Bob Sabath: What it Takes to Avoid Success

Sojourners co-founder Bob Sabath has written a wonderful reflection titled “Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.” I commend this to all faithful dreamers and those who once were and are now floundering a bit.

Below is an excerpt from Bob’s reflection and then a poem by Rilke that Bob uses with his meditation. As an extra bonus, Bob’s son Peter set the Rilke poem to music.

…You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects … is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism … kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

To stay alive, we needed prophet, pastor, and monk. Continue reading “Bob Sabath: What it Takes to Avoid Success”

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…The exciting find in Dekar’s book is previously unpublished lectures by Merton on technology.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 The excerpts from three previously unpublished Merton lectures on technology show Merton anticipating anarcho-primitivist philosopher Zerzan by more than 30 years.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.

Thomas Merton: Love, Not Duty

“It is not dutiful observance that keeps us from sin, but something far greater: it is love. And this love is not something which we develop by our own powers alone. It is a sublime gift of the divine mercy, and the fact that we live in the realization of this mercy and this gift is the greatest source of growth for our love and for our holiness.”–Thomas Merton

Who Knew Merton Had Colitis? An Interview with Jim Finley

James FinleyJames Finley left home at the age of 18 for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived as a contemplative. He later earned degrees from the University of Akron, Saint John College, and the Fuller Theological Seminary. Today James Finley is a writer, psychotherapist, and retreat leader.

Recently, Finley led a retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin.  Mike Sweitzer-Beckman took a few minutes to interview Jim about his two years sitting in Merton’s novice classes.

When did you first meet Thomas Merton?

In my home growing up, I was exposed to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and she taught me how to pray to deal with my alcoholic father. In 9th grade, I attended a Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio, and one of the Holy Cross brothers talked about monasteries. He mentioned Thomas Merton. That day I went to the school library, and they had The Sign of Jonas. When I opened the book, I saw his entry on December 13, 1946, “For myself, I have one desire, and that is the desire for solitude … to be lost in His teeth.” At 14, I was very struck by that. I was very strongly drawn to go to the monastery. My master plan was to sit at Merton’s feet and be brought to God. I started writing to the monastery and when I graduated from high school, I left my high school and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1961. Merton was the senior monk and assigned to the role as novice director. I had about two and a half years of regular contact with him. I was introduced to the mystical heritage of Christianity. When I left the monastery, I continued reading Merton.

What was Merton like on a day-to-day level? What did he like to eat?

We were all vegetarians. Our life in the monastery was very regimented. Merton had colitis so he ate in a separate refectory so he could have meat to get more protein. The quality that stood out to me was that he was very bright in person, a very gifted person. He was very committed to the search for communion with God, and he was devoted to this. They built a hermitage on the grounds for him. At this time, he was very involved between social justice, writing books about how contemplative practices should lead us to awareness about the Vietnam War and atomic bombs. He was in dialogue with Abraham Heschel, Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hahn, etc. He was very in touch with how dialogue and nonviolence interacted. He was very down-to-earth, didn’t like bullshit, didn’t want to play games. He had a temper, kind of a wound-up guy with his energy. I got the impression that he was very grounded, and very accepting of his own energy patterns with the impulse to write. He was really a father figure to me, and was very healing for me.

What’s one takeaway you have for our Benedictine Bridge readers from studying with Thomas Merton?

What we’re really trying to come to is this experiential discovery for the infinite love of God, to completely permeate our brokenness. We’re already precious in our brokenness and frailty. We have to accept our brokenness, and in a paradoxical way we can come to peace with ourselves as we are. What we are usually doing is going around with a secret list about ourselves—once I do this then God and I will be close. To realize that with God there are no lists, you don’t need to do that to get to God.–by Mike Sweitzer-Beckman

Jim Finley’s books include Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, The Contemplative Heart, and Christian Meditation.

Thomas Merton: ‘Help. I Can’t Go on Like This’

Bells on Patmos, Greece (RM Berger)
I am a great fan of church bells. From my front stoop I can hear the Howard University Founders Library bells at noon, six, and midnight.

I’ve sat in the garden at the National Cathedral some Sundays and vibrated with the explosive tones of the carillon and hand-rung peal bell practices.

Bells claim a community. Bells give an organizing principle in a chaotic world. Bells tell us we are home. Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton’s journals on the bells at Gethsemani:

“Please help me. what am I going to do? I can’t go on like this. You can see that! Look at the state I am in. what ought I to do? Show me the way.” As if I needed more information or some kind of sign!

…suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani ringing in the night…–Thomas Merton

From A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. by Thomas P. McDonnell, (Image Books, 1989)

Thomas Merton: ‘Turning an Adversary to a Collaborator’

“…for non-violence seeks to ‘win’ not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary, but by convincing him that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by bombs and blood. Non-violence, ideally speaking, does not try to overcome the adversary by winning over him, but to turn him from an adversary into a collaborator by winning him over.”–Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (1968)

Thomas Merton: Are Words Enough?

What good will it do us to know merely that such things were once said? The important thing is that they were lived. That they flow from an experience of the deeper levels of life. That they represent a discovery of humanity, at the term of an inner and spiritual journey that is far more crucial and infinitely more important than any journey to the moon.–Thomas Merton

From The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960, p 11)

Thomas Merton: ‘Artisans of Joy’

Here are a few lines of encouragement from Thomas Merton’s essay “The Street is For Celebration.”

Celebration is when we let joy make itself out of our love. We like to be together. We like to dance together. We like to make pretty and amusing things. We like to laugh at what we have made. We like to put bright colors on the walls–more bright colors on ourselves. We like our pictures, they are crazy.

Celebration is crazy: the craziness of not submitting, even though “they,” “the others,” the ones who make life impossible, seem to have all the power. Celebration is the beginning of confidence, therefore of power.

When we laugh at them, when we celebrate, when we make our lives beautiful, when  we give one another joy by loving, by sharing, then we manifest a power they cannot touch. We can be artisans of a joy they never imagined.—Thomas Merton

Love and Living by Thomas Merton (p53)

Thomas Merton: ‘You Worry About the Birds’

In the early 1960s, Thomas Merton became increasingly interested in environmental degradation. He was “Brother Forester” for awhile at Gethsemane Monastery in charge of the monastic woods.

During this period he wrote at least one letter to “the mother of modern environmentalism” Rachel Carson. (I’m still on the hunt for any evidence that she ever replied. If you know, let me know.)

Below is a quote from Merton’s journals around the time that he was trying to get a copy of Carson’s book Silent Spring.

Someone will say: “You worry about birds. Why not worry about people?” I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.–Thomas Merton

The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4 (1960-1963) edited by Victor Kramer (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p. 274f)

Thomas Merton: Abyss of Solitude

“However, the truest solitude is not something outside you, not an absence of humans or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul.

And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing.” —Thomas Merton

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (New Directions Books 1961, p. 80- 81)