Friday, January 8, 2016

Thomas Merton on the Purpose of Higher Education (Reading Notes)

Just came across this letter by Thomas Merton in 1965 to the manager of a university bookstore in New Jersey. In it, Merton describes briefly what he sees to be the purpose of higher education and the role the student has in making the most out of their college/university experience. (Please note that Merton, as was the custom in his day, did not use inclusive language):
It seems to me that a man or a woman goes to college not just to get a degree and a good job, but first of all to find himself and establish his true identity. You cannot go through life as a mask or as a well-functioning biological machine. Man is a being whose reality cannot be left entirely to forces outside himself, nature, society, events. We become real in proportion as we accept the real possibilities that are presented to us, and choose from them freely and realistically for ourselves. This act of choice implies a capacity to judge, therefore to think. It implies some kind of personal philosophy and a personal faith.
The reason why judgment and decisions are so important today is that a person, especially in college, is suddenly presented with such an overwhelming amount of material - ideologies, philosophies and pseudo-philosophies, religions and religious fads, movements in art, literature, politics, and new developments in science and technology - that he has to make a choice somewhere. If he fails to choose, he is lost in a confusion of contradictory notions that end up by meaning absolutely nothing. In which case he can either go crazy, or else become an insufferable square with a few mechanically pronounced dogmas instead of genuine thought.
Therefore, if a man is going to make authentic judgments and do some thinking for himself, he is going to have to renounce the passivity of a subject that merely sits and "takes in" what is told him, whether in class, or in front of the TV, or in the other mass media. This means serious and independent reading, and it also means articulate discussion (Witness to Freedom, 169)
Image above from

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Uselessness of Monastic Life (Reading Notes)

In 1966, an American Benedictine monk wrote to Thomas Merton complaining about what he perceived to be the uselessness of monasticism. Merton's frank response is worth reading, particularly as it touches upon the prophetic nature of monastic life, a point discussed briefly in a recent article in America on why young people are intrigued by monasticism:
There has always been and there always will be a conviction in certain minds that the monastic life is useless. Well, it is. It is not meant to serve some practical purpose. It is not "for" something other than itself. On the other hand, the assertion that "reality" is to be found in secular life only is patently foolish: but people will continue to make it. And in the same breath they will lament the fact that they have no time for anything, that they are always nervous and frustrated, that people get on their nerves...The world has its dignities and heroisms and its servitudes: and for many people life in the world is little more than the latter. The monk should have the courage and patience to keep his life going as a sign of freedom and peace: he should be in his own way open to the world, and he should even to some extent be able to share some of the advantages of his life with people in the world who seek a little silence and peace to restore their perspectives. The monk can also in his own way be effectively concerned with worldly problems: more effectively for the fact that he is not immersed in them up to his neck.
 Picture of Merton above used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust

Monday, November 16, 2015

St Cyril of Alexandria on the Mystery of the Incarnation (Reading Notes)

I've little time these days to write anything on the blog apart from notes on things I'm reading, and this morning I read a few lines from Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) on the mystery of the Incarnation that seemed particularly appropriate to post here as we make our way to the beginning of Advent. They're from Cyril's On the Unity of Christ, a short treatise written near the end of his life. I'm reproducing John McGuckin's translation of these lines, but have also provided the Greek from the Sources Chrétiennes edition.
Indeed the mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. 
For God was in humanity. 
He who was above all creation was in our human condition; 
the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; 
he who is from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; 
the immaterial one could be touched;
he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; 
he who blesses all creation became accursed;
he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; 
life itself came in the appearance of death (On the Unity of Christ, 61)
Κινδυνεύει γὰρ ἀπιστεῖσθαι τὸ Χριστοῦ μυστήριον διὰ τὴν τοῦ θαύματος ὑπερζολήν. Θεὸς ἧν ἐν ἀνθρωπότητι καὶ ἐν τοῖς καθ' ἡμᾶς ὁ ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν τὴν κτίσιν, ὁ ἀόρατος, ὁρατὸς κατὰ σάρκα, ὁ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄνωθεν, ἐν εἴδει τῶν χοϊκῶν, ἁπτὸς ὁ ἀναφής, ὁ κατὰ ίδίαν ἐλεύθερος, ἐν δούλου μορφῇ, ὁ εὐλογῶν τὴν κτίσιν, ἐπάρατος, καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἀνόμοις ἡ πᾶσα δικαιοσύνη, καὶ ἐν δοκήσει θανάτου γέγονεν ἡ ζωή (Quod Unus sit Christus, 723d-e).

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thomas Merton to Dorothy Day on Natural Law (Reading Notes)

From Thomas Merton's letter to Dorothy Day (December 20, 1961):

"[A]s Christians we have to keep on insisting on the distinction between the man, the person, and the actions and policies attributed to him and his group. We have to remember the terrible danger of projecting on to others all the evil we find in ourselves, so that we justify our desire to hate that evil and to destroy it in them. The basic thing in Christian ethics is to look at the person and not at the nature. That is why natural law so easily degenerates, in practice and in casuitry, to jungle law which is no law at all. Because when we consider 'nature' we consider the general, the theoretical, and forget the concrete, the individual, the personal reality of the one confronting us. Hence we can see him not as our other self, not as Christ, but as our demon, our evil beast, our nightmare. This, I am afraid, is what a wrong, unintelligent and un-Christian emphasis on natural law has done.

Persons are known not by the intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal 'law' and to abstract 'nature.' That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him, condemned to death along with him, sinking to the abyss with him, and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who 'saves himself' in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.

It is all too true that when many theologians talk about natural law, they are talking about jungle law. And this is no law at all. It is not natural either. The jungle is not natural. Or rather, perhaps the true primeval life is natural in a higher sense than we realize. The 'jungles' which are our cities are worse than jungles, they are sub-jungles, and their law is a sub-jungle law, a sub-sub-natural law. And here I refer not to those who are considered the lowest in society, but rather those who exercise power in the jungle city, and use it unscrupulously and inhumanly, whether on the side of 'law and order' or against law and order.

And yet, as a priest and as one obligated by my state to preach and explain the truth, I cannot take occasion from this abusive view of natural law to reject the concept altogether. On the contrary, if I condemn and reject en bloc all the ethical principles which appeal to the natural law, I am in fact undercutting the Gospel ethic at the same time. It is customary to go through the Sermon on the Mount and remark on the way it appears to contrast with the Mosaic law and the natural law. On the contrary, it seems to me that the Sermon on the Mount is not only a supernatural fulfillment of the natural law, but an affirmation of 'nature' in its true, original Christian meaning: of nature as assumed by Christ in the Incarnation. As a remote basis for this, we might consider Colossians 1:9-29, noting especially that we humans who were at enmity with one another are 'reconciled in the body of His flesh.' Christ the Lord is the Word Who has assumed our nature, which is one in all of us. He has perfectly fulfilled and so to speak transfigured and elevated not only nature but the natural law which is, in its most basic expression, treating our brother as one who has the same nature as we have. Now here is the point where our ethical speculation has gone off the rails. In the biblical context, in the context of all spiritual and ancient religions that saw this kind of truth, the good which man must do and the evil he must avoid according to the natural law must be based on an experience or a realization of connaturality with our brother.

Example: if I am in a fallout shelter and trying to save my life, I must see that the neighbor who wants to come into the shelter also wants to save his life as I do. I must experience his need and his fear just as if it were my need and my fear. This is not supernatural at all, it is purely and simply the basis of the natural law, which of course has been elevated and supernaturalized. But it is per se natural. If then I experience my neighbor's need as my own, I will act accordingly, and if I am strong enough to act out of love, I will cede my place in the shelter to him. This I think is possible, at least theoretically, even on the basis of natural love. In fact, personally, I am sure it is. But at the same time there is the plentiful grace of God to enable us to do this.

Now to approach casuistry: if the person who threatens the life of my children, say, is raving mad, I have a duty to protect my children, it may be necessary to restrain the berserk guy by force...etc. But my stomach revolts at the casuistical approach to a question like this at a time like this.

My point is, rather, that I don't think we ought to simply discard the concept of the natural law as irrelevant. On the contrary I think it is very relevant once it is properly understood. Matthew 5:21-26 is, to my way of thinking, a vindication of human nature because it is a restoration of human nature. I admit that this view of nature is perhaps not that of the scholastics but rather that of the Greek Fathers. But it is to my way of thinking more natural, more in accord with the nature of man, to be non-violent, to be not even angry with his brother, to not say 'race,' etc. But we cannot recover this fullness of nature without the grace of God. In this peculiar view, then, the natural law is not merely what is ethically right and fitting for fallen man considered purely in his fallen state: it is the law of his nature as it came to him from the hand of God, the law imprinted in his nature by the image of God, which each man is and must be in his very nature. Hence the natural law is the law which inclines our inmost hear to conform to the image of God which is in the deepest center of our being, and it also inclines our heart to respect and love our neighbor as the image of God. But this concept of nature is only comprehensible when we see that it presupposes grace and calls for grace and as it were sighs and groans for grace. For actually our contradiction with ourselves makes us realize that without grace we are lost and condemned to a sub-natural law.

In a word, then, I want with my whole heart to fulfill in myself this natural law, in order by that to fulfill also the law of grace to which it leads me. And I want with my whole heart to realize and fulfill my communion of nature with my brother, in order that I may be by that very fact one with him in Christ. But here, as I said in the beginning, I must rise above nature, I must see the person (this is still possible to nature 'alone') and I must see the person in Christ, in the Spirit" (The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, 141-143).

Picture of Merton above used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust
Picture of Dorothy Day above from

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

St Thomas Aquinas and Dialogue - Lessons from Josef Pieper

"Anyone who considers dialogue, disputation, debate, to be a fundamental method for arriving at truth must already have concluded and stated that arriving at truth is an affair that calls for more power than the autarchic individual possesses. He must feel that common effort, perhaps the effort of everybody, is necessary. No one is sufficient unto himself and no one is completely superfluous; each person needs the other" - Josef Pieper
I'm currently on sabbatical, and am taking the opportunity not only to work on my book on Cyril of Alexandria's pneumatology but also to catch up on reading books I've wanted to read for some time. One of these books is Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

The book interested me both because I'm keen to improve my knowledge and appreciation of Saint Thomas Aquinas and because, while reading Thomas Merton's journals, I saw numerous places where Merton writes appreciatively of this book, often recording long sections into his journal.

What interests me most about Pieper's book is his account of Thomas Aquinas' methodology, particularly his focus on dialogue (I think this is what was also of interest to Merton). The recently concluded Synod on the Family unfortunately demonstrated how uninterested and unprepared segments of the church are to dialogue (I don't think this is true of the synod delegates, by the way. My sense is that genuine dialogue did occur among the delegates and continues to occur). Social media witnessed to a firestorm during and after the Synod, and if my Twitter feed is any indication, the church is polarized.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or here on this blog know the value I place on "dialogue." On Twitter, 'conservative' friends (and more than a few interlocutors) challenge me on this, arguing that dialogue is a meaningless buzzword that simply masks relativism and a hidden agenda to conquer and silence. In the run-up to the Synod, a parody account called "Dr. Dialogue SJ" was created that illustrates the suspicion conservatives have of those on the left who call for dialogue.
It is because of this suspicion that many in the 'conservative' and 'traditionalist' camp seem to distrust Pope Francis' consistent exhortation to dialogue (by the way, I've an essay coming out - hopefully soon - on Syndicate Theology that unpacks what Pope Francis means when he refers to dialogue in Laudato Si', as he does more than twenty times, as well as what he means by dialogue more generally).

I have to be candid and admit that my traditionalist friends are not entirely unjustified in their suspicions of those on the left. On social media and in person, I've encountered more than a few people who emphasize the importance of dialogue with one side of their mouth while deriding the backwardness and ridiculousness of their interlocutors with the other side. That said, very often I also encounter people on the right - at least on social media - demonstrating their own lack of good faith. Friends are viciously attacked for being 'liberals' and when they block accounts that use hate-filled language in their attacks, they're accused of not being open to dialogue.

In short, the charity and good faith needed for genuine dialogue appears to me to be in short supply on all sides (with a number of important exceptions), and I have to admit my own complicity in this.

But I simply can't accede to accusations that 'dialogue' is a meaningless path that leads to nowhere, and Josef Pieper's book on Thomas Aquinas convinces me of this all the more. Pieper argues that genuine dialogue has a pedigree in the church that extends throughout the centuries, and suggests that Thomas Aquinas represents the very best of the tradition. So, both for my own sake and for yours, I want simply to quote a few important (albeit lengthy) sections from Pieper's book on what dialogue meant for Thomas Aquinas, as a means of reminding us what it can look like to engage our interlocutors with charity, even when we're convinced they're wrong. Though the sections I'm quoting below are lengthy, I guarantee that they're well worth reading (emphases below are my own):
[Thomas Aquinas] shows not a trace of dictatorial or magisterial attitude [when handling the opinions of opponents. It can happen to anyone reading, say, the Summa Against the Pagans, that he will come unsuspectingly upon a chapter in which Thomas expounds the arguments of the opposite camp; if theological matters are under discussion, these arguments may well be heretical; yet the reader will almost be inclined to consider the arguments irrefutable - so entirely without bias does Thomas present them. He himself brings to light their force with a persuasiveness which the opponent himself might well have envied. Here Thomas completely fulfilled the dialogue character of his work, the quality of a dialogue between persons who respect one another. That does not mean that each opinion is right; but it does mean that each side has the right to formulate his argument and that each is obligated to listen to the other. Truth must be brought to bear in and for itself, with its own inherent strength, and not be means of an adventitious force (38).
Anyone who considers dialogue, disputation, debate, to be a fundamental method for arriving at truth must already have concluded and stated that arriving at truth is an affair that calls for more power than the autarchic individual possesses. He must feel that common effort, perhaps the effort of everybody, is necessary. No one is sufficient unto himself and no one is completely superfluous; each person needs the other; the teacher even needs the student, as Socrates always held. In any case, the learner, the student, contributes something to the dialogue along with the teacher. If this fundamental conviction is genuine, it must necessarily affect the mode of listening as well as the mode of speaking. Dialogue does not mean only that people talk to one another, but also that they listen to one another. The first requirement, therefore, is: Listen to the interlocutor, take note of his argument, his contribution to the recherche collective de la vérité, in the same way that he himself understands his own argument (82).
But of course this listening is not concerned solely with grasping the substance. It is also directed fully at the interlocutor as a person; it draws its vitality from respect for the other's dignity, and even from gratitude toward him - gratitude for the increase in knowledge which is derived even from error. "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth adn both have helped us in the finding of it" (Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics 12, 9; No. 2566). The great doctors of Christendom completely agree on this point; they stand in a common front against the stupidity of narrow-minded polemic. For the latter usually lacks not only respect for the person of the opponent but also full openheartedness to the truth of things. The attitude formulated by Thomas - which has nothing in common with sentimentality - is in keeping with the best, the most legitimate tradition (84).
Picture of Josef Pieper from
Painting by Fra Angelico of St Thomas Aquinas from

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dialogue as a Christian Imperative: Reflections on Pope Francis' Address to the US Bishops

"I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly" (Pope Francis, 23 Sept 2015)

Although I'm supposed to be working on book research today, I managed to catch Pope Francis' talk to the United States bishops at the Cathedral of St Matthew.  If you didn't get a chance to hear it, you can read the entire thing here.  There's a great deal in the text about which one could comment, but there was one section that particularly caught my eye.

Not long ago, someone challenged me on Twitter for drawing attention to the importance of dialogue, and specifically for focusing on Pope Francis' insistence on dialogue in Laudato Si'.  This person understood 'dialogue' to be a meaningless buzz word with no real purpose; I believe he dismissed it simply as 'cant.'

As he does so often, Pope Francis emphasized the centrality of dialogue in words that merit closer examination:
I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.
And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter.  We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty.  We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.  I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.  The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.  Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.  Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.  Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
While Pope Francis' words were directed to our bishops, we would be remiss were we not also to apply them to ourselves and to endeavour to live out this exhortation to dialogue in our own lives.  The pope roots the importance of dialogue in God's willingness to enter fully into our experience to encounter us in our brokenness.  This occurred most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, and God continues to encounter us, to condescend to us, in the waters of baptism and in the Eucharist.  The Christian God is one who doesn't set himself in opposition to us, but rather one who unites himself to us in a manner that reveals God truly to be Love.

Pope Francis argues that it is God's example that we are to follow in our interactions with one another, and particularly with those with whom we disagree.  Why?  Because we cannot truly love the other unless we truly encounter the other, unless we truly come to understand the other.  This is not, as Pope Francis insists, a simple strategy for eventually winning the day against our opponents.  This is, rather, to be our way of being as followers of the one who abased himself for us and continues to give himself to us in the sacraments.  It is a path of humility paved for us by the Incarnate Word.

Pope Francis is saying nothing new here.  Pope St John XXIII also exhorted Catholics to enter into broader dialogue.  In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote the following about John XXIII's 'Socratic principle' that illuminates perhaps why our present pope places so much emphasis on the necessity of dialogue:
One of the admirable things about Pope John is his simple fidelity to the Socratic principle which is essential to our Western cultural tradition.  This is a very profound element in Pope John's thought, and he has shown in fact that true Christian renewal implies an understanding of and a commitment to Christian Socratism.  This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned.  Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue.  The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.  This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation.  And, after all, that is the spirit of the Gospel also.  We see it everywhere in the New Testament.  Those who were open to Christ and the Apostles, received the truth.  Those who refused dialogue, or who engaged in it only with political intentions, with pragmatic reservations and tactical subtlety, ended by crucifying Christ and slaying the Apostles.
The Socratic principle, as Pope John definitely sees, means not only the willingness to discuss, but the readiness to meet one's adversary as an equal and as a brother.  The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary.
Some seem to fear that in such encounters, meeting the adversary on his own ground, we leave the protection of the Church and Catholic truth.  They forget that if we meet the non-Christian as a brother we meet him on ground that is Christian.  If we fear to meet him on what is really our own ground, is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian? (p. 218)
To dialogue is to approach the other with love.  This does not mean that we abandon our positions simply to meet on some sort of meaningless common ground.  Merton himself rejected what he referred to as any affirmation of the other that amounts to "syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing" (CGB 141).  

It does however mean that we affirm the other as a person, and (in the words of Pope Francis quoted above) "to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain." 

The problem of course is that we as Roman Catholics cannot seem even to dialogue meaningfully with each other.  Suspicion of the other appears to run deep in our veins, at least if the Catholic twittersphere and blogosphere is anything to go on.  'Traditionalists' and 'conservatives' reject and condemn 'progressives' as ill-informed, un-Christian, and opposed to the church herself.  'Progressives,' on the other hand, dismiss their 'traditionalist' and 'conservative' opponents as unthinking, hateful, and out-of-touch.  We've ceased to love one another, and we've certainly stopped listening to one another.  What we see are positions, not persons, and what seems to matter most to many of us is that our position wins.

In his address to the US bishops this afternoon, Pope Francis reminded us of another way, one that has as its model the Incarnate Word, who revealed to us what it could mean to go out of ourselves in love to encounter one another as persons.  I, for one, was convicted.

Photo from