“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.

God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Visual Aids Using Canva.com

This Productive Pastor episode 19 pointed me to Michael Lucaszewski, who produced this ebook of his favorite apps, among which was Canva.com.

If you already can handle slick-looking visuals (or are on a staff which can), you don’t need this tool. For the rest of us, it’s pretty cool. Easy, free (with paid options), and you can create useful things or make up truthy quotes from famous authors.

Here are my first attempts. (The background on the final one is a photograph of Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani.)

Samwise Gamgee--Is everything sad going to come untrue

Daniel Berrigan quote

Merton Hermitage

The Immortal Hazelnut

Julian with Hazelnut

I’m currently rereading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and this is from the Short Text (Elizabeth Spearing translation):

And in this vision [Christ] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it.

The multiverse is the size of a hazelnut, and you couldn’t find me or yourself in it if you looked at it with the most powerful microscope on earth, and this is good news. As Julian continues a page later, “until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.”

There are times, in the thick of things, when I get overwhelmed and too close to the work I am trying to do as the pastor of two small churches. Despite being regular in spending time in Scripture and devotional readings and prayer, fairly regular in mindful silence, in journaling, in conversation with others, I simply lose perspective. And when this happens, I become less effective and more anxious, and it takes some time and effort to regain perspective and balance.

I stumbled into a miniature retreat on Friday in the form of an 80-minute drive to a meeting. I found that I needed to turn the podcast off and just start talking to God out loud. What I was looking for was God’s reminder, “This is who you are.” I’d name that in retrospect as the need for a renewal of calling. And I received what I was looking for, in this case the sense of “Do not over-identify with the churches you serve, their successes or failures or programs or hopes or fears or futures or lack of future.”

Who I am is A Person God Made. I can have great success, and that won’t make me more than that. I can utterly fail in every sense that you or I could consider failure, and that won’t make me less than that. Richard Rohr terms this understanding of personhood the “immortal diamond” (a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, after Rohr puts a couple layers of Jung on top of Merton’s concept of the “true self”) to name what identity actually means in God. It’s part of the same whole that Julian once saw as a ball the size of a hazelnut.

Before and after all the voluntary and involuntary associations and relationships and places and works that I enter into, there is some eternal, inviolable identity which God has made from love and which God sustains in love. And that self has no fear, because that self still resides in the hand of God, who is Love, and there is no fear in love. That’s not something I need to know as a pastor. That’s something I need to know as a human being. Only when I know this can I enter fully and healthily into all those relationships and works I’m a part of. And only when I know this can I find rest.

Contemplation and Its Discontents

My entry into contemplative Christianity was junior year of high school: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Salinger himself was apparently some kind of Buddhist (or Buddhisht), and in that book Franny prays the Jesus Prayer on repeat after reading the classic Way of a Pilgrim. I followed that trail to Peoria Public Library, where I first learned both about hesychasm and about Zen Catholicism.

A couple years later I picked up Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for the first time. I had never heard of Merton before, but I liked what the dust jacket at Walden Books at the mall said. The book may have changed my life. Some moderately extensive reading in Merton and on Merton since have given me some sense (I think) of what connections Merton was drawing between Christian contemplation and other contemplative spiritualities of the world, Buddhism in particular.

Still a couple years after that, a counselor introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s particular use of Buddhist meditation in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (set out best in his Wherever You Go, There You Are). Perhaps a year after that I read Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the meeting of several rabbis with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist religious leaders, for an historic interfaith dialogue in India. That book also introduced me to the concept of Jewish Buddhism.

Around the same time I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who has a thirty-year practice of the discipline going and described how it figures massively in his personal life and artistic process. The actual practice of TM is exactly the same as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer.

In the last couple weeks I’ve read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, and I am halfway through his Immortal Diamond. Rohr’s books have the same tendency toward blurring difference, not only with other religious traditions but with Jungian psychology and 20th/21st century physics.

Conclusions:

  1. It is a commonplace among contemporary contemplatives (dating back at least to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) that there is a blurring of religious difference and boundaries in general on the contemplative frontiers. For the most part, writers on contemplation not only describe the blurring but express the belief that it is a positive.
  2. This commonplace needs to be interrogated. Not all difference is illusory (and sometimes lack of differentiation and union are themselves illusory). Not all difference is negative. Some differentiation is necessary to love, to respect, to human relating, to human-divine relating, to peacemaking and reconciliation, and to honest inter-faith dialogue. (The 1968 inter-religious summit at which Merton died recognized this. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus recognized this.)
  3. The practice of contemplation is a genuine Christian vocation and charism. Like most Christian vocations and charisms, contemplation is to some extent for all, but it is more important for some. It exists in every case for the blessing of God and all of Creation.
  4. This post is the beginning of several conversations, not the end of any conversations.

Thomas Merton’s Childish and Child-like Love

Merton on Love

I’ve been reading really early Thomas Merton for the first time in a while. This is the Merton I fell in love with in The Seven Storey Mountain. I’m reading the first volume of his published journals, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941). Here are that zest for life, intellect (and yes, some condescension), and drive to love God. Merton didn’t manufacture connections between his life and Augustine’s Confessions.

Ever present is the desire to become pure love, the knowledge that to become a saint is no more and no less than wanting to become a saint. Because God also wants it, God will accomplish it. Even if there was some prideful ambition at the outset, it quickly dissolved. For him, sainthood was not about being special, not even about being perfect, but rather it was about love. That’s why he wrote so often of the lives of the saints in these journals. That’s surely why he and others around him assumed the Franciscans would be a good home for him. Strange to think that if Merton lived today, the Franciscans would have been happy to take him, and who knows who Merton would have become apart from the Cistercians at Gethsemani?

Later Merton, much of the time a model for the non-judging way, had little but judgment for his younger self. Merton in 1939 was judging 16-year-old Merton, and Merton in the 50s and 60s was often annoyed by Seven Storey Mountain Merton. But I love early Merton, and I find him to be of much greater help in desiring God and desiring love alone than later Merton is. It has me wondering if, assuming that this is a less mature stage in Merton, it is still a necessary stage, not only for him but for anyone on the path of love. Do you have to hold the laughable ambition and child-like trust that you too can become a saint in order to even begin the journey on that way? I’m running to the mountain in that belief.

Owen’s Child

I knew nothing of Thomas Merton’s relationship with his father Owen beyond what Thomas himself wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain until I recently read “Thomas Merton and the Search for Owen Merton” by Robert E. Daggy. Daggy, the longtime director of the Thomas Merton Center, had at least considered writing a full-length biography of Owen Merton before Daggy himself died in 1997.

Daggy writes:

After 1925, Owen withdrew into self-imposed solitude. He wanted, again, to devote himself to his painting. He wrote to Evelyn [Scott], “I think I had better stay quietly by myself for a long time.” It is at this point that we can see parallels between Owen’s life and Tom’s life as he related it in his writings. Father and son had both engaged in “illicit” (did they believe “sordid”?) sexual escapades. Both came to see such involvement as detrimental to themselves, their spirits, and their vocations. Both came to see sexual abstinence as necessary to their lives. Both withdrew to the fringes of society–Owen to the French countryside, Tom to the knobs of Kentucky. Owen called the house which he started to build at St. Antonin his “hermitage.” Tom was to call at least two places at Gethsemani his “hermitage.”

…Anthony T. Padowan put it this way: “Merton’s entire adult life is a search for artistic and spiritual excellence, one sustaining the other, both converging into a striking unity, each initiated by his father.”

By Daggy’s read, Thomas carried a longing to understand and be loved by his father (a man who seemed to be far more devoted to his art than to Thomas or any other person or personal commitment in his life) to his grave, going so far as to try to track down and collect Owen’s paintings and letters in the 1960s.

I believe at least two myths about the saints that I rarely recognize as false: 1) The saints are those whom God has pulled out and apart and separate from life, and 2) The saints are those who have arrived.

Thomas Merton is teaching me yet again. Against the first myth stands the reality of his own pain in wanting to know and be known by his father. His conversion and transformation did not remove his father’s impact–good and ill–on him. Against the second myth stands the fact that this pain was not something he needed to “beat” or have erased from him in order to become the saint he was. In fact, that kind of lifelong longing was most likely his teacher in learning to long for God.

Merton reads and smiles