Monday Merton: Is the Church Redemptive or Self-Serving?

The mission of the church can lead us to our true identities in Christ or it can become grossly distorted. Thomas Merton writes about both the high calling of the church and tragic distortion of this mission into a self-centered mechanism for proving who is in and who is out:

“The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is ‘justified’ by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His ‘sins are forgiven’ in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. Instead of my own delusive autonomy I surrender to Christ all rights over me in the hope that by His Spirit, which is the Spirit and life of His Church, He will live and act in me, and, having become one with Him, having found my true identity in Him, I will act only as a member of His Body and a faithful citizen of His Kingdom…

 

But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church–or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of ‘Church’–becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? Supposing this ‘Church,’ which is in reality no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizing the sins of her members as acts of virtue? Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? Suppose that she provides men with a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God? Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval?”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 111-112

 

Monday Merton: Why We Wish to Destroy Our Enemies

While some men may be more committed to deception than others, Merton rightly identifies the tendency to believe in the deception of others, while believing that we alone are committed to the truth. This word speaks quite directly to the present situation in America:

“We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error.

 

Our submission to plausible and useful lies involves us in greater and more obvious contradictions, and to hide these from ourselves we need greater and ever less plausible lies. The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.

 

We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy – for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth.”
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

Monday Merton: Love Is Never Silent Before Injustice

In the 1960’s, Thomas Merton wrote about the Christian response, or failure to respond, to segregation and racism. After addressing a situation in New Orleans where some of the congregation walked out because the priest applied “love of brother and sister” to racial injustice, Merton didn’t mince words:

“We are so concerned with ‘charity’ that we will find every possible excuse for men who have no respect for the law of love, who angrily and rudely separate themselves from the community of the faithful assembled for the Eucharistic feast of Christian charity, and who do so in defense of a society whose customs admit and palliate repeated acts of cruelty, of injustice, of inhumanity which gravely violate the Law of Christ, and crucify Christ in His members.

 

To excuse such men entirely would be to participate in their violation of charity. Their sin must be pointed out quite clearly for what it is. The pseudocharity that shrinks from this truth is responsible for an awful proliferation of injustice and untruth, under the guise of Christianity. The best that can be said of these poor men is ‘they know not what they do.'”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 106

 

Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

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Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

Monday Merton: Unasked Questions Lead to Spiritual Anxiety

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Contemplative prayer has proven most beneficial for me because it addressed my reliance on having the right questions and finding the right answers to those questions. In God, we don’t always have an assurance that our questions will be answered to our satisfaction or that we’ll even find the right questions to ask.

In the quiet of silence before God, I’ve found deliverance from my uneasy answers as they are replaced by God’s loving presence:

“Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions— because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

The Monday Merton: Unless We See, We Cannot Think

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At this moment in America, many of us are seeing the true benefits of committed journalism in the face of political corruption and the abuse of power. That protection of democracy doesn’t eliminate the negative impacts of mass media, politics, and entertainment on our mental and emotional health.

Merton lived at a time when the mass media was only a fraction of what it has become today. News serves as entertainment in many respects, prompting the rise of hyper-partisan networks that cater to the whims of their viewers for the sake of ratings. Merton’s words about the need to escape from noise and distractions for the sake of thinking clearly are all the more urgent, even if our need for dedicated journalism remains:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see cannot think.”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

American Politics and My Thomas Merton Phase

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“We are ruled, and resign to let ourselves be ruled, by our own weakness and by the prejudices of those who, more guilty or more frustrated than ourselves, need to exercise great power. We let them. And we excuse our cowardice by letting ourselves be driven to violence under ‘obedience’ to tyrants. Thus, we think ourselves noble, dutiful, and brave. there is no truth in this. It is a betrayal of God, of humanity, and of our own selves. Auschwitz was built and managed by dutiful, obedient men who loved their country, and who proved to themselves they were good citizens by hating their country’s enemies.”

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 53

I used to shelve Thomas Merton’s books in a New Jersey Borders Books and Music. I frequently wondered if he was some kind of heretic. He appeared to be a Catholic Monk, but a bunch of eastern religion authors really loved him. One even called him a Zen. His posture on all of his book covers resembled eastern writers, and some of his books specifically addressed eastern religion.

**RED FLAGS**

**RED FLAGS**

If I could have slapped a “Read with Discernment” sticker on his books, I would have considered it. After all, I was the keeper of the religion and philosophy sections. I also shelved the slightly zany metaphysics and the steamy erotica books—both categories could have used larger stickers on them in general. I still carried some of my personal grudges against the Catholic Church during that season of life—one my Catholic friends reminds me that I was raised “IRISH CATHOLIC.”

As I hit my peak of evangelical fervor during those years of attending seminary, shelving sometimes questionable books, and vigorously encouraging everyone to avoid the Left Behind series, a Catholic with connections in eastern religion like Merton appeared just about as far out of bounds as you could get from my perspective.

In the years that followed, I had a relatively standard faith melt down and clung to some semblance of Christianity primarily through praying the scriptures with the Divine Hours. When I no longer felt like I had much left of my faith to defend, I started reading some Catholic authors. I had already read a little bit of Henrí Nouwen and Brennan Manning at an evangelical university, so I felt safe to start with them. Enough people in my circles recommended Richard Rohr, so I dove into his books as well. In each case I plowed through a stack of books by each author. I couldn’t help noticing just how frequently Nouwen and Rohr mentioned Thomas Merton.

Maybe it was time to give him a try?

Tucked away in my stacks of theology books, I found a Merton book that had survived several purges and moves since I picked it up in 2008 at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Vermont. It had been on a sale table presumably because it hadn’t sold well. The book, titled The Echoing Silence, is a collection of short excerpts from Thomas Merton on writing. At the time, I figured that even if he was influenced by eastern religion, he had written quite a few books that sold well. He probably knew a thing or two about writing. Also, the book was cheap and it had a very appealing picture on the cover of Merton’s writing desk—sold.

As it turned out, Merton repeatedly blew me away with his insights on writing, faith, and many other topics from the 1950’s and 60’s. I especially enjoyed reading his personal letters that offered “off the record” commentaries on racism and communism in America in the 1960’s. His letter to James Baldwin, a favorite author of mine, praised Baldwin’s perception and insights.

As I grew familiar with Merton’s faith in his own words, as opposed to my impressions of his book covers and the views of slippery-slope obsessed evangelical websites, I benefited from his artful prose that cut to the heart of weighty topics without mincing words.

I knew that I needed to follow up with some other Merton books. I plowed through Thoughts in Solitude, his compilation of the desert fathers, and the New Seeds of Contemplation. I had started the Seven Storey Mountain, but then the 2016 American election ruined that, as it will surely ruin a great many things in my country.

Facing the existential, moral, religious, and legal crises that such a presidency brings to America, I craved guidance from someone who had faced similar problems from the standpoint of having his feet firmly planted in the rich soil of contemplation without cramming his mind with the paranoia of social media or the bombast and speculation of the news channels. Merton faced growing fears about a very likely nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, paranoia about Communist infiltration of America, and growing tensions over racial injustice. In other words, his world had more than enough to worry about.

My Christmas list this year was basically just: “Merton books.” I’ve been working through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and it has offered a measure of comfort that one can be fully committed to ministering to the entire church while still taking strong stands for justice—including stands against the immoral actions of political parties.

Evangelicals have not historically hit it out of the park when it comes to pursuing justice in a non-partisan manner (although the Moral Monday movement and The Red Letter Christians are offering hope for a path forward). Even Billy Graham, an evangelical icon if there ever was one, finally softened his partisan political involvement after his friendship with Richard Nixon nearly ended his ministry altogether. In fact, Graham’s reputation was saved in part because a TIME magazine editor declined to publish his public endorsement of Nixon. Graham was deeply grateful for this and subsequently adopted a more hands-off approach to one political group or another.

In Merton I have found someone who was both hands-on in his approach to social justice and current events, while also maintaining compassion for all sides, keeping himself from being claimed by a particular political party.

I’ll be the first person to admit that over the last eight years of a Democratic president that I neglected to speak out against injustices and harmful policies until his final term. I want to find a way to reclaim a prophetic Christian voice in politics that works for God’s best for all people, even if that means having hard words at times for people who support certain politicians and policies.

When a politician votes to remove health coverage from millions of people who depend on it to stay alive, there isn’t a middle ground to stand on. One is either for death or life.

When a politician wants to gut laws that guarantee equality for oppressed minorities, one is either for justice of injustice. There is no polite way to accept the oppression of a person created in God’s image when such oppression denies that very status.

When a politician removes environmental protections that safeguard our water, air, and soil, then the world is either God’s good creation or just a meaningless pile of rubble and water that we can use however we please.

Merton wrote with sharp moral clarity about the misplaced paranoia of communism, our culture’s all too easy acceptance of mutual nuclear annihilation, the mind-numbing medication of entertainment, and the grievous moral failure of racism in America. He pushed his Catholic church to the limit, and he clearly opposed many Catholic leaders who all too easily embraced an oversimplified portrait of the fight against Communism. Of course, Merton also deftly dismantled the hollow atheism of the Soviet Union and its determination to offer order through a totalitarian regime.

As America enters a period where voting rights continue to be attacked, immigrants are hunted down, perpetual drone warfare rages on, propaganda drowns out the truth, and the threat of terrorism is called on trample the rights of others, the words and actions of a contemplative Christian who faced similar challenges in his own time has proven to be indispensable. Merton’s voice is hardly the only voice I’m seeking out, but my distance from the issues of his time offers a sharpened clarity into his perspective.

Christians (especially white Christians like myself) often say that they would have stood up for civil rights in the 1960’s. As Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail proves, many Christians urged King to be less disruptive in his useful of nonviolent protests and to wait for things to get better. I suspect that the current political situation may provide a similar test of just how much Christians today have embraced the Bible’s teachings that God desires his people to seek justice for those who are suffering:

Isaiah 58:2-3
“Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Malachi 3:5
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

We can disagree about which policies in our nation will best uphold these words from scripture, but ignoring them or violating with our laws are not an option if God’s Kingdom is our primary allegiance.

Today, I hear from a lot of Christians that we should be focused on only sharing the Gospel. Pastors and authors who make a living as speakers and writers are afraid to speak against injustice in America today lest they lose speaking engagements—and those who have spoken against the current administration have certainly lost speaking engagements. There are fractures in my own evangelical world between those who support our president and those who do not. If my career as a Christian author rests on lending even tacit support for such a man through my silence, then my faith is a flimsy, ramshackle thing that will soon collapse on itself.

As I think about the turmoil in my own evangelical subculture today, I imagine Thomas Merton writing at his neat little desk in his cabin. He encouraged civil rights leaders and artists. He built bridges across national boundaries with his fellow poets in Russia. He wrote about the failure of his Catholic Church to address the threat of nuclear warfare.

Merton may have lost some speaking engagements. His superiors may have censored him. But he was already sitting by himself in a secluded cabin in the woods outside of Louisville, Kentucky, occasionally instructing his fellow monks. To the eyes of the world, he had already lost. He was a zero, but then, that’s what he called himself. Rather than measuring the highs and lows of his influence, he committed himself to contemplation in isolation. From there he saw the issues of his day with a straightforward clarity that guided his writing and speaking. There was no cost/benefit analysis.

Merton sought the love of God and experienced divine union, calling others to this unity in love.

Merton saw the madness of his time and called it madness.

As I seek the words of Merton during this tumultuous time in my country’s history, I hope to become grounded in a similar love for all people that won’t back away from moral clarity. God knows we’ve tried to follow the advice of Christian leaders in megachurches, and that gave us a racist, xenophobic, pathological liar, demagogue as our president. Could a Catholic monk do much worse?

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

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Monday Merton: Beware Propaganda and Emotions

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What influences our moral judgments? What prompts us to take action?

According to Thomas Merton, our society is far more reactionary and emotional, settling for the practical, short term fix rather than the carefully reasoned moral path forward. He also asserted this in the early 1960’s, when most our of current technologies primarily existed in the minds of science fiction writers or imaginative futurists.

The simplicity of reading, reacting, and sharing information on social media encourages reactionary, emotional responses where headlines may or may not convey the heart of the story, let alone offer cogent arguments and action steps.

While I generally prefer to share quotes that are a bit more uplifting and positive, Merton’s critique has helped me step back from the edge in my own consumption of news and social media:

 

“Action is not governed by moral reason but by political expediency and the demands of technology–translated into the simple abstract formulas of propaganda. These formulas have nothing to do with reasoned moral action, even though they may appeal to apparent moral values–they simply condition the mass of men to react in a desired way to certain stimuli.

 

Men do not agree in moral reasoning. They concur in the emotional use of slogans and political formulas. There is no persuasion but that of power, of quantity, of pressure, of fear, of desire. Such is our present condition–and it is critical!”

 

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 59

Monday Merton: The Foundation of Christian Social Action

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I’m continuing my series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander a few days late because of a virus that tore through my kids while my wife was away over the weekend. Now that saltines and Pedialyte have done their work, I’m anxious to share this fantastic quote from Merton, writing most likely sometime between 1962-64, on politics and Christian social engagement.

I am particularly interested in Merton’s holistic approach to social action, beginning with the foundation of men and women being created in God’s image. Our care for others springs from a our common place as beloved creations of God living in a world whose systems and power brokers frequently seek to desecrate others for the sake of profit and control. Merton’s words are particularly challenging and instructive for Christians seeking to engage in American politics.

“We apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality, or rather it envisages those conditions under which man’s work can recover a certain spiritual and holy quality, so that it becomes for man a source of spiritual renewal, as well as of material livelihood.

 

Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc., not at all to ‘win the worker for the Church,’ but because God became man, because every man is potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother, and because we have no right to let our brother live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual. In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation.

 

Once this has been said, we understand what it might mean to transform the world by political principles spiritualized by the Gospel. It is an attempt to elevate man, whether professedly Christian or not, to a level consonant with his dignity as a Son of God, redeemed by Christ, liberated from the powers that keep him in subjection, the old dark gods of war, lust, power, and greed. In such a context, political action itself is a kind of spiritual action, an expression of spiritual responsibility, and a witness to Christ. But never merely by the insertion of religious clichés into political programs.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 76-77

 

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

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In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

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