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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 www.dorothydaymemphis.org

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  http://www.holyangelssturgis.org/more-on-leisure/
Painting by Fra Angelico of St Thomas Aquinas from http://www.wga.hu/

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 cspan.org

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Prayer & Bourbon: Spirituality Kentucky-Style

"Fortunately I had some bourbon in the hermitage" 
- Thomas Merton (August 2, 1967 journal entry)

Yesterday we visited the Abbey of Gethsemani & Makers Mark distillery, and in the process managed to combine two things for which Kentucky is known - prayer and bourbon. I'm neck-deep in research on my Cyril of Alexandria book right now, and so haven't had much opportunity to write on here recently. So I thought I'd share a few pictures from our trip.

My 4-year-old and 7-year-old waiting to pray the office of Sext with the monks:



On a hike on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani:


The all-important Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport:


Bourbon barrels as far as the eye can see:


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Questions about Familial Spiritual Practices

I'm curious about experiences you had of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices in their families while growing up. I'm also curious about what spiritual disciplines and devotional practices you practice with your family now, if you have children.

My reasons are primarily personal (though I don't want to discount the possibility of writing about this in the future). I did not grow up Roman Catholic, as regular readers of this blog know. I did not, therefore, experience 'traditional' Roman Catholic devotional practices until well into my twenties. Both Kim and I are interested in being more intentional about familial spiritual practices, but both of us are unsure about what this might look like. While we're an interchurch family, both of us sense that the Roman Catholic tradition perhaps offers a richer source for familial spiritual practices than the Anglican tradition, though the two have many similarities. So I want to know what kind of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices you experienced in your family, what this looked like, whether you found these experiences beneficial to you in your journey of faith, as well as whether you continue to inculcate this spirituality in your family today.

You can help me by commenting below, sending me a tweet, or sending me an email.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Interchurch Families and the Upcoming Synod on the Family - *Updated*

*Update* The Instrumentum Laboris has now been published in English

The Instrumentum Laboris was published last week by the Vatican, albeit only in Italian. This is the working document for part II of the Synod on the Family this October. There are, of course, many issues to be discussed at the Synod, and most people are focused on what the Synod will have to say about divorce and remarriage, as well as about same-sex relationships. Less attention is paid to an issue that is important to me as someone married to an Episcopalian: interchurch families.

The report issued at the conclusion of the Synod last October was disappointing on this issue. Only after warning people in 'mixed marriages' that they are in danger of 'relativism and indifference' did the document suggest that people in interchurch marriages may have something worthwhile to contribute ecumenically. Nothing was said about the possibility of intercommunion for those in interchurch families.

In April, the Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN) released an open letter to the Synod delegates, which you can read here. One of the issues to which IFIN draws attention is the possibility of greater Eucharistic sharing for those in interchurch families. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory, published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, opened the door to greater Eucharistic sharing between interchurch couples, but the directory is not widely known nor does it provide much guidance regarding the difficult issue of Eucharistic sharing for children in interchurch families.

So I was delighted to see that the Instrumentum Laboris devotes more attention to the issue of Eucharistic sharing than seen in previous Synod documents. Of interest to me particularly is paragraph 128. The Italian is below, followed by a translation graciously offered by Dr. Thomas Bolin at St Norbert College (the translation below is now the one from the official English translation. Thank you Thomas for the previous translation!):
Alcuni suggeriscono che i matrimoni misti siano considerati tra i casi di “grave necessità” nei quali è possibile a battezzati fuori della piena comunione con la Chiesa cattolica, che condividono però con essa la fede circa l’Eucaristia, essere ammessi alla ricezione di tale sacramento in mancanza dei propri pastori (cf. EdE, 45-46; Pontificio Consiglio per la Promozione dell’Unità dei Cristiani, Direttorio per l’Applicazione dei Principi e delle Norme per l’Ecumenismo, 25 marzo 1993, 122-128), tenendo conto anche dei criteri propri della comunità ecclesiale alla quale appartengono.
Some suggest that mixed marriages might be considered as cases of "grave necessity," in which it is possible that a baptized person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet shares the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, when their pastors are not available and taking into account the criteria of the ecclesial community to which they belong (cf. EdE, 45-46; Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 25 March 1993, 122-128).
There are two significant features of this paragraph. First, canon 844 §4 refers to whether sacraments can be given licitly to non-Roman Catholic Christians. It reads:
If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed (italics mine).
One of the arguments made by those in the interchurch families movement (including by canon lawyers involved with the movement) is that it should be considered a 'grave necessity' that family members in interchurch families are out of communion with one another, and therefore that the sacrament can and should be given licitly to non-Roman Catholic family members. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory actually implies this reading of canon 844 §4, though this is not made explicit enough, at least in my reading. It is therefore very significant that the Instrumentum Laboris indicates that the Synod delegates are going to take this argument seriously.

The second significant feature of the paragraph is simply that it cites the 1993 Ecumenical Directory. My experience has been that this important document is far too neglected by pastors and laypeople, and that more attention needs to be given to the pastoral guidance provided in it.

The pastoral realities facing interchurch families are very real to me. I have an essay forthcoming in America magazine that speaks personally about the kinds of challenges my wife and I face as an interchurch couple trying to raise our children in a way that exposes them to the depth and beauty of both of our ecclesial traditions. I'm thrilled that the upcoming Synod on the Family is going to take these challenges seriously.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Struggling to Respond to Racial Violence


My Twitter feed this morning was filled with tweets about two events: the release of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and the racially-motivated shooting of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. I tweeted and retweeted about the former. I didn't tweet anything about the latter.

This is not because I have nothing to say about the racial violence plaguing this country, violence that, far from abating, seems to be ramping up. This is not because I feel like racial violence has nothing to do with me. Although I'm a Canadian living in the United States, I'm fully aware of my complicity as a white person in an economic and social system that continues to disadvantage ethnic minorities. This is not because I'm unaffected by racial violence emotionally and intellectually.

Rather, my reluctance to contribute to the conversations about race on social media has to do with two factors: 1) My own smallness in the face of the immense problem of racism and 2) My fear that I'll simply be assuaging my conscience by making a few comments on social media without doing anything more substantial.

In a class I taught this past semester, we read Thomas Merton's "Letters to a White Liberal," a trenchant essay that criticized whites for thinking and saying the right things (and even promoting the right legislation) while at the same time being completely unwilling concretely to change their ways of living in order to work for and attain racial equality. Merton wrote that whites are willing to go only so far for racial equality. They'll join the rallies, they'll push for equal rights legislation, they'll say all the right things. But when they realize, as they must, that racial equality will mean actual equality, when they discover that racial equality means that whites are actually going to have to make real economic and social sacrifices to attain real structural equality, whites pull up on the reins.

Many people in my Twitter feed who are commenting on the Charleston shooting aren't doing so just to assuage their consciences. Many are actively working for racial justice.

However, if I'm being totally honest with myself and with you, I'm not actively working for racial justice and equality. I remember how shocked Kim and I were to discover the pervasive racism and segregation that is still so much a part of this city and country when we moved to Louisville from Ontario in 2008. And yet, without us trying or meaning to do so, we became part of the structure. Our neighbourhood is predominantly white. Our churches (I'm Catholic and Kim is Episcopalian) are overwhelmingly white.

Sure, I attend lectures and read books on the problem of racism and we read important texts in my classes on racism and racial conflict. But I know - I know - that none of this is good enough. I know - I know - that to be serious about racial justice requires real changes in how we live our lives.

So I worry that, were I to comment on social media and elsewhere about my grief and anger about the Charleston shooting, I'd simply be assuaging my conscience. That I'd - even subconsciously - think that I've 'done my part' when in reality I've done nothing.

I'm not excusing myself here. I'm repenting.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Extraordinary Form and Concepts of Beauty

I should know better than to tweet about liturgical traditionalism, but I don't. Michael O'Loughlin at Crux wrote a piece about attending a liturgy conference headlined by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and I commented briefly about something that continues to trouble me about liturgical traditionalism. Here's the tweet:

The tweet met with a less than enthusiastic response from traditionalists on Twitter, some of whom chose to interpret me as making a blanket condemnation of liturgical traditionalism and even of wanting to suppress the Latin liturgy. I'm sorry to disappoint, but neither is anywhere close to being true. There have been relatively few moments in my life when the veil between heaven and earth became thin, but at least one of those moments occurred during a celebration of the Extraordinary Form at the Birmingham Oratory (Blessed Newman's Oratory). In a previous blog post, I wrote about this experience, and about what my profound experiences of the Latin mass mean for my understanding of traditionalism:
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.
I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.
Far from suppressing the Latin mass, I long to see Catholics listen more deeply to the concerns of those devoted to the Extraordinary Form, particularly their concerns about the importance of liturgy - beautiful liturgy - for the life of the church.

However, my sympathy for liturgical traditionalism is not without reservation, and it is this reservation that was so off-putting to some traditionalists yesterday. When traditionalists call upon the church to devote itself more fully to beauty and good liturgy, I proclaim a loud and profound 'Amen.' But when traditionalists want to limit the definition of beauty and good liturgy only to the Extraordinary Form, when traditionalists suggest that the only way truly to give credence to the sacredness of the Eucharist and to Divine Beauty is through the Latin mass, and when traditionalists - subtly or not - call for the suppression of the Novus Ordo, I bristle.

Again, I've written my thoughts about this elsewhere on here, so I'll simply quote from a previous blog post:
The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns [I'm quoting here from an article by Michael B. Dougherty] so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.
If I'm being honest, I worry that there is a subtle form of imperialism, and even racism, behind the apparent unwillingness to recognize that Divine Beauty is made manifest in culturally particularized liturgical celebrations. I write this with a great deal of trepidation, for this is a very serious claim. But I'm not sure what else to call it when some - by no means all - traditionalists argue that specifically European aesthetic norms must be universal in order to preserve the sacredness and beauty of the mass. An infamous comment by one of the EWTN commentators during Pope Benedict XVI's televised masses when he was in the United States underlines this point. Various multicultural elements were part of the Liturgy of the Word, and as the celebration moved on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the commentator said: "We have just been subjected to an over-preening display of multicultural chatter. And now, the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass." One can almost hear the commentator's sigh of relief.

Liturgical traditionalists have a great deal to complain about. The implementation of the Novus Ordo was problematic, and the suppression of the Extraordinary Form even more so. Liturgical traditionalists are also frequently reviled by non-traditionalist Catholics, and I know that traditionalist seminarians have been ridiculed and ostracized during their priestly training.

However, if the church universal is going to take seriously the concerns of traditionalists, traditionalists themselves need to abandon the kind of liturgical exclusivism that refuses to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in liturgical expressions other than the Extraordinary Form.

Last night, I listened to a podcast with Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, and he made a comment about the Eucharist about which I can't stop thinking. After recounting this incredible moment when 7 rival gang members celebrated Christmas by eating a turkey together, Fr. Boyle made a connection between this ordinary meal and the celebration of the Eucharist: "Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it's ordinary, that it's a meal shared among friends."

I worry that we as Catholics - traditionalist and non-traditionalist - lose sight of the reality that, however we celebrate the Eucharist, it is a meal shared among friends by which we become truly one with each other. It is the most tragic kind of irony that the Eucharist - that which is to bind us together in body and spirit - continues to divide us as Catholics. As Jesus prayed, "May they be one as we are one" (John 17:22).

Before I end, I want to say that I don't want to pretend that I have any of this truly worked out. I am willing to be wrong, and so willing to receive criticism for what I wrote above (or anywhere). If you think I've read the situation incorrectly, or that my argument is bunk, tell me. I ask only that you do so in charity.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Why I Remain Catholic: The Church's Abiding Vision

A number of bloggers in the Catholic blogosphere - along a wide spectrum of the church - have been writing pieces recently explaining why they remain Catholic. This is an important exercise, for there are many within the church who wonder why they should continuing to bother being Catholic, as well as many outside the church who look askance at those of us who seek to live out our Catholic faith.

A little over two years ago I published an op-ed in my local newspaper - the Louisville Courier-Journal - explaining not only why I remain Catholic but why the Catholic vision of God and humanity continues to compel me at a deep level. You can read the entire op-ed here, but I thought I'd paste a snippet of the piece as my contribution to the question, "Why do I remain Catholic?"
The church is, for me, far more than its imperfections, glaring though they may be. I am a Catholic because the church articulates a profoundly beautiful vision of the divine and of humanity, a vision that continues to captivate me.
It is a vision that begins with a compelling vision of God. The church declares that we have, through revelation and experience, come to an understanding that God exists as Trinity. This complicated doctrine, at its heart, simply affirms that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness. This is what it means to believe that "God is love"; that love - self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love - is at the very heart of God's essence. It is this idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence. It is this idea that God is love that explains the gift of God's very self to us in the incarnation, when God became human. And Jesus Christ's example of selfless love, love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that God is love, that God exists as love.
This vision of God brings with it an important understanding of humanity. For not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to be love, but he reveals to us the degree to which all of humanity is loved. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have the stamp of the divine marked within our very existences. By virtue of our humanness, therefore, we all have what the church calls an inherent dignity and surpassing worth, and the incarnation further reveals to us the infinite value of humanity in God's eyes.
The church is to exist in imitation of the love that is God, who longs for communion and intimacy with us. Transformed and sustained through the continued expressions of God's self to us in the sacraments of baptism and particularly in the Eucharist we are to recognize that we are bound to each other in love. Overwhelmed by the love of God experienced in sacrament and Word, we become united to God and to one another, and are to learn to view others with the love God has for all. In imitating the selfless love of God in the church, the church is to manifest God to all, and to do so in concrete ways.
At its core, the message of the church is one of all-consuming love. It paints a picture of a God whose essence it is to love, of a God who continually shows to us this love, and of communities of believers who, in turn, love selflessly and fully.
Yes, the church has always and continues to fall short of this ideal. But does this fact mean that I must abandon this ideal? Does the church's continued imperfection mean that I should just give up? No, for me it does not. For I cannot help but be thoroughly attracted to the beauty of what the church is called to be by Christ himself each time Christ gives of himself in the Eucharist.
Those who do not know this teaching, and have not therefore experienced the beauty of this message, cannot be expected to understand. Admittedly, the church doesn't do a very good job of articulating this message. But it is this message - that God exists as love and that his followers are to exist in communities which imitate this love - that lies at the heart of the Catholic faith. It is a message that, despite the corruption and scandal that has plagued the church throughout the centuries, still survives and is proclaimed through the lives of countless Catholics - bishops, clergy, religious, and laypeople - throughout the world.
And it is a message I, and many of my fellow Catholics, seek to manifest in our lives.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thomas Merton & the Task of Theology


It's the Merton centennial year, and our local PBS station, KET, did a short segment on Thomas Merton and the Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Part of the segment included some shots of my undergraduate class on Merton, as well as an interview with me about what Merton means for how I approach the task of theology and about how he influences Bellarmine University's approach to education. My class and I appear at the 2:45 mark of the video below.


Photo above by Sara Ferebee.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Interchurch Families Official Response to 2015 Synod on the Family


I've written about living in an interchurch family elsewhere on this blog; my wife, Kim, is Episcopalian and I am Roman Catholic. In recent months, and due in no small part to the fact that my oldest son is now at "First Communion" age, I've been reading up on the work being done by the Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN) regarding the challenges and joys faced by interchurch families like mine. I'm now on the list serve for the network, and have made contacts with a few of the members.

Led by Professor Thomas Knieps, who is on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Study at Leuven, IFIN released an official response to the Synod on the Family that includes some concrete hopes regarding how the upcoming Synod in October 2015 will address interchurch familial issues. I've read through the text, and endorse it entirely. The text deals head-on with terminological issues (we prefer 'interchurch marriage' rather than 'mixed marriage'), marital counseling for interchurch couples, the complications of raising children in an interchurch family, and - most importantly from my perspective - the possibility of greater Eucharistic sharing in interchurch families.

I hope to write more about the issues addressed in this text, which I've attached below (with Prof. Knieps' permission). In the meantime, I encourage you to give it a read.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Opening Day Reflection - Bart Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind"

Photo by Brad Trent
Bart Giamatti - one time professor of comparative literature, president of Yale University, and commissioner of major league baseball - wrote beautiful essays on baseball, a game he understood to have "deep patterns" that resonated with some of the deepest impulses of human longing. Unfortunately, Giamatti died suddenly in 1989, only 8 days after he banned Pete Rose from baseball for gambling.

You can read his baseball essays in A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. One of his best essays is also one of his earliest - "The Green Fields of the Mind." It's worth reading, but it's particularly worth hearing Giamatti himself read it. A great listen on this opening day of the 2015 baseball season (technically, the season started last night, but my beloved Blue Jays play their first game today).


Image above from yalealumnimagazine.com

Monday, March 30, 2015

Why non-Catholic Christians Should Not be Received into Full Communion at the Easter Vigil

I love the Easter Vigil. I love the new fire, I love the candles, I love the Exsultet, and I love the baptisms. It's a beautiful service to which I look forward every Lent with anticipation.

Less happy for me is when I see Christians from other traditions being received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. I need to explain this. I am myself a convert to Roman Catholicism - I've described this transition to Rome elsewhere - so I'm obviously not opposed to the idea of non-Catholic Christians becoming Roman Catholics. What I object to, rather, is receiving these Christians into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

In the history of Christianity, the Easter Vigil was traditionally the time when catechumens were baptized after a long period of preparation. Those who had not experienced new birth through water and the Spirit experience that new birth at the Easter Vigil as we celebrate the renewal of life in and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In recent decades, those catechumens went through a process of catechesis known as RCIA - Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Unfortunately, Christians already baptized in non-Catholic traditions who wish to become Roman Catholics have been asked to go through RCIA themselves, this despite the fact that RCIA was developed specifically for those with little to no exposure to Christian history and theology, and not for those who were practicing members of their own non-Catholic traditions. With non-Catholic Christians and catechumens taking RCIA together, the Easter Vigil has become a time when both catechumens are baptized and non-Catholic Christians are received.

None of this is in accord with the National Statutes of the Catechumenate, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986. The statutes can be found in Appendix III of the RCIA ritual book, and they can also be found here. The key statutes are nos. 30-33, and I've pasted them below:


Statutes nos 30-31 stipulate that not all non-Catholic Christians should participate in the full RCIA program. Each case is to be assessed individually. At the moment, the RCIA has become something of a 'catch-all' for everyone, regardless of their earlier formation and participation in another tradition. I suspect this is due to a lack of resources, though I do not think this is a good excuse.

Statutes nos 32-33 are the important ones in terms of receiving non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil. The USCCB is very clear here that such Christians should not be received at the Easter Vigil due to the ecumenical implications of doing so. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium - affirmed that, despite the disunity that exists throughout Christianity, we are truly one through the Holy Spirit who we received at baptism, no matter where that baptism took place (see Lumen Gentium 15). There exists "a true union in the Holy Spirit" among Christians, despite our lack of Eucharistic communion. In other words, non-Catholic Christians are really and truly actual Christians with whom we share the grace of the Holy Spirit (I pray that this is not news to anyone, but I know I shouldn't be optimistic).

To receive non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil is, however subtly, to negate the ecumenical insights of Lumen Gentium. For at the Easter Vigil we have over the centuries celebrated the gift of new life in and through the Holy Spirit given in baptism to those not previously baptized. When we receive non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil, we give the mistaken impression that these Christians are in the same state as the catechumens, that it is the same thing to belong to another non-Catholic tradition as it is to belong to no tradition at all.

Statutes nos 32-33 wisely recognize this danger, and for this reason the USCCB makes clear that non-Catholic Christians should be received into full communion at another date other than the Easter Vigil.

I vented about this point on Twitter the other day, and a few people commented to me that their priests are clear at the Easter Vigil about the difference between catechumens and those being received into full communion. I'm glad about that, but no matter what the priest says or doesn't say, it is powerful and problematic symbolism to receive non-Catholic Christians at a time when we're to be celebrating the new life of the Holy Spirit which they have already received.

It also seems to be to be a very easy thing simply to receive non-Catholic Christians at a regular celebration of the Sunday mass, as the National Statutes themselves suggest to do.

Can I make a suggestion? If non-Catholic Christians are received at the Easter Vigil, celebrate with them and welcome them wholeheartedly.  But when the dust of the Easter Vigil settles, might I suggest that you charitably talk to your priest about the National Statutes of the Catechumenate, and request that, in the future, such receptions into full communion take place at another time?

My hunch is that most priests simply don't know these statutes, and that most would be very receptive to making a change in conformity to the directives already stipulated by the USCCB.

Update (March 31)
Since publishing this post yesterday, I was happy to learn that the Archdiocese of Denver reemphasized these statutes this year. Very good news indeed. I pray that more dioceses and parishes follow suit.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"If you did not touch him, you did not meet him"

My son and I went for a drink at a café last night, and sat at a table in the front window. There was a homeless man sitting on the porch, alone. As Isaac and I drank our root beers, a young woman quietly walked up to the man and spoke with him. She came inside, purchased a coffee, filled it with cream and sugar, then went back outside to deliver it to the man.

This was impressive enough. The woman was discreet, and clearly didn't want to draw attention to herself. But what impressed me most deeply about her was that she didn't just buy this man a coffee. She talked with him, looked him in the eye, and touched him on the shoulder unselfconsciously and with evident care. She provided for me, as a parent, a teaching moment as I pointed out to Isaac what she was doing. She also taught me by modelling the kind of generous love to which we are called as Christians.

I couldn't help but be reminded of something Pope Francis said to his fellow Argentinians in August 2013 as they gathered to celebrate the feast of St Gaetano. In his talk, Pope Francis talked specifically not just about giving alms, but about how we should give alms. He did this by going through the questions he asks people when it comes to giving to the poor:
“Do you give alms?
“They tell me, ‘Yes, Father.’
“And when you give alms do you look in the eyes of the people you give them to?
‘Oh, I don’t know, I don’t notice.’
“Look, he has not met the people. He threw the alms and left. When he gives the alms, does his hand touch (the hand of the poor) or does he toss the coin?”
“No, you throw the coin. And you have not touched, and if you did not touch him, you did not meet him.”
“What Jesus teaches us is first to meet, and (after) meeting, to help. We need to know how to meet. We need to build, to create, to construct a culture of encounter.”
At a Heine Brothers Coffee shop on the corner of Bardstown Road and Longest Avenue, I saw a young woman truly meet a homeless man. Yes, there is more to generous love than just buying someone a coffee, talking to them, and touching them. There are systematic changes that need to take place in our society such that we truly care for the poor. However, such changes take place through transformed hearts, hearts like the one I saw yesterday that convict me to love more fully.

Picture from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-we-will-be-judged-by-our-behavior-towards-others/
Text from Pope Francis' talk from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/touch-the-poor-and-needy-pope-tells-argentineans/

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Novice Reminisces about Thomas Merton


In February 1969, two months after Thomas Merton's death, Fr. Matthew Kelty+ wrote some thoughts about the man who was his novice master and his friend.  I met Fr. Matthew only once; he was beside me in a wheelchair during a funeral for a brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani  Fr. Matthew passed away in 2011, but for many years he was renowned among visitors to the Abbey for the talks he gave to retreatants just before Compline.  In 2003, he read the essay he wrote in 1969 to those on retreat, and Br. Lawrence Morey recently uploaded this talk to YouTube.

If you're interested at all in Merton, Fr. Matthew's portrayal of 'Fr. Louis' will delight.  Even if you're not interested in Merton, take some time to let Fr. Matthew's deep voice and New England accent, both spoken with the cadence of a contemplative, wash over you.

Part I:


Part II:

   

Photo above from https://www.flickr.com/photos/7511734@N08/6892403392/

Friday, February 13, 2015

Excellent Introduction to Thomas Merton


In this past Sunday's Louisville Courier-Journal, my colleague Fr. George Kilcourse, a Merton scholar and director of Bellarmine University's Merton Centennial celebration, wrote a lovely piece on Merton that is worth reading.  For those not familiar with Thomas Merton, the article serves as an introduction to Merton, his writings, and his enduring influence.  For those familiar with Merton, the article will make you rediscover what it is about this hermit-monk that resonates with so many people around the world.

George gets to the heart of what makes Merton such a good companion, his playfulness and his irrepressible yearning to engage in meaningful dialogue with the other:
Merton's playfulness, his irrepressible good humor, and the brio he brought to his promiscuous reading habits and writing have gifted us with an outstanding essayist who continues to delight and encourage readers. He once described himself paradoxically as travelling "without maps."
It is an apt image for one who understood that the spiritual life is not so much our seeking God but God seeking us. He affirmed the centrality of this mystical consciousness in a 1967 letter written for those marginalized from religion in myriad ways: "God seeks Himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find himself in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany."
Thomas Merton encouraged us by daring us to "penetrate our own silence and advance fearlessly into our heart's solitude; then we can risk sharing of that solitude with lonely others who seek God through and with us." Here resides the ultimate act of compassion that is distinct from charity or even social justice. That definition of compassion means to enter willingly the chaos of another. It is a level of commitment and responsibility that gives us pause.
Compassion is not a word to use lightly. Merton, a United States Cistercian monk, showed such greatness of heart when he welcomed the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to the Abbey of Gethsemani at the height of the Vietnam War and declared that he "is my brother." He asked friends and acquaintances to do for his Buddhist friend whatever they would do for Merton himself.
I encourage you to read the entire article here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting Started with Thomas Merton: A Reading Guide

Painting by Owen Merton
"On the last day of January 1915, under the Sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world..."
When people learn of my interest in Thomas Merton, they frequently ask what they should read to get acquainted with his thought.  I've been asked this question even more frequently in recent months in the run-up to 2015, the centenary of his birth (on a related note, his birthday is this Saturday, and there are events planned all over the world on that day and throughout the year to celebrate his life & writings. Check here to see if there are events planned near you).

It is difficult to know where to start with Merton.  Merton published prodigiously during his life, and the list of posthumous publications continues to grow.  In this post, I want to provide some guidance about where to begin reading Merton.  I should stress that I am not a Merton scholar, but am simply someone who found in Merton a spiritual companion whose writings continue to speak to me.  Some familiar with Merton may disagree with my advice, and they are quite welcome to provide their own suggestions in the comment box below.

There are two approaches to reading Merton.  You may want to get a broad view of Merton's writings quickly, and if so, you should start with one of a number of good readers.  I highly recommend Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, The Essential Writingsedited by Lawrence Cunningham.  Cunningham's collection is particularly good as it contains significant passages from both Merton's autobiographical work - The Seven Storey Mountain and his journals - and texts from Merton's writings on spirituality as well as on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.  However, those looking for his writings on peace and justice issues will not find them in this collection.

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen, is a smaller collection that provides a nice cross-section of his writings on prayer and spirituality as well as his writings on peace and justice issues.  You won't find much of his autobiographical stuff here, though.

For the more adventurous who want to start with reading books by Merton, I recommend that you start with his autobiographical writings for he is, in my opinion, at his best when he writes autobiographically.  You have two options here.  Some may want to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography that made him famous.  This was my introduction to Merton, and for reasons I've explained elsewhere, I've been hooked ever since.  But this is a wordy book and one written by a monk enthusiastic (to a fault) about his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his identity as a monk.  Those expecting to find the writer who later focuses his attention on the world and on dialogue with those of other traditions and religions may be disappointed.  But despite its faults, The Seven Storey Mountain is a classic of spiritual autobiography, and many continue to find solace in it.

If you'd like to get to know about the man, but want not to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, I recommend reading an edited collection of his journals.  The full collection of Merton's private journals are seven volumes in length, but you can read many of the best bits in The Intimate Merton: His Life from His JournalsMerton's journal entries are raw and penetrating.  Highly recommended.

Once you've read something autobiographical, I suggest you proceed to New Seeds of Contemplation.  Here you'll encounter Merton's thoughts on the life of prayer, and specifically his pivotal insights into what it could mean to recognize one's true self in relation to God.

From here, you're ready to tackle Conjectures of a Guilty BystanderConjectures is the theological equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.  For this book, Merton took excerpts from his journals and notebooks, revised them, and threw them together into a collection that seems haphazard, but which make sense as you immerse yourself into the book.  Not one with which to begin, but one you should read at some point.  This book is a favourite of mine.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, as well as in New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton does deal with issues of peace and justice.  But if you want to delve into some of Merton's most famous essays on these issues, I recommend Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence.  This collection doesn't have everything he wrote on the subject, but it is an excellent place to start.

Photo of Owen Merton's painting is from the Thomas Merton Center's Twitter account, @MertonCenter