“Where is the Newborn King…?”

On this January 6, 2019, many Christians will be in church, celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord. We are celebrating the moment, when three magi, wise men, came from the east and proclaimed to the leaders of Jerusalem that the birth of the Messiah had been revealed to them. They had traveled from a far land, to see with their own eyes, this wonder. Their belief in this revelation was so strong, that they were willing to make this risky journey, guided only by a unique star, to a foreign land. And the Gospel gives no indication that they were disappointed at what they found. Finding a small child, with his peasant mother, in a simple village house; they “did him homage.”

We are all seeking that intimate encounter with Jesus Christ, with our God and Savior. Sometimes, that life journey may take many years; sometimes, the encounter can happen in just an instant. We find that we need to give up our own preconceived images of Christ; let the Holy Spirit guide us on our journey; and be open to what the Scriptures will reveal to us. And above all, open ourselves to the experience, the wonder of the Eucharist; which in a real sense, is food for the journey we are on.

There have been others, who have also been on this journey before, who, by sharing their own experiences, can help guide us on ours. Some of my favorites, Francis and Clare of Assisi, who made living the Gospel of Jesus Christ an intimate part of their lives. Teresa of Avila, founder of monasteries and mystic. Caryll Houselander, laywoman, artist and mystic; who had a vision of Christ in every passenger of a train she was on. Thomas Merton, author, monk, and mystic. Despite being in a monastery, he was always on a journey, seeking our Risen Lord. And finally, I would recommend Sister Wendy Beckett, who recently passed away. Hermit, art historian, media star; she brought a fresh look at art, with both a scholar’s and mystic’s eye.

I am still very much on journey, seeking the Lord. I have sometimes gone off course, sometimes felt like not going any further. But always, I feel that tugging to continue on; something many pilgrims feel, to finish the journey. I still am not sure what I will find; I have faith that when I truly see the Lord, with eyes of faith; I will bow and do him homage.

Prayer For The Rough Patches

We all have had rough patches during our lives.  These are the times when our life situations can seem to be difficult, chaotic, and uncertain.  We question why things did not turn out as we hoped; and what the future holds.  I have rediscovered a prayer written by the Trappist monk, and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton.  He included this prayer in his 1958 book, “Thoughts in Solitude.”  I discovered it on a prayer card, issued by a society dedicated to promoting his writings.  I would pray it at times, then forget about it, find it, and forget about it, again.  It does seem to pop up in my sight or consciousness during those times when I need it.  I offer it below for any of you who might need it:

Merton 0218

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will, does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Happy Birthday, Father Louis

MertonWednesday, January 31st, was the birthday of a Trappist monk and mystic, Father Louis, who was born in 1915.  Most of the world will know him as Thomas Merton.  Born to a New Zealander father and an American mother; he would eventually take up residence in the United States.  While attending college in New York, he had a conversion experience, that would eventually lead him to the Abbey of Gethsemane, in Kentucky.  In 1947, he became a professed member of the Trappist community; he was ordained a priest on May 26, 1949.  The year before, 1948, he published his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,”  which became the most popular book in American Catholic literature.

To be honest, I have never read the book; to the best of my recollection, my earliest encounter with his writings was either his history of the Trappist order, “The Waters of Siloe,” or one of his journals, “The Sign of Jonas.”  Since then I have acquired a good size collection of his books.  He had a talent for the making what it means to be a contemplative understandable; and more importantly, achievable by us ordinary folks.  His writings continue to inspire me to at least try to deepen my prayer life.  Some attempts have been more successful than others.

There have dry periods; sometimes very long dry periods.  But when I pick up one of his books and read, I get inspired again, and try once more to live contemplatively in my daily life.  And I am not alone, hundreds, if not thousands of individuals, both Christian and non-Christian, have taken up the journey, with Merton as our guide.

A Reflection On Pope Francis Speech Before Congress.

I am just now beginning to reflect and put into words what I have taken away from Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.  What I would like to first write about is the Holy Father’s speech before the joint session of Congress.  I was floored by his references to four Americans; President Abraham Lincoln, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

Abraham LincolnGrowing up, the only thing I knew about Abraham Lincoln was that he led the country through the Civil War, and that he freed the slaves.  It was not until I watched Ken Burns’ documentary: “The Civil War,” that I came to appreciate the depth of Lincoln’s character, his determination, and his sacrifices.  When he began his presidency, he was not a fervent abolitionist.  He believed that if he could restrict slavery to the Deep South; keep it out of the new territories, it would die out from economic pressures.  When the Civil War began, his primary concern was to preserve the Union, even if it meant keeping slavery.  However, as the war continued, with the vast amount of blood spilled in the conflict, Lincoln came to realize that a higher cause needed to be recognize, the cause of freedom for all persons in America.  He expressed this higher cause in his Gettysburg Address, calling for “a new breath of freedom.”  It began with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederate States, and concluded with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery forever.

Martin Luther King, Jr.It was to further the cause of liberty that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to take on the mantle of leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.  I grew up during those tumultuous years, and was somewhat aware of the importance of Reverend King, and the Movement.  My admiration for him grew, as I began to read biographies, and watch documentaries about him.  I remember watching a docudrama series about him when I was in seminary, which had an effect on me.  The last movie I saw about MLK, was the film “Selma.”  It was a film that brought home to me the sacrifices, the sufferings that those marchers experienced as they headed to Selma, Alabama.  Martin Luther King, Jr. indeed had a dream of liberty for all, a dream that would be fulfilled by nonviolent action.

Dorothy DayNonviolent action was part and parcel of Dorothy Day’s work.  I cannot exactly remember when I became aware of her story.  Dorothy Day always had a passion for justice for the poor and oppressed.  As young adult, she reported for various socialist newspapers, and was a suffragette.  As a young adult, she was known for living a bohemian life style; and having some love affairs.  One of these affairs resulted in a pregnancy, and an abortion.  Day believed that the abortion caused her to become sterile.  While living in New York, she entered into another relationship, this time with an anarchist.  She discovered that she was pregnant again; something about that realization caused her to experience a conversion.  She had her baby girl baptized, and then she herself was baptized into the Catholic faith.

Still very much the social activist, only now from a faith perspective; she, with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker Movement.  They published a newspaper, “Catholic Worker,” which had columns about worker rights, Catholic social teaching, and care for the poor.  Putting theory into practice, she organized “Houses of Hospitality,” where the poor and hungry could find a meal, and a comforting embrace.  I visited one such house in New York City, St. Joseph’s House, which is considered the unofficial headquarters of the movement.  I was in NYC, testing a vocation to the Franciscan Friars.  One of the friars had a connection with the House, and brought a group of us over for a visit.  Dorothy was in residence, but was ill and confined to her room, so we did not get to meet her.  We were given a copy of her autobiography.  After I read through it, I found myself looking for and reading many of her books (she was a prolific writer).  I would like to say that I was inspired to go out and volunteer at a soup kitchen, but that would be a lie.  I could make the excuse that there was a lack of opportunity; but the truth of the matter is that it would have been way out of my comfort zone.  I am trying to get out the box I find myself in; I try to provide financial support to St. Joseph House.  And I am trying to see the world through the lenses of Dorothy Day.

MertonFinally, Pope Francis mentioned the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Born to an artist couple, he grew up in both United States and Europe.  He was baptized into the Church of England, though his family was not that religious.  He attended Cambridge University, but was not a very good student, living a very wild lifestyle.  He eventually found himself studying at Columbia University in New York City.  It was there that he himself had a conversion experience.  He received Catholic religious instruction, and was baptized.  He would later discern a call to the monastic life.  He entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, USA.  He wrote an autobiographical book about his life, conversion, and the development of his spiritual life.  It became a best seller, and he became the most popular Catholic spiritual writer in the United States.  He also wrote about social justice issues, and anti-war and peace matters.  Later in his life, he explored what Eastern religions could teach Christians about meditation, contemplation, and the spiritual life.  He pursued dialogues with Eastern spiritual masters.

My encounter with Thomas Merton came during my seminary days.  Reading his books on prayer and contemplation, I discovered a desire for a more intense spiritual life.  Merton became one of my guides, especially through his journals.  Truth be told, it is still a struggle for me, even at this point in my life.  Issues of discipline, and a very active mind, (I call it the monkey mind, skittering from one thought to another!)

Two famous Americans, two Americans not so well known; but all four can a source of inspiration for all of us.  They can provide us with inspirations on how we as a country can live together, dialogue with each other, and serve one another.  And perhaps we as a country can live up to the expectations of our founders.

A Place of Solitude

Attic

“There should be at least one room, or some corner, where no one will find you and disturb you.  You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, losing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.”  (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, who achieved fame as a spiritual writer.  His books were written in such a way, that many Catholic Christians could understand and strive for a deeper spiritual life.  To help one’s spiritual life along, Merton, along with spiritual writers before and after him, saw the need for some solitude.  Merton had his own hermitage, for many of us; it may be a room with a closed door or a secluded spot in a backyard.  We may find seclusion in a park, or even in a public library.  It may be found in a church, or on a beach.  It is just important to find a place where one can be still, both in body and mind.  In that stillness, one becomes open to the Presence of God.

Of course, this is easier said, than done!  When I try to sit quietly in a room, by myself, the more I try to quiet my mind, the more the monkey inside my head comes out to play.  Some Zen meditation practitioners speak of the monkey mind, which skitters from one thought to another.  One remedy is the practice of centering prayer, focusing on a one word mantra, like “Father,” or “Jesus”; repeating the word slowly, slowing your breath; when a thought pops up, acknowledge it, and let it go.  Another remedy is the Jesus Prayer; slowly repeating the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us!”  Finally, there is reading Sacred Scripture, slowly, prayerfully, until a word or phrase suddenly strikes you, you begin to repeat the word or phrase over and over, reflecting on the word or phrase means for you.

The ultimate goal is to be still in mind and soul, to be open so that God can come in and touch us.  The experience can be intense, it can be mild; but each of us is called to be open to an encounter with our loving God.

Thomas Merton, 100th Birthday of a Trappst Monk…And a Secular Franciscan?

Merton

Today, January 31, 2015, would have been the 100th birthday of Father Louis Merton, OSCO; better known to the world as Thomas Merton. The Catholic, Christian blogosphere is abuzz with reports, stories, and reflections on the life of this Trappist monk, one I read on Crux, by Dennis Sadowski, of the Catholic News Service; another by Margery Eagan, On Spirituality columnist for Crux, and finally a very moving post by Father Dan Horan, OFM on his blog.

I do not know how many will share this opinion, but I think of Thomas Merton, as the one person who brought Christian spirituality, especially contemplative spirituality to the modern American Catholic population. After him, I think we see an increase in the number of books on spirituality, and prayer, geared for the Catholic laity, and new authors, like Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, Richard Rohr, and Emilie Griffin. I know for myself, my spiritual life became much deeper, more enriched by reading his writings. He showed me a path to walk, and encouraged me to seek out other spiritual fathers and mothers, for inspiration and guidance.

I am still discovering new things about Merton, especially as heretofore unpublished journals, books, and essays are becoming public. This has given a much more rounded view of Merton, his life, his struggles, and his achievements. Now there are some facts that I was not aware of until I recently read Father Dan Horan, OFM book on Merton, was that Thomas Merton had some deep Franciscan roots. After his conversion to Catholicism, he felt a call to the Order of Friars Minor, and had applied to the Order, and was initially approved to enter into formation as a friar. Before he was to enter, something happened; scholars are not completely sure what, that caused Merton to withdraw his application. Still attracted to Franciscanism, he found himself at the Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure’s, in western New York. There, he joined the faculty as an instructor in English. It was during his time there, that he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, now known as the Secular Franciscan Order. This bit of information floored me. Now I knew that Merton had a Franciscan connection. When I was once a Franciscan novice myself, and attended some summer classes at St. Bonaventure’s, I daily would look up at a hillside clearing, known as “Merton’s Heart.” But to learn that Merton had been a Secular Franciscan, “Wow!”

Of course, this brings a whole bunch of questions: what fraternity did he belong to? Is the fraternity still in existence? Is the fraternity’s register, with his name listed in it, still available? Did he attend monthly fraternity meetings, or was he an isolated tertiary, attached to a fraternity, but unable to make the meetings? Maybe someday, some scholar, maybe even a Secular Franciscan, will be able to find answer to these questions.

I owe a debt of thanks to Father Louis, for prodding me to go ever deeper into my relationship with God. May he rest in peace!