Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton grew into his contemplative life at Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky. He didn’t enter the monastery as a full-blown contemplative. He learned his calling over time.
As I explore what it means to nurture and cultivate a Christian contemplative life while living in the inner city and working an 8-hour day to the rhythms of the American work force, I find Merton’s list below revealing.
This will give us some idea of the proper preparation that the contemplative life requires. A life that is quiet, lived in the country, in touch with the rhythm of nature and the seasons. A life in which there is manual work, the exercise of arts and skills, not in a spirit of dilettantism, but with genuine reference to the needs of one’s existence. The cultivation of the land, the care of farm animals, gardening. A broad and serious literary culture, music, art, again not in the spirit of Time and Life – (a chatty introduction to Titian, Prexiteles, and Jackson Pollock) – but a genuine and creative appreciation of the way poems, pictures, etc., are made. A life in which there is such a thing as serious conversation, and little or no TV. These things are mentioned not with the insistence that only life in the country can prepare a [person] for contemplation, but to show the type of exercise that is needed.–Thomas Merton
The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, edited by William H. Shannon (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, p.131).
Thirty-two teens from a west London Catholic parish became homeless for a day as part of their preparation for being “confirmed” (making an adult commitment) in the Catholic Church. I LOVE this as a way of practicing living out the gospel and embodying the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
Some find it easy to dismiss this kind of symbolic action, but I have to say that it’s this kind of experience that shapes and forms the individual conscience. It’s not that this particular action will be effective in ending homelessness (though they did raise £1000 for the local shelter), but it will convert a whole generation of Catholics sensitive to the issues.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Annette Brazier, who leads the catachetical programme at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Acton, explained: “our young people have a real concern for social issues. They often challenge us to look after the environment, speak out for the poor and needy and challenge racism. The project started with a reflection on the gospels and the call to reach out to the marginalized in our society. A number of the sessions focused on social justice and how as Christians we are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The group responded well to the challenge presented to them and after a talk from Ian Breen, the director of the local charity Acton Homeless Concern, they decided to go homeless for a day and to do a sponsored fast during this time.”
One of the local schools, St. Vincent Catholic Primary, offered their grounds on a Saturday and the group of 32 confirmation candidates, plus their catechists gave up their usual comforts and lived on the school grounds for the day.
Many of the young people found bits of cardboard to sit on or make temporary shelters so that they could gain a better understanding of what it must be like to be homeless.
Parish Priest, Fr. John Leahy, said he was really impressed by their efforts. He said: “the group have really thought about those who are marginalised in our society.”
The project, which was called, Cardboard City, raised over £1000 for Acton Homeless Concern.
I’m posting the full transcript of Barack Obama’s excellent speech yesterday at Notre Dame.
This is the level of adult discourse that I’ve come to expect from Obama. It’s rich, deep, wide, and deals with things that are true. This speech models a quality of discourse that seeks and makes for “a more perfect union.”
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, congratulations, Class of 2009. (Applause.) Congratulations to all the parents, the cousins — (applause) — the aunts, the uncles — all the people who helped to bring you to the point that you are here today. Thank you so much to Father Jenkins for that extraordinary introduction, even though you said what I want to say much more elegantly. (Laughter.) You are doing an extraordinary job as president of this extraordinary institution. (Applause.) Your continued and courageous — and contagious — commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all. (Applause.)
Good afternoon. To Father Hesburgh, to Notre Dame trustees, to faculty, to family: I am honored to be here today. (Applause.) And I am grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.
And I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. (Laughter.) So far I’m only 1 for 2 as President. (Laughter and applause.) Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. (Laughter and applause.) I guess that’s better. (Laughter.) So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame —
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Abortion is murder! Stop killing children!
THE PRESIDENT: That’s all right. And since —
AUDIENCE: We are ND! We are ND!
AUDIENCE: Yes, we can! Yes, we can!
THE PRESIDENT: We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennan’s adage that we don’t do things easily. (Laughter.) We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes. (Applause.)
Jagerstatter was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand he had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law–an instruction that violated his conscience.
Now, with his beatification in 2007 (read my column On Becoming a Christian about Jagerstatter’s beatification), his example has been embraced by the universal church. He stands as one of the great martyrs of our time.
An introduction by Jim Forest, founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, sets these writings in the context of Franz’s life and times, and draws out their meaning for today. Here’s an excerpt from Jim’s introduction:
Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.
How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?
I went to a fantastic Holy Saturday vigil mass at Blessed Sacrament in Warren, Ohio, last week. The architecture of the church is stunning with an glass silo-type spire.
There were 6 or 7 people baptized in the full-immersion font and probably a half dozen more who were confirmed into the church that night. It’s a parish alive with grace, patience, beauty, and (!) teenagers! This is a Catholic community thriving in the spirit of Vatican II.
Unfortunately, many Catholic churches in Ohio are not faring so well, according to a recent CNN story.
Along the Rust Belt and in cities dotting the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Catholic communities are mourning the loss of parishes. It’s a five-year trend of sweeping church closures that most recently hit Cleveland, Ohio. …
What drove the decision to close parishes in Cleveland were population shifts to outlying areas, financial strains that have 42 percent of parishes “operating in the red” and priest shortages, diocese spokesman Robert Tayek explained. The bishop, he said, is trying to find “an equitable solution.”
But the announcement has raised many questions. Among them: What happens to the struggling neighborhoods that have come to rely on outreach and programs offered by some of these inner-city parishes?
“Too many bishops are treating parishes as if they were Starbucks franchises,” said Sister Christine Schenk, a Cleveland-area nun who’s been fighting for nearly two decades to institute change in the church through her organization FutureChurch. “It’s about more than money. It’s about mission to the people,” she said.
The March 7 issue of the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet has an intriguing article by Tina Beatie, Deadlier Sin of the Male, that I recommend reading. Beatie is a professor in Catholic studies at Roehampton University in Bristol.
Apparently the “Pope’s personal theologian” recently endorsed a theory that “men and women sin differently.”
“When you look at vices from the point of view of the difficulties they create,” Msgr Wojciech Giertych, theologian to the papal household, wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, “you find that men experiment in a different way from women.”
Beatie reminds us that this approach has been explored by feminist theologians for at least 50 years since Valerie Saiving published her groundbreaking essay titled The Human Situation: A Feminine View.
Beatie does an excellent job of separating the reality of “gendered sin” from the hierarchy of sin. As you might imagine, the Pope’s theologian not only thinks men and women have different temptations but also that women’s are more dangerous than men’s. (The gall of that guy!)
And as an added twist, Beatie examines the male sin of greed in light of the economic collapse and the fact that “among the leading bankers that have brought the British economy to its knees there are no women.” This is mirrored in the U.S. situation.
Check out Tina Beatie’s article below:
In a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Pope’s personal theologian, Mgr Wojciech Giertych, endorsed a theory by a 95-year-old Jesuit, Fr Roberto Busa, that men and women sin differently. Based on the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of men’s sins includes lust at the top and greed at the bottom, while women’s sins have pride at the top and sloth at the bottom. As usual when the Vatican says anything mildly controversial about sex, the news was greeted with a flurry of media interest. But in fact, it’s not news at all, since feminist theologians have been writing about the gendering of sin for nearly 50 years.
In 1961, Valerie Saiving published an essay in which she appeals for greater awareness of the ways in which concepts of masculinity and femininity shape the ways in which we experience sin. Her article has had a formative influence on much feminist theology, and her theories have been developed and refined by two generations of female scholars. At first glance, Saiving’s theory appears to contradict that of the Vatican. She writes that sins associated with femininity “have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will-to-power’.” Rather, women are likely to be guilty of “triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness”; of “inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason – in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self”. Yet perhaps this is what Mgr Giertych means when he refers to “pride”, since he cites as evidence the example of women Religious in convents, who “are often envious of each other over little things, but when the church bell rings, everyone goes to the chapel to sing vespers.” Monks, on the other hand “aren’t often interested in each other and, therefore, aren’t jealous, but when the church bell rings, few take part in common prayer.” Whatever else these anecdotes reveal, the behaviour of those nuns might suggest envy (which is second on the list of women’s sins), but they seem far more to do with triviality and “gossipy sociability” than with pride.
The “Thomas Mass” was first created in Helsinki, Finland in 1988 by a collection of ministers of various denominations, artists, musicians, and civic leaders (hence it is not really a “Mass,” in the official Catholic sense). They wanted to create a prayerful service that would again fill their cathedral, but with seekers, searchers, and believers alike. They recognized that much of Europe had become a continent of skeptics, and so they named the service after St. Thomas “the Doubter.”
After an initial attempt to create an ecumenical and new liturgy, they realized that it basically had the structure of the historic Catholic Mass. It immediately began to spread across Europe. The Thomas Mass avoids the usual denominational turf, arguments, and leadership, while still offering a deeply sacramental structure where disparate groups can gather in a faith-filled way.
It retrieves the historic meaning of the very word “liturgy” as a collective work of the people. One of the strengths of the Thomas Mass is that it emphasizes full participation instead of mere listening or “attendance.” It was a wonderful experience.
I’ve been honored to know Jim Douglass and Shelley Douglass since their days at the Ground Zero community in Poulsbo, Washington. Now they live in Birmingham, Alabama. Shelley leads their mission at Mary’s House, in the spirit of the Catholic Worker. Jim continues to be one of the foremost Catholic writers, thinkers, theologians, and practitioners of Christian nonviolence.
In Jim’s groundbreaking 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters, he probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic President, and explores why we need to understand our history if we are going to fully understand what is at stake with Barack Obama. Here’s a little bit of what I wrote after visiting with Jim last December:
Kennedy showcased his new vision in June 1963 during a speech at American University in Washington, D.C., by preaching on the absolute necessity for nations to choose peace. “What kind of peace do I mean?” asked Kennedy. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … .”
It was this speech, Douglass says, that prompted the Unspeakable—in the form of people within the U.S. intelligence and military structure—to act.
FAST-FORWARD TO Jan. 28, 2008, when Ted and Caroline Kennedy stood on the stage at American University to endorse Barack Obama for president. President Kennedy’s 1963 speech formed the historical backdrop. The Kennedys, I think, were sending a message: Barack Obama can pick up the banner for peace dropped by John Kennedy in death.
You can read my whole column about my visit with Jim here–and look for a review of JFK and the Unspeakable by Ed Snyder in the March 2009 issue of Sojourners.
Tonight, PBS’s Frontline will air “The Hugo Chavez Show: An illuminating inside view of the mercurial Venezuelan president, his rise to power, and the new type of revolution he seems to be inventing – on television.” In the Washington Post review of the show, David Montgomery writes:
What Americans have been missing is a direct encounter with the temperamental, charming, fierce, cruel, seductive, whimsical and overwhelming personality that comes through on “Aló, Presidente.” When Chávez, 54, isn’t ordering troops to the border, he’s singing folk songs, riding horses and tractors, tramping through gorgeous countryside or castigating cabinet ministers who fail pop quizzes that he administers as the cameras roll.
In 2004, I was in the audience for Chavez’ “Aló, Presidente” … for 5 hours. And this was one of his shorter
shows! It was one of the most fascinating examples of political theater I’ve ever seen. He used media deftly to create a politically engaged populace.
Here are some of my journal notes from that day – January 18, 2004 – Caracas, Venezuela:
We were invited to be in the audience during the screening of President Chavez’ weekly television program. After coffee and about an hour’s wait, we were led to a tent behind the presidential house where the filming would take place (it is in a different location each week) and seated in chairs with our names on them in the midst of cameras and microphones and the “set” for the show.
Then Chavez sat at a desk “on stage” and for five hours hosted a program with only two short breaks. He talked about teachers in honor of National Teachers Day – honoring and joking with the Minister of Education who was present. He introduced an old prize fighter who was also present. He talked about the cross and scapular he wears. He chatted on the phone through a call-in mechanism with a number of people from around the country – a young girl about her school, one woman about the need for her to get involved in elections for mayor in her town, another woman about jobs for her sons and her nephew.
He talked about how unemployment was often the result of the neoliberal capitalist model and how Venezuela was creating a new economy – that they were going to initiate another revolution within the revolution by starting a new “mission” called Mision Vuelven Cara. This new mission will train and incorporate workers into development projects that will emphasize small farms and forestry projects, petroleum related businesses, tourism etc. The unemployed will be included as they build Venezuela’s capacity for productive employment. Then he recommended a book on the rebellion of 1840.
Then he went on to talk about how Venezuela has a deficit of beef and would be importing beef for a while from Brazil and Argentina, but that Venezuelans will be trained to raise beef, as well as for dairy farming. He said that it was good for poor people to eat more beef for the protein and that beef would be made available in poor neighborhoods for purchase in small quantities. He introduced the new Minister of Defense. He read from newspaper articles about the strengthened position of Venezuela in the world.
Then he spoke about the 1979 Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops which outlined the preferential option for the poor and he talked about the death of Oscar Romero. Chavez said that the challenge before Venezuela now is to take up the challenge of an option for the poor. Fr. Roy Bourgeouis was invited to make a statement. Fr. Roy talked about the School of the Americas and asked Venezuela to stop sending soldiers there for training. Chavez listened very intently. When Roy finished Chavez said quite a bit about the SOA. He had obviously done his homework. Then he moved on to talk about the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith. And so the program went on and on.
Chavez continues to be an ego-obsessed narcissist who doesn’t mind using his cult of personality to promote a particular political and social agenda and he’s not above taking direct, anti-democratic action against his enemies and to maintain his own power. So what else is new in the world of politics?
He is also “the peoples’ choice” in Venezuela’s fair elections. This week Chavez’ party swept most states, according to The Guardian, in Venezuela’s regional elections. The record turnout of 65% among 16.8 million registered voters shows the passion and antipathy elicited by this larger-than-life personality.
The Frontline show is tough, fair, and shows Chavez with his good points and his bad points. “The documentarians credit Chávez with being the first president in the 50-year history of Venezuelan democracy to elevate themes of poverty and social justice to the top of national discussion,” writes Montgomery. “But they suggest that his methods for addressing those issues have been uneven and over-hyped.”.