Prayer Should Be ‘Short and Pure’

Today, I dipped into Robert Ellsberg’s wonderful All the Way to Heaven: Selected Letters of Dorothy Day for encouragement and some of Dorothy’s straight-up truth.

In the autumn of 1964, Dorothy spent six months at her daughter’s farm  in Vermont minding her grandchildren their father left. In a letter to artist Fritz Eichenberg during that time, she recounts the children’s spirituality.

“Eric is 16 and Nickie is 14, and they still so trustfully put up their foreheads for me to make the sign of the cross on them before they go to bed at night and before they go to school in the morning. I urge them, as St. Benedict did, to short and frequent prayer, as they go down the road to the school bus in the morning…” (p.304)

The Rule of St. Benedict Dorothy refers to was written to make it easier for us to be good and to love God. Chapter 20, on “Reverence in Prayer” says:

it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matthew 6:7),
but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction.
Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,
unless it happens to be prolonged
by an inspiration of divine grace.

Support Strong For American Catholic Sisters

Sr. Dolorosa Bundy
Sr. Dolorosa Bundy

I was very happy to see that both the Sacramento and Portland-OR Catholic newspapers printed the letter below in support of American Catholic sisters and asking the Vatican to discontinue its investigation.

I was doubly happy that this letter was written by my own parents! In addition to themselves as signatories, 30 others also signed in support.

Any Thought Given to a Year for Women Religious?
To the Catholic Sentinel (Portland, OR):

When Pope Benedict proclaimed the year for priests, the Vatican began an investigation of American Catholic Sisters. The investigation lacks collegiality, subsidiarity and transparency, core values of the Vatican II Council. The investigation is an insult to the Sisters and to American Catholic lay people.

American Religious women, in struggling with the needed reforms from Vatican II, offered vision in examining our Catholic Christian roots. They instilled their charisms of faith, vision and courage and empowered us all to be advocates for peace and justice. They became our witnesses of discipleship and faithfulness. They, too, truly deserve our gratitude and support.
The emphasis from Rome, “Praise the Priests, Investigate the Sisters” illustrates the disparity in our church.

We have much to be thankful for the good and faithful priests who bring us the Eucharist. They deserve our fullest appreciation.

They are reeling from the sordid actions of a few, about 4.5 percent over the past 50 years, including bishops, who perpetrated and covered up the scandals. Financial settlements have cost dioceses, American Catholics, and their insurance companies $1 billion.

The Sisters and we lay people deserve better. We pray the Pope will cancel the investigation of the American Religious women and proclaim a Year of the Sisters.

John and Barbara Berger
Sacramento, Calif.

Review: “Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters”

merton life in letters coverPatrick O’Connell over at The Merton Seasonal asked me to review Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters for the Spring 2009 magazine.

It was a great chance to exchange emails with two of the great Merton scholars and editors of Merton’s letters Bill Shannon and Christine Bochen. I was particularly interested in looking at the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence. Aside from the theological or spiritual content, I wondered how Merton’s letters fit in the genre of American literature.

Below is an excerpt from my review:

While it is necessary to place the letters in this collection in the context of Merton’s own life and in the context of Merton’s overall legacy, it is also important to examine Merton’s letter-writing art in the context of 20th-century American literature.

Literary sociologists David Barton and Nigel Hall argue in Letter Writing as a Social Practice that letter writing is a genre unto itself and deserves to be studied as enthusiastically as poetry or the novel. Additionally, they posit that “many contemporary genres have their origins in letters” (Barton and Hall, 4). The new research into letter writing raises several questions regarding Thomas Merton, who was, as Shannon and Bochen put it, “one of the most prolific and provocative letter writers of the twentieth century” (vii).

How will Merton be critiqued as a letter-writer per se? William Shannon said in the same personal e-mail that “Merton was an amazingly good letter-writer.” How will critics analyze Merton’s letter-writing genius as compared to his innovation and skill as a poet or his daring analysis as an essayist? British novelist, satirist, and literary critic Evelyn Waugh, who prepared the manuscript of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for a British audience, so much admired Merton’s skill that he advised Merton to “put books aside and write serious letters and to make an art of it” (ix). Of course, Merton didn’t set book-writing aside, but he did continue over his life to perfect his letter-writing craft.

More importantly, are Merton’s letters derivative of his political essays, theological and monastic treatises, autobiographical writings, poetry, and intellectual critiques or, as Barton and Hall prompt, do all these genres have their genesis in Merton’s letters instead? Often the personal correspondence of a well-known personality are collected and published in order to provide enthusiasts with an “inside look” at the “personal” life that would otherwise be hidden. The publication of personal letters can have a tinge of voyeurism. I would argue that it is in Merton’s letters that we find the foundations of his published works. The letters show him testing ideas, crafting opinions, grounding his analysis, playing with images and phrasing, sorting and sifting the essential components of his life story. From this perspective, Merton’s letters (and journals) are the seedbed for his completed works in other genres, rather than the frosting on his “real” work.

Equally important in recognizing Merton’s brilliance in the genre of letter-writing is understanding the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence project. Elizabeth Hewitt, author of Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), points out that in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that the marvel of American political ideology was the seeming ability to strike a balance between individual liberty and a celebration of democratic principles (4). “Letters emphasize the singularity of a particular letter-writer,” writes Hewitt, “even as they strive to position the recipient in an idealized relationship with the writer. They emphasize solidarity and individualism at once,” and thus reconcile a balance of power that is fundamentally American.”

Read the whole essay: Thank You For Your LetterREVIEWFINAL

Van Gogh: ‘It is Good to Love Thorns’

For the first time all the letters of Vincent Van Gogh have been collected and published in a 6-volume set. I’ve been interested in Van Gogh since my parents lived for a year in Nuenen, Netherlands, where Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters. Below is an excerpt from one of Van Gogh’s letters and an article by Mary Tompkins Lewis from The Wall Street Journal on the new release of letters.

The Potato Eaters
The Potato Eaters

When one eats a crust of black rye bread it’s certainly good to think of the words ‘Tunc justi fulgebunt ut sol in regnum Patris sui’ (Then shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun in the Kingdom of their Father), or also when one very often has muddy boots or wet, dirty clothes. May we all at sometime enter into that kingdom which is not of this world, where they do not marry and are not given in marriage, where the sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee, but the Lord shall be an Everlasting Light, and God our glory, where the sun shall no more go down, neither shall the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine Everlasting Light, and the days of mourning shall be ended and God shall wipe away all tears from the eyes.

And so we can be leavened with the leaven of ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’, being what we are through God’s grace, having in the secret recesses of the heart the words ‘I never despair’ because we have faith in God. And then ‘Set your face as a flint’ are really good words in many circumstances, and also ‘be like an iron pillar or like an old oak tree’. It’s also good to love thorns, such as the thorn-hedges around the little English church or the roses in the cemetery, they’re so beautiful these days, yes, if one could make oneself a crown of the thorns of life, not for the people but with which one is seen by God, then one would do well.–Vincent Van Gogh

vangoghletter

Over 800 letters written by van Gogh have survived, most of them addressed to his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer and an indefatigable source of support, and 80 others received from friends and family were saved by the artist. But while many of these letters had been published over the years, they hadn’t been approached in their entirety as the illustrious literary monument they are, or with the fullest sense of their import for his art and career. This has now become possible with the publication of all of the artist’s extant correspondence in Vincent van Gogh—The Letters, a richly annotated and illustrated six-volume compendium, and the launch of a related, scholarly and eminently searchable Web edition (www.vangoghletters.org). In tandem and in time, they will undoubtedly reshape the landscape of van Gogh scholarship and the image of the artist long held by the public.

In both versions of the text—the culmination of 15 years of research and edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker—each letter is newly transcribed (the originals are also captured in facsimile on the Web site), painstakingly retranslated without adornment or amendment, and in some cases redated in accordance with new research. A few letters, previously unknown or fragmented, are also added to the lot. They are accompanied by thumbnail reproductions, many in color, of every work of art van Gogh discussed in his incessant musings on painting, including his own. Brief sketches introduce each haunt of his short, peripatetic career, and every person, place or event mentioned even in passing is likewise explained in copious notes. Van Gogh was a voracious reader, and epistolary exhortations to friends to read his favorite authors peppered his writings. His countless literary references, which ranged from Homer to Zola, are also enumerated here in depth. Though no new attempt is made to interpret his work (a massive bibliography invites others to the task), one comes away astonished at the ardor and depth of van Gogh’s immersion into a cultural world we have long thought he knew only from a distance.–Mary Tompkins Lewis

Read Mary Tompkins Lewis’ whole article here. There’s also a lovely online slide show.

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”