Prayers in the Circle of Community

This has been a week of illness and loss among our community of elders:

Fr. Bill McNichols, the iconographer of Taos, had a massive heart attack on Friday, April 27. He’s on total life support in Albuquerque. Bill is the artist behind the beautiful icons that many of us have. (This news came from John Dear through Shelley and Jim Douglass.)

Walter Wink (right, with June) broadly considered one of the most important social and political theologians of the 20th century, is in hospice care and is likely to pass within the next few days. Walter’s series of books on the “powers” — Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers — unpacks the spiritual significance of political and societal institutions (the biblical “principalities and powers”) and their role in systemic injustice. (Read Sojourners 2010 interview.) (This news came from June Keener Wink through Bill Wylie Kellermann.)

Fr. Bill Shannon, founder of the International Thomas Merton Society, died on Sunday.  Bill was an adamant reformer in the tradition of Vatican II and a professor of theology to several generations of radical Catholics. You can read Bill’s obituary here. “It’s not only fair, but right, to describe him as a prophet,” said Christine Bochen, professor of religious studies at Nazareth College. “A prophet sees clearly what Scripture is calling us to. He took very, very much to heart to see beyond the concerns of institutionalism and formalism, to get at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian—and that is to embrace the Gospel and live the Gospel.” (This news came from Michael Boucher of Word and World.)

This week the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community in West Virginia is grieving the loss of two of its early visionaries, founders, and members: Ellen Peachey and Verle Headings.

Verle Headings (left, with Jannelle Hill and Dr. Carolyn Broome), died early Friday morning, April 27 in his home at Rolling Ridge after a three month struggle with illness. His wife Vivian was with him. Verle said more than once that he planned to “die on this mountain,” and so he has. Verle taught genetics at Howard University for many years and was a leader in the Mennonite community and friend to many at Sojourners. (This news came from Bob Sabbath and the Rolling Ridge Community.)

Ellen Shenk Peachey died on Thursday, April 26, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Ellen is the great-aunt of Sojourners’ Larisa Friesen Hall and a friend of many at Sojourners. Ellen spent years living in Europe and Japan doing post-war relief work of reconstruction and peace building through the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee. She lived in Washington, D.C. for 25 years as a member of Hyattsville Mennonite Church and, with her husband Paul, were the first permanent residents of the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Center in West Virginia where they lived for 14 years. Of their years at Rolling Ridge, Ellen said, “Our 15 years of living here at Pinestone have been rewarding. Guidelines that emerged in our monthly meetings during the early decade—simplicity, use of on-site materials, low profile, solar heating, adaptability—took shape in this modest cottage.” (This news came from Larisa Friesen Hall, Bob Sabath, and the Rolling Ridge Community.)

“Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living.” –Mary Harris Jones

Paul Dekar on the New Monastics and the Old Monastics

Thanks to The Merton Seasonal editor Patrick O’Connell for inviting me to review Paul Dekar’s new book Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First-Century Living.

The Merton Seasonal is a quarterly joint publication of the International Thomas Merton Society and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.

Dekar’s book is fantastic and has all kinds of hidden gems. Below is a portion of my review.

…The exciting find in Dekar’s book is previously unpublished lectures by Merton on technology. These lectures have been available on audio tape, but haven’t been used in print before. They make a worthy contribution to a critical current conversation. In a 1997 lecture at Stanford University, anti-civilization theorist and former Catholic John Zerzan said, “Technology claims to be neutral, merely a tool, its value or meaning completely dependent on how it is used. In this way it hides its end by cloaking its means.” Zerzan has resurged in popularity among some of the new monastics and other young radical Christians experimenting with intentional community and new ways of living. The excerpts from three previously unpublished Merton lectures on technology show Merton anticipating anarcho-primitivist philosopher Zerzan by more than 30 years. While Zerzan outright denies the claim that technology is neutral, Merton asserts with novices what he considered an overlooked insight from the Second Vatican Council. “Created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word,” Pope Paul VI  wrote in Lumen Gentium, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “May the goods of this world be more equitably distributed among all men, and may they in their own way be conducive to universal progress in human and Christian freedom.” In other words, products and technologies are neutral tools, but may be perfected if they are used to serve the common good and Christian freedom.

As Dekar displays in his excellent chapter “Thomas Merton, Guide to the Right Use of Technology” (85), Merton pushes home a paradox in his lectures: the monastery is being revolutionized by technology, whether recognized or not, but the material nature of technology is not nearly as threatening to the contemplative life as is “the technological society” (208), the way technology molds thinking, social relationships and the inner life. Merton forces critical questions about “the essences of things” (211), about the value and meaning in technology. “You can save your soul in a technological environment,” said Merton, “but there is no machine for saving your soul” (211).

Merton’s speaking on technology is more middle-of-the-road than his private letters and writings. While publicly he defines technology as a tool whose end use justifies its existence, in his April 1963 journal entry he raises much more serious concerns about “technologism that separates man from the world and makes him a kind of little god in his own right” (118). At a conference in September 2011 on Merton and technology at Bellarmine University, Albert Borgmann described Merton’s perspective on technology in this way: “He was clear about the effects of technology as a cultural force and could see that the effects were both dynamic and stultifying at the same time. It was an energetic and transforming force, but in the end it leaves us with experiences that are ultimately joyless.” When Anne Ford sent Merton a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shortly after it was published, he began to put together the consistent pattern of thinking that ran through developing the atom bomb, indiscriminate use of DDT, and various other technological “remedies” that are “expressions of the sickness itself” (120), as he put it.

By focusing the insights of these previously unpublished lectures, Dekar has made a wonderful contribution of Merton wisdom to a very real contemporary issue. “The Christian in a Technological World” (205) resurrects early writings by Karl Marx on the purpose of the machine, as well as looks at monastic experiments in the 1960s that were bringing more technology into monastic life. Merton’s lecture titled “Marxism and Technology” is an amazingly prescient look at the role of computers in society and the process of depersonalization. Merton begins to probe the questions about who owns the means of technological production and what does it mean when those owners have no Biblical values. “For industry,” says Merton, “it doesn’t matter if it is safe, what matter is to sell it … and make some money out of it” (217). To industry, Merton says, morality “is regarded as sentimental” (217).

Read the whole review.

Personal, Prolific, Provocative: Thomas Merton’s Life in Letters

merton-life-in-letters-coverI was honored to be asked by Patrick O’Connell, Thomas Merton scholar and editor of the Merton Seasonal journal, to review a new collection of Merton’s personal letters titled Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, published in 2008 by HarperOne. Below is the review for your reading pleasure.

Personal, Prolific, Provocative

by Rose Marie Berger

Esteemed Merton scholars Christine M. Bochen and William H. Shannon have again brought to bear their years of wisdom and insight into Thomas Merton—the man, monk, merry prankster, mystic, master poet, and writer—in crafting the essential epistolary collection Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters.

Carefully culling from the more than ten thousand letters archived at The Thomas Merton Center, Bochen and Shannon—who edited individually or together the previous five collections of Merton letters—have selected what they consider Merton’s “best letters” from January 2, 1942, when he was a novice at Gethsemani to November 1968, when he wrote his final letter from New Delhi, India.

The breadth and variety of Merton’s correspondents is staggering. Quite simply: He wrote to those who he was interested in learning from and he responded to many who were interested in him and his ideas. The constraints of monastic life and the sometimes ill-fitting gift of stability lent themselves to making out of Merton the prolific letter-writer he became. In this collection, one finds letters to American writer Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Nicaraguan journalist Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Nicaraguan president Somoza, American sixth-grader Susan Chapulis, Pakistani Sufi Abdul Aziz, Saturday Evening Post editor John Hunt, Ethel Kennedy, mayor of Hiroshima Shinzo Hamai, ecologist Rachel Carson, novelist James Baldwin, religious scholar Martin E. Marty, Coretta Scott King, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, rabbi Abraham Heschel, Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The art of letter writing was for Merton an expression of intimacy. His letters reveal his affections for individuals, ideas, and express theological and political affection for humanity to be its best self. “I do not hesitate to confess,” wrote Merton to Sister Therese Lentfoehr in 1956, “that letters from my friends have always and will always mean a great deal to me” (vii).

Continue reading “Personal, Prolific, Provocative: Thomas Merton’s Life in Letters”