Thursday, September 24, 2015

When the saints go marching the halls of power

Image from ABC News
In the midst of the hoopla (Pope-la?) of His Holiness Pope Francis visiting the United States, I read with interest the flurry of media coverage.  True to form, Francis demonstrates a humility in his way of interacting with all people, not just those in secular or sacred halls of power.  A pontiff who prefers to eat with the homeless rather than Beltway luminaries is indeed a different type of religious leader than one otherwise might expect.

In his speech before the United States Congress, the Pope offered a word of gratitude for the lives of four notable Americans.  For many Baptists, we cheer on the recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of our most noteworthy contributors.  We also recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, leading the country when deeply divisions required extraordinary leadership.  Perhaps for some in the Baptist fold, we do  not know the great Americans also noted:  Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, two significant 20th century Roman Catholic voices.  Just like any list of Baptist "greats", there would be some Roman Catholics a bit perturbed with Day and Merton being cited, as they were faithful yet dissenting voices in their own way against institutional passivity when matters divine tended to overshadow the deep needs of the world for people in the pews as well as from pulpits and high places in ecclesial life. 

A great introduction to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as well as Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy is the book "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" (Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2003).  Author Paul Elie deftly weaves these four Catholic voices together, forming a narrative tapestry of divergent life stories shaped by the faith that they loved enough to critique through their prose and lived out witness. 

Of Day and Merton, Pope Francis recalled:

"In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."

"A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a "pointless slaughter", another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: 'I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.' Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."


Particularly for myself, I rejoiced in Merton gaining mention before Congress.  It was in college that I visited my first monastery. Growing up Baptist in Kansas, the fact that I had an interest in learning, let alone visiting, a monastery was a bit of a surprise. Anti-Catholicism tendencies were not unknown.

While studying at American Baptist-related Ottawa University, I found myself enthralled in the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. I decided to write my senior thesis on Merton, and as part of my exploration into Merton, I stayed a week at the monastery where he lived until his death in 1968. (And given that monasteries typically observe vows of silence, I suppose I was a handful…)

At the entrance to the monastery, an inscription is carved over the gateway to the monastic enclosure. It reads “God Alone”. Thomas Merton came to the Abbey as a young adult who was mixed up with a lot of the life questions that we tend to have: who am I and what I am supposed to do with my life? Merton had some additional baggage, orphaned by his parents’ deaths during his adolescence and wounded from a life given to youthful indiscretions while at college. Merton entered into the monastery after a long soul-searching, feeling called to a life withdrawn from the world. The monastic life helped Merton reorient his life, later becoming regarded as one of the 20th-century’s spiritual masters. Not to say that it was an easy stretch of time for Merton as his posthumously published multivolume collection of journals will attest. He searched for God and wrestled with the world inside and outside the monastic enclosure. The inscription “God Alone” makes good sense to be at the entrance of his monastery, as Merton found his grounding and his identity as he developed a deep trust in God.

Nonetheless, Merton's entrance into the monastery helped him redefine his relationship to the world.  While separate, he would become intertwined with the tumult of the 1960s, addressing issues of war, racism and political matters. His hermitage would be a place where he hosted a number of activists and writers from time to time.  Martin E. Marty once criticized Merton for daring to comment on race issues from the distant cloisters.  Eventually, Marty realized that Merton's writings had a great deal of insight into the difficulties and tumult, bringing an incisive and considered word in the midst of many voices clamoring for the right answers to perplexing and violent times.

Saints are always with us in every generation, whether they are canonized, beatified or known just to us from life's experience of faith gracing us through notable faithful lives we experienced firsthand.  I am reminded of the 16th Psalm, often called a psalm of trust, when considering such folks. 

The 16th Psalm is called a psalm of trust, framed in the language of deep appreciation and unshakable knowledge that in God alone, we find our hope and assurance, as well as our guidance in the journey ahead. It is a psalm for all those who seek God, the one whom the Psalmist praises, “You show me the path of life.” This psalm revels in the goodness of life with God and the wisdom of following the path that God sets before us.

Without God, the psalmist declares, we still live our lives, but without a sense of the deep goodness and stability that life with God gives us. We can seek many things in this life, but are they ultimately “good” in the abundant and life-giving way that God alone provides?

For all of us, it asks us to be intentional about knowing ourselves fully, examining ourselves in a way that leads not to an uneasy and constant sense of guilt or imperfection (I admit that was the aftertaste of some of my Kansas Baptist upbringing). Life with God is a sign of life, where we can breathe freely and attune our hearts and minds. We strip down of our vanities and our pride so that we are allowed to live with God: to live faith not as an additional or optional part of life, but to ground ourselves firmly and intentionally in the life of faith. We are called to be pilgrims, persons journeying toward God along the spiritual pathway.

Who knows?  Today, the Beltway may have been blessed by someone aware enough to know the halls of power need redemption.  As we gear up for the 2016 election cycle, it might be a blessing to know that the people most tuned into what this country and our world needs most are not given to certainty and argument, but lead with a spirit of humility and service to others, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

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