Gaudete Sunday

Over sixty years ago about this December time of the year, I recall standing outside my childhood home in that moment before the hall door was opened as people searched for keys. It was following our return from what we then called ‘Saturday Night Confessions’. Looking up I was struck by the beauty of the night sky. It was a frosty night and the stars glistened in their pristine splendour hanging above the dark outline of a distant mountain. A frisson of awe ran down my spine and an intense joy filled my little childhood self. I understood then what it all meant. Christmas was near. Baby Jesus would be born in the stable and would appear soon in the splendid crib of our local church, the best Nativity Crib in our whole area. Santa Claus would be riding across the sky and all would be right with my little world.

It was easy to believe in the joy of Gaudete Sunday then. Now, in my later years, it’s not so transparently obvious.

The Melancholy of Time

Where is joy to be found in a world where everything is subject to the erosion of time? T. S. Eliot’s poem, Burnt Norton, explores this question of living in the flux of time.


Time present and time past.
Are both perhaps present in time future.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind.
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future.
What might have been and what has been.
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Eliot seems to be evoking a sense of a timeless, eternal now in which something is present, something we cannot bear, a reality we cannot perceive, a mystery so dazzlingly real that we cannot bear its sight.

So much Reality we cannot Bear

This Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, is traditionally focused on rejoicing in the anticipation of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour. Mind you, it is distinctly difficult to rejoice in these days as we learn daily of the passion of Aleppo, now in the final days of a Syrian, Russian and Iranian assault on the city. The lands where once emerged the great narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are undergoing brutal destruction and slaughter. And there are few hands innocent of this crime.

There is indeed much reality in our present time that we cannot bear with ease. Suffering, mass dislocation of peoples, cynical displays of military power, insane religiously-motivated violence, monstrous distortions of even the most ordinary truths, have all contributed to a sense that our wold is spinning out of control.

People ask: what does the future hold? Will peace, humanity, joy ever return? The readings of this Third Sunday are also focused on this question. But also seek to assure us that better days lie ahead. The blind will see, the lame will walk, the crops will once more grow, cities will be rebuilt and will enjoy a new flourishing.

We need the comfort of time future, however uncertain it may be. We hunger for our utopias . And if they are slow in coming, we do our best to imaginatively construct them. Or we go in search of them in a great odyssey of adventure like Gilgamesh, the forerunner of all who seek escape decline, decay and death. And like the Ithaca of Cavafy’s poem, our utopian dreams often disappoint.

The Dazzlement of Godness

A newsletter from a Christian Brother in India arrived in my mailbox this week-end. It was a reflection on his own faith-journey, the movement away from what he calls ‘the props of tradition’ to a more inclusive understanding of God, the gods, the universe, the ‘whole thing’ as he would name it. He says:

One gets blinded by the sheer profligacy of Godness, that this God from whom this Godness emanates dazzles us with Its dimensionlessness. We retreat to our minimalness, “I’m only human”, and feel good to be less than dazzled, to be in fact as blind as we choose to be so as to be freed from the relentless urge within us to aim ever higher. Sorry, deeper. Sorry, wider. Sorry, more cosmic. Sorry, more more.
Brother Brendan Mac Cárthaigh cfc, Kolkata, India

The Mystery

And to quote Eliot again, "the end of all our striving will be return to the place from which we began and know it for the first time." The striving is over, the relentless urge released, and something like peace has come. My writer friend describes it in terms of a new knowing, of facing towards the reality we cannot bear. Somewhere within this experience we encounter what Rahner calls ‘the Mystery’.

Perhaps, it is in the emergence of insight and the attainment of wisdom, like Gilgamesh, like Jesus, like Paul, that we come to the joy we celebrate in this Third Week of Advent.

In that wonderful little book, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, the compiler provides us with a beautiful reading from Karl Rahner where he reflects on the sadness that descends upon us in late Autumn has we walk among the dead leaves.

Time, Rahner says, disappoints us, time future as much as time present and time past. Instead, we look more to what is really real, the eternity out of which time came. He says: “Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith: ‘Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time.'”

In what can we Rejoice

The deep down Good News is that we live in God’s eternity. As Richard Rohr might put it, this is what the perennial wisdom teaches us. It is the mystery that is hidden from us. The apostle James, in the Sunday reading, calls it ‘the seed that is secretly growing’. We are living in the Now of God’s eternity. Rahner again: “A ‘now’ of eternity is in you. And this ‘now’ has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself” (Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 1964).

Thomas Merton understood this way of seeing. He experienced it in that moment, standing on the street in Louisville, Kentucky, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut when the ‘now’ of God’s eternity dazzled him with an intense mystical light. Of this moment he says:

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Here lies the joy of this Third Week of Advent, the realisation that we are not condemned to remain the victims of the ‘stupidities of the human condition’, that something lives in us that is utterly indestructible, that is not subject to the passage of time or the apparent oblivion of death. We are all of us bathed in that mystic light of Fourth and Walnut.

Someone this week described to me Advent as a progress from darkness to light. Perhaps now we can say that we live always in the light, bathed in all the light we cannot see.

For a Moment of Meditation

Enjoy a quiet moment of reflection on Advent. Reflect on how we can engage in soulful ways with bringing Advent Light to our immediate world of family and community.

There is a Way

Tidying my book shelves the other day I came across a set of books carefully lined up. All were books by the University of Notre Dame scholar, priest and spiritual guide, Father John S. Dunne csc. He died some years ago in 2013.

This past while I have also been immersed in a biography of Thomas Merton by Monica Furlong simply entitled Merton, A Biography, first published in the UK in 1980. Reading this book, and especially the biographer’s recounting of Merton’s later years, I was struck by so many parallels with John S. Dunne.

Both were American priests with a strong rootedness in American life. Merton was already dead when Dunne began writing. There were, however, literary and artistic relationships that wove them both into the same story: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, T. S, Eliot, and so many writers and thinkers from the vast panorama of Western culture and philosophy. Both became fascinated early on by the contact with Eastern philosophy and mysticism. And both had been drawn into the late 20th century struggle for justice in Latin America. It was left to Dunne, however, to make the journey to Latin America that Merton never did.

An Awakened Spirit

What ultimately links both writers is their commitment to the inner life and their fascination with the journey of the self. This journey was a particularly modern one, albeit with roots in Augustine. Early in his writing John S. Dunne picks up this thread from Kierkegaard, Hegel and the poetry of Rilke. For Merton, the quest for authentic living was hard won in the teeth of opposition from religious authorities and the accepted limitations of his enclosed life as a Trappist monk. Dunne described the quest as shaped by the desire to become, as he said, ‘heart-free’.

Although Merton spoke much about solitude, he comes later to the insight that his ultimate quest is the ‘search for God. Oddly enough, this was the title of one of Dunne’s first books, A Search for God in Time and Memory (1977). Much of Dunne’s writing over the years was devoted to the nature of the spiritual quest. Had Merton been reading Dunne he would have been struck by the number of times that Dunne describes his work in terms of insight and discovery. Life is a process of making discoveries. Not too hard to discern the influence of Lonergan somewhere in the background here.

Becoming Heart Free

As a graduate student at the Institut Catholique in Paris, I undertook an analysis of Dunne’s corpus as it was at that time in the early 1980s. It took the form of a thesis, directed by the late Père Kowalski, and it took for its title, Becoming Heart-Free. I later fetched up at Notre Dame where I met John S. Dunne and many of his colleagues. He was a revered figure on campus, much sought after by young college students. His influence on their lives was obvious to all. He was a charismatic figure in the fullest sense. His place of ministry was the college lecture hall. But many flocked to see him for spiritual direction and advice. Like Merton, he spent much of time writing writing, thinking, contemplating. In a move similar to that of Merton’s, John sought to live closer to people by moving off campus to a simple house on the corner of a South Bend street.

Both men were seriously aroused in their spiritual core by aesthetic experience. Artists such as Klee, Rouault , Rothko, and Kandinsky resonated deeply with their spiritual imagination. Something in the artistic theme of the outsider, of the pilgrim, of the loner found in these works touched their psyches. Rilke, too, was an important poet who spoke to the experience of loneliness (or ‘aloneness’ as Dunne would say) that sharpened their spiritual sensibilities and eventually opened up for them the wider world of relationship. For men with a clear contemplative orientation this a path of discovery and insight that they both shared.

There is a Way

Each in his own way undertook an inner journey that called each away from the narrow conventions of 1950s America towards the wider horizons of a suffering world. In their respective journeys their dialogue partners were artists, poets, writers and contemplatives from many spiritual traditions. While, in a sense, Father Dunne travelled the world in imaginative ‘thought experiments’ without ever leaving Notre Dame, Merton did the same without leaving his monastic enclosure.

Everywhere John S. Dunne perceived the unity of the spiritual quest across time, across cultures and across the varieties of religious experience. In what is for me a favourite expression of his, he articulated this unity and universal dimension of experience when he repeated, as he did throughout his writing:

Things are meant.

There are signs.

There is a way.

Like Merton, Dunne’s search throughout his life was for the authentic path, the way of truth, that would lead him to an iner harmony of life, the world and the spirit. Merton perceived a similar resolution of his own spiritual quest when he said:

Coming to the monastery has been for me exactly the right kind of withdrawal. It has given me perspective. It has taught me how to live. And now I owe everyone else in the world a share of that life. My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of the human race which is no more (and no less) ridiculous than I am myself.

From the The Sign of Jonas, 1953.

Merton in England

I have concluded the first part of Monica Furlong’s very engaging biography of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, mystic and spiritual writer. Monica Furlong was an Anglican with a strong interest in what we now call Christian Socialism. She died in 2003. This book is from 1985. In it she has developed the biography from Merton’s own works, interviews with friends of his then alive and research in various Merton archives. She acknowledges specifically Brother Patrick Hart who was the keeper of Merton’s papers in Gethsemani.

I have enjoyed so far her account of Merton’s younger days in France, his deep love and appreciation for the France of the Languedoc, its rootedness in a long history of faith and civilisation. Merton’s England also communicates itself in these early extracts from Seven Story Mountain where he describes his life at Oakham school in the East Midlands, his escapades in London, and his descent into darkness during his largely failed undergraduate years at Clare College in Cambridge.

His relationship with his father is very moving, a father who had himself discovered religious faith through suffering (he died of a long struggle with a brain tumour). Something of this experience remained with Merton and undoubtedly influenced his later decisions and life-choices.

manton-507733

Merton’s intellectual life developed considerably through his exploration of modern literature and his travels in Europe. Furlong rightly compares him to a Merton contemporary, T. S. Eliot. But, as she notes, Merton already sensed the shallowness and hypocrisy of the English upper and professional classes of pre-war 1930s England. Some of this, by the way, is caught admirably in the BBC World War I series on the Royal Flying Corps, Wings. Oddly enough, Eliot, with his more austere early spiritual and poetic apprenticeship, seemed more in tune with English and Anglican sensibilities than Merton.

Merton’s life in England came to an abrupt end when he found himself as an eighteen year old caught up in a paternity case involving a girl in Cambridge by whom he fathered a child. Tom Bennett, Merton’s godfather following the death of his father, a Harley Street doctor, was brutally cold and confrontational with Merton in regard to the affair. He interrogated him at his consulting rooms and arranged a settlement out of court. Furlong notes that Merton perceived himself as treated very unjustly because, in leading a debauched life at Cambridge, Merton believed himself to be following the admired examples of happy hedonism laid out in the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway so admired by Bennett. Merton saw this as hypocrisy.

Merton cuts a very lonely figure at this point in his life. He has been wounded by his experimentation in expressing his sexuality and he has failed to find love. His understanding of love is both overly romanticised and shallow. He has no sense of human love as mutual relationship and care, something he might have learned from his parents, his grand-parents and, indeed, his guardians. Like everyone else, he was not spared the painful existential wasteland where life and love reveal themselves in their fullness.

The concluding paragraph at the end of the first section of the the book says it all:

Both the descriptions and the feelings are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, another exiled American struggling with despair. Unlike Eliot, Merton passionately wanted to be a participant in life, not the fastidious observer. Part of him longed to be man of action, the Hemingway man with his women, liquor, fights and his easy knowledge of the world, and he had the courage and the nervous vitality for it. Another part, desperately vulnerable, wanted but was afraid of tenderness, kindness, love, some real authenticity of feeling, and was nauseated by the squalor of the ways in which men seek for this. An inviolable innocence remained, even in his despairing attempts to become the perfect man of ‘the world’.

Merton felt that England did not appreciate him. HIs good friend from that time Andrew Wisner, the son of an Anglican priest, with whom Merton had spent vacations, noted that Merton at times was, for his friends, embarrassingly ‘un-English’. The ‘muscular Christianity’ preached from the pulpit of Oakham College saw gentlemanly behaviour and doing the ‘decent thing’ as the epitome of Englishness and good Christian behaviour.

Merton was seen to fail in this. Hence, Bennett told him to stay in America when he left for the Summer vacation of 1932.

See this YouTube for a lecture at Merton’s old school, Oakham College, marking the centenary of Merton’s birth.

Ultimate Mystery

The Mystery we call God

From Karl Rahner we have received a contemporary understanding of God as ‘the mystery we call God’. Understanding God as ‘mystery’ is not unique to Rahner. Indeed, it is the very foundation of the Orthodox theological tradition. It was the Latin tradition that, unfortunately, began to focus on God as concept, reaching its climax in Anselm and Aquinas. Anselm was the one who spoke of God as ‘that which none greater can be thought’, by which he meant a concept rather than the personal God of biblical revelation. Aquinas spoke of God in terms of foundation and origin of all existence and existents. Rahner’s own reflections on the experience of God has much in common with Aquinas.

Rahner recovered an earlier biblical understanding of God as ‘event’ (Ereignis) within the horizon of human experience. Although formally, this approach is shaped by contemporary existential philosophy, it has many resonances with the biblical understanding of God. God is a person who speaks, questions and responds within our experience.

The mystery encounters us within the horizon of our reflective experience. It is not alien to us, or imposed upon us. It is not a mystery which does violence to our freedom as persons or as enquirers. Rather it is an event that has the character of invitation and call (an idea that has Ignatian spirituality written all over it!).

Here is what Rahner says:

Our existence is embraced by an ineffable mystery whom we call God. We can exclude him from our day-to-day awareness by the concerns and activity of our daily lives; we can drown the all-pervading silence of this mystery. But he is there: as the one comprehensive, all-bearing ground of all reality; as the comprehensive question that remains when all individual answers have been given; as the goal to which we reach beyond all individual goals and all individual good things of life; as the future which lies beyond all motion; as the ultimate guarantee that there is really a responsibility for our freedom which cannot be shifted on to someone else; which we cannot elude by leaping into nothingness; as the one truth in which all individual knowledge has its ultimate home and order; as the promise that selfless love will not be disappointed.

Quotation from The Heart of Rahner, Published by Burns and Oates, 1980, p. 33.

Peter Maurin

The article below is from Bishop Barron’s current Lenten Reflection series. For anyone who has interest in social action, the twin figures of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, offer a masterclass on what it means to link together social activism and a profound attachment to living the Gospel Message of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, they are somewhat forgotten. That remains a puzzle although in the United States, the Catholic Worker houses close to most university campuses remain active and committed. One point of clarification, Peter Maurin was educated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, not the Irish ones. The inspiration for both congregations was broadly similar.

Dorothy Day’s canonisation is being actively promoted at the moment by the Archdiocese of New York

Bishop Barron on Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day

Today I’d like to highlight one of the great Catholic figures of the twentieth century, Peter Maurin. He was educated by the Christian Brothers and, early on, became deeply inspired by the example of St. Francis.

In 1909, Maurin sailed for North America and for about twenty years lived a sort of radical Franciscan life, performing manual labor during the day, sleeping in any bed he could find, dining in skid-row beaneries. Any money he made, he spent on books or gave to those less fortunate.

During these years, Maurin was trying to develop a coherent Catholic social philosophy. The main problem with society, he felt, was that sociology, economics, and politics had all been divorced from the Gospel. The Gospel was a private concern of “religious” people and had no discernible effect on the way the political, social, and economic realms were run.

In a word, he thought that society had lost its transcendent purpose. Life had come to be organised around the drive for production and the search for profits, rather than around the real spiritual development of the person.

Maurin knew that the Church had an answer to this, and it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Maurin’s program was what he called “a personalist revolution,” which meant the building of a new world within the shell of the old, rather than waiting for social circumstances to change. The Christian should simply begin living according to a new set of values.

Meeting Dorothy Day

In 1932, Peter Maurin met a young woman in New York named Dorothy Day. For some years, Dorothy had been trying to find her path, a way of reconciling her new-found Catholic faith with her deep commitment to social action. With the arrival of Peter Maurin, she felt that her prayers had been answered.

He told her to start a newspaper which would present Catholic social teaching and provide for greater clarity of thought, and then to open “houses of hospitality” where the works of mercy could be concretely practiced. And this is precisely what she did. Together Day and Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement. They operated soup kitchens and bread lines for the poor, and invited homeless people to stay with them.

Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day remind us that we simply cannot love Christ without concretely loving those most in need. Love of Christ and love of neighbour coincide. Heaven and earth must come together.

Bishop Robert Barron, Lent Reflections, Word on Fire Ministries

Ashes to Ashes

Ash Wednesday 2

This afternoon, sitting in the Avalon backpacker’s café I pondered Ash Wednesday and what it might mean. For many today it is a ritual devoid of relevance for life or faith. An RTE radio presenter said this morning, “I have no idea what it’s all about.” Time was when on this day the foreheads of passers by on the street splotched with the ritual ashes were a commonplace. Not so today.

I finished my coffee and headed into the nearby Carmelite church where I knew there was a priest on duty. The church was warm, welcoming and an oasis of quiet in the city. A priest, brown habited and clearly a man of many years, stood near the first pews. A sporadic trickle of people went up to him, crossed themselves, and received the ashes on the forehead. It was an ancient ritual, marked by the apparent casualness of habit but still retaining some connection to the faded beliefs of the past.

As I, too, crossed myself, I heard the priest say the words, “Remember that Thou art dust and unto dust you shall return,” as he signed the ashes on my forehead, I felt myself entering for a brief moment some coincidence of my past, my present and my future life beyond death. The priest said, “Thank you for coming” and prepared himself to welcome the next seeker of cleansing and consolation.

I was reminded of T. S. Eliot making his wartime visit to the village of East Coker in Somerset. A person of strong religious faith that found expression in his poetry, Eliot revealed in The Four Quartets, an acute sense of time, time present and time future, condensed into the discrete moments of transcendence. It was for him a kind of reaching out for the eternal, for cosmic wholeness, in today’s language. The famous often quoted words, “In my beginning is my end … “, echo the words of the Ash Wednesday ritual Are we secularised people still open to this fusion of time and eternity? Eliot thought so. Otherwise, to use his words, we would ‘miss the meaning’.

Ritual, at its best, opens up for us in the casual simplicity of a gesture an intimation of the cosmic eternal moment which alone makes the discrete discordances of our lived experience ultimately meaningful. It bestows a kind of redemption. Eliot sought redemption in language but his poetry often contains echoes religious ritual. He could discern the mystery of things in nature, in gesture, in the pain of life, with which he himself was personally familiar. A light shines in the darkness.

“Be still and let the darkness come upon you, which is the darkness of God” (T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets)

Something to Do
4QuartetsListen to Jeremy Irons read the Four Quartets here. It might help to ritualise this beginning of Lent in a quiet hour.

The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.