Hart.  And on another occasion, Paul showed me the collection of relics that Merton carried with him to Asia on his final trip.  The place is full of treasures.

Not too long ago I took a group of students up to the Merton Center as part of a graduate class I was teaching on Merton's life and thought.  Paul showed us Merton's final journal notebook - I found the abrupt end and the empty pages after December 10, 1968 jarring - and also played us a couple of recordings of Merton.  Some people are aware that the monastery recorded hundreds of hours of the talks Merton gave to the novices; I've had the opportunity to listen to a few of these.  But the Center also has many hours of other recordings Merton made, specifically of ones he made at the hermitage when he would dictate things for a monk at the Abbey to type up.

Paul played us a segment of one of these recordings, and he's given me permission to share it here.  Sometimes Merton filled up these tapes playfully; on one recording Merton played selections of Kansas City jazz for his typist to listen to.  In the recording I've embedded below, Merton reads out a mock curriculum vitae which gives a glimpse into Merton's sense of humour and into the self-criticism that is so prevalent in his personal journals.  "Autobiography in 1948," Merton reads, "created a general hallucination followed by too many pious books."

Thought many of you would enjoy hearing this.

Picture of Merton above used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust
The recording of Merton is used with permission and is copyright of the Merton Center and the Merton Legacy Trust 

Friday, April 11, 2014

What Pope Francis Teaches Me about not Marginalizing Others

The daily homilies of Pope Francis at the Domus Sanctae Marthae are a distinctive aspect of his pontificate thus far.  The homilies are informal, often given off-the-cuff, but it is clear that the Pope understands them to be a central means of communicating his priorities for the church.

I pay frequent attention to these homilies, and am often challenged by them.  In early November, Pope Francis delivered one that continues to live with me.  The homily was on Jesus' parable of the man who throws a great feast and invites the marginalized on the street when the original invitees decline (Luke 14:15-24).  I wrote briefly about this homily here, and a short video about this homily can be found at the end of this post. 

Comparing the feast of the parable to the church, Pope Francis emphasized the universality of the invitation to the church.  Everyone is invited to the feast, everyone is invited to participate in the church, to share of themselves with others.  And if we accept the invitation, Pope Francis continued, we must actually participate fully in the church.  This means that we can’t pick and choose our fellow invitees.  It is at this point that Pope Francis said the following: “The church is for everyone, beginning…with the most marginalized.  It is everyone’s church!”

I rejoiced when I first read these words, for I saw in them Pope Francis’ consistent call to welcome and embrace those who are on the margins of our society, and those who have been marginalized by our church.

It was my next door neighbour who led me to a much more expansive, and challenging, understanding of the Pope’s exhortation.  The day after the pope’s homily, I favourably cited on social media a controversial article that argued that the bishops should disband the Archdiocese for the Military given that it places the church in the untenable situation of providing legitimacy and support for military causes and actions that are not just.  This led to a congenial, but pointed, conversation with my next door neighbour about my viewpoints on the military.  I am a pacifist, and have long been troubled by implicit or explicit support of militarism in the church.  While my neighbour respected my argument, he was deeply troubled by any suggestion that Catholics in the military be without pastoral support.

Shortly after citing the article about the Archdiocese for the Military, I wrote a blog post about Pope Francis’ homily, emphasizing his comments about it being “everybody’s church.”  My neighbourr responded as follows: “I enjoy reading your blog posts.  After reading this one, I got to thinking about our conversation about the soldiers.  Are they invited to the feast?  I’m a rookie, so don’t push back too hard on my question.”

The reality was that I couldn't push back, because it was precisely the right question to ask.  While I still think a serious discussion needs to be had about Catholic attitudes toward the military and military causes, the reality is that such a discussion needs to be had with the recognition that the answer cannot be that we shut doors in the faces of those who are invited to the feast, which is precisely what I was suggesting we do.

I'm very thankful for my neighbour’s comment.  For as I thought about it, I came to the realization that, on a variety of issues and ideas, I tend to marginalize those with whom I disagree theologically and/or politically.  While I give lip service to the importance of diversity of expression in the church, the truth is that I frequently become so frustrated by those whose viewpoints I find troubling that I long for some way by which their voices would no longer be heard.

But, "It is everybody's church!"

Many of us were moved by the images of the pope embracing the man with neurofibromatosis.  But I’ve come to see that the marginalized are not just those who are disfigured, ill, or poor.  The marginalized aren't only those who have felt judged and condemned by the church because of their sexual orientation or their marital status.  The marginalized also include those persons I summarily and condescendingly dismiss as unworthy of attention because their views don't accord with my own. 

But, “It is everybody’s church!”

The Pope’s words and my neighbor’s comment led to serious self-examination, and what I discovered was this.  When confronted by people who have theological and/or political viewpoints different than my own, I marginalize them by failing to listen – truly to listen – to their arguments. I marginalize them by dismissing their ideas as ignorant, irrelevant, or backwards.  I marginalize them by continuing to view them as ‘other’ rather than as my sister or brother.

But, "It is everybody's church!"

To take seriously the Pope’s words is to be willing to see all persons as having surpassing worth and dignity no matter their viewpoints.  It is to have the humility to understand that I do not have a complete purchase on truth, and so to listen carefully and charitably to those whose viewpoints are not my own.  It is to see those with whom I disagree truly as my sisters and brothers to whom I am inextricably bound in and through the body of Christ.  It is to embrace, literally embrace, those who put forward ideas I consider to be problematic or offensive.

Because, "It is everybody's church!"

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Model for Dialogue, Ecumenical or Otherwise

Pope Francis with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation
I'm fortunate to co-teach a graduate class for Bellarmine University's M.A. in Spirituality program alongside Dr. Kathryn Johnson from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  Kathryn is a Lutheran long active in Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue both nationally and internationally.  Last night our class discussed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1999.

It may seem a strange choice to have students in a graduate program focused on the study of Christian spirituality read a document focused on a controversial point of doctrinal theology.  But it seems to me that this remarkable joint declaration was itself the product of deep and prayerful yearning by participants in the dialogue to understand their interlocutors more clearly and so to move towards obedience to Christ's hope "that they may all be one" (John 17:22).

With a few notable exceptions, Lutherans and Catholics spent the better part of 450 years caricaturing one another on the issue of justification by faith, with Catholics characterizing Lutheran soteriology as promoting antinomianism, and Lutherans characterizing Catholic soteriology as promoting works-righteousness.

In this joint declaration, all the layers of these caricatures are systematically dismantled. Each side articulates fully what it believes about justification in a manner that, remarkably, allows Catholics to see much of their own theology in Lutheranism and vice versa.  The result is that Lutherans and Catholics were able to make important shared statements on justification with the recognition that both Lutherans and Catholics might read those shared statements in somewhat different ways.

In other words, they achieve unity without compromising diversity (it's a very Trinitarian way of going about things!).

Let me give you an example.  A key point of disagreement between Catholicism and Lutheranism revolved around the role of works in salvation.  Catholics thought that Lutherans didn't believe in transformation of life after faith, while Lutherans thought that Catholics promoted a kind of works-righteousness whereby one could buy one's way into heaven.  In section 4.7, titled "The Good Works of the Justified," Lutherans and Catholics confess a common statement regarding good works, and then follow this statement with an explication of how each tradition interprets the statement:  
37.We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.
38.According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the "meritorious" character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

39.The concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living. When they view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one's own "merits", they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited "reward" in the sense of the fulfillment of God's promise to the believer.
We needn't get into all the theological details in the statement above to recognize what takes place.  Both traditions are here given the opportunity to clarify their theologies and to correct the ways in which their positions have been caricatured, and the agreement they reach is the fruit of truly listening to the other to find places of congruence.

What the Joint Declaration provides us with is a model for how we are to engage in dialogue with our theological and political others, whether they exist within or without our particular traditions.  It's a model rooted in prayer, whereby the positions of the other are taken seriously and treated charitably, where all work towards a unity in love that does not compromise the real differences that do exist.

Photo from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2013/10/21/francis-catholics-and-lutherans-should-ask-forgiveness-for-past-wrongs/

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Relics and Affirming the Body (Part I)

St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula
The first relic I ever saw was at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai peninsula.  As an undergraduate student I was part of a class trip to Israel and Egypt to study early Christianity, and one of the highlights was a two day trip to the foot of Mt Sinai where the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world sits.  Monks have been living at St. Catherine's since the fourth century; the walls surrounding the monastery and many of the buildings, including the Church of the Transfiguration, date from the sixth century.

One of the monks, an American from Boston, gave us a tour of the monastery; my professor-had-a-professor-who-knew-the-abbot, and somehow this garnered us special treatment.  He showed us the priceless collection of icons, the sixth-century mosaic of the Transfiguration covering the apse of the church, and the famous library where Codex Sinaiticus - an important fourth-century manuscript of the entire New Testament - was found, and promptly stolen in the nineteenth-century.

But it was the charnal house at St Catherine’s that fascinated me most.  A small building outside the walls of the monastery, the charnal house contains the bones of deceased monks (it is apparently difficult to bury the dead permanently in the sand of the Sinai desert; easier instead to bury them shallowly and exhume the bones later).  Skulls are piled neatly along one wall behind a chain-link enclosure, arm bones in another area, leg bones in another, etc.

St Stephanos the Hermit - St Catharine's Monastery
And sitting directly in front of one of the enclosures is St Stephanos the Hermit, a sixth-century monk mentioned by St John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

I had no exposure to relics before this, raised as I was in an Evangelical Protestant home.  When I took this trip to St Catherine’s at the age of 22, I still self-identified as an Evangelical Christian, but was really only hanging to the tradition by a thread.  I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, and for reasons I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, would eventually become a Roman Catholic.  So I knew about relics, but had never actually seen one.  And here was St Stephanos right in front of me, his corpse dressed in priestly vestments.

Sts Magnus & Bonosa at St Martin of Tours' parish
My ongoing fascination with relics started that day.  Since that time I've seen an assortment of relics - everything from (soon to be St) John XXIII's body in a glass casket at St. Peter's in Rome, to St.
Andre of Montreal's heart, to a finger from an Orthodox saint whose name I've forgotten, to the small fragments of cloth or bone that are to be found in the little reliquaries all over the Catholic world. Here in Louisville, St. Martin of Tours' Catholic Church has the skeletal remains of two third-century saints who are displayed in glass under side altars (the story of how these relics came to reside in Louisville is a fascinating one; this video provides some of the details).

Merton's collection of relics in the Merton Center
Even more interesting to me was something I learned only very recently about Thomas Merton.  Over beers at one of the Abbey of Gethsemani's hermitages, Br. Paul Quenon - who was a novice under Merton - told me that Merton was himself a "relic man" who had a collection of relics he acquired over the years from various people.  Turns out that Merton carried these relics with him on his final trip to Asia...in his shaving bag.  (On a side note, the Merton Center here at Bellarmine University has these relics. Someone at the Abbey put them in a lovely wooden case before it was donated to the Center. One of my projects in the next year is to write an article about Merton's collection and to delve more deeply into why he appeared to value relics so much).

I often ask my undergraduate students to submit questions they would like to have addressed at some point during the semester, and one of the most common questions has to do with why Roman Catholics feel the need to keep relics.  Most of my students find the idea of relics a bit creepy.  Why, they ask, would anyone want to see the earthly remains of someone, let alone venerate those remains in some way?

It seems to me that the theology of relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body, something Catholicism is not generally thought to do very well.  I'll write more about this in another post.



Photo of St Stephanos is from agatasmaytrip.blogspot.com
Photo of Sts Magnus & Bonosa from http://therecordarchlou.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/relics-at-st-martin-of-tours-reinterred/
Photo of Merton's collection of relics by Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center