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.

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

All Things were Cast Down

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. If you live in Ireland, you will know that this was a traditional pre-Christmas shopping day. People from ‘the country’ (that is anyplace outside the M50 Dublin motorway!) got on the train to come to Dublin to spend the day shopping and, hopefully, get home in time for tea. It was a happy day, full of expectation and warm feelings about family. Mothers, of course, were on the frontline braving queues and armed with Santa lists.

Theological Considerations

But there is also the deeper and more tangled side of this Feast of Our Lady.

There was a time when theologically the interpretation of the feast-day biblical and doctrinal texts all cohered and made sense in a way that the traditional school catechism could explain so clearly. That is the ‘clarity’ of the old days that many conservative Catholics miss so keenly. What was the basis of this clarity? It all went back to Adam and the original sin. Sin is the overarching category that casts a long shadow on everything. According to the catechism understanding what we celebrate today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the first sign of retreat of our ‘original condition of sin’ in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate.

Today, words like ‘original sin’, ‘sin’, and ‘redemption’ are uncomfortable, to say the least. They drift through our minds like so much ancient debris from a great primeval flood.

Most of the time what we try to do with these concepts and ideas that seem no longer to fit is to either ignore them or refashion them into something more amenable, something less edgy. But they are difficult to set aside, especially, if, like me, you continue to pray in traditional forms, using traditional words, because they are familiar, because they have shaped one’s spiritual life, because in some inexplicable way they continue to nurture hope, faith and belonging. They are the words from our two thousand year old tradition. Still hanging around and unwilling to just drift away on the secular tide.

Anselm again, God help us!

This morning I looked at the texts from my Benedictine Daily Prayer with some trepidation, my mind expecting to fight with the words. But that did not happen. Instead, armed with all my recent reading on the story of the Universe, the story of evolution, my struggles with Richard Dawkins, and wonderful memories of time spent with John Feehan, geologist, botanist and author of The Singing Heart of the World, I found myself in a good space. To use contemporary hermeneutical speak, I began to pay attention to the text beyond the text. It was an opening to that ‘fusion of horizons’ which Gadamer described so well in his challenging work Truth and Method. When we see to understand something we alway bring to it our own ‘horizon of understanding’.

The Office of Readings has its first text the Discourse by Saint Anselm. I ‘bracketed’ my rejection of Anselm’s well-known atonement theory and allowed the text to speak within a new horizon, within the horizon of my awareness of cosmological time and of the evolutionary story of nature itself. Anselm had no clue of any of these things but probably had his suspicions.

Anselm says:

Heaven, stars, earth, day, night, and all that serves humankind has been raised up and newly graced in you, our Lady. All things died, as it were, for they had ceased to serve the needs and will of those who praise God, they were cast down and degraded to servants of idolaters.

All was cast down. Something has gone wrong with creation. Anselm goes on in the text to speak of Mary as the mother of ‘the new creation’.

A New Horizon of Understanding

Of course, the reflexes of my youth would prompt me to make a smooth transition to ‘catechism language’ but my new horizons allow me to see the new text emerging from behind the words. The text behind the text. There is always a text behind the text. And even a text ‘before’ the text, the new horizon of meaning.

I can sense Anselm’s joy in reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. He summons a cosmological perspective, one limited by his own cultural and pre-scientific knowledge. Within that he intuits that something momentous is at work. He perceives it happening in the miracle of the Incarnation and the work of redemption. Everything is transformed, including nature itself. That perspective is one that Paul takes up in Romans 8 and it has informed Eastern theology ever since.

For me, as I read, I am aware of the struggles in Paris at the COP21 conference and I can still hear the fading murmur of Storm Desmond passing over Ireland. Anselm presents a picture of a fundamental alienation from the cosmos, from nature, and, indeed, from ourselves. Nature, he perceives, has become degraded, become simply an instrument for ‘idolators’. It is we humans, our human consciousness, that enslave the natural world and its species. It is our ‘degraded’, ‘unredeemed’ consciousness that is bringing about the death of the natural world.

Towards an Emerging Understanding

Were Anselm alive today I have no doubt that he would read the biblical texts with a different mindset. He would understand the absolute necessity for a new redeemed relationship with nature itself, one that cannot wait for the ‘end times’, but must take place now and be given expression now in the birth through a new ecological awareness of a new appreciation of our graced relationship with the totality of the natural world, and, indeed, with the universe itself.

This is a cosmic vision on a grand scale. In this feast of Our Lady we celebrate the possibility through the Incarnation of just such a new world. But we need to shed the prejudices and naïvetés of the past.

This is what John Feehan, along with Thomas Berry and others, articulates so beautifully and so clearly in The Singing Heart of the World. What is important is the new horizon of meaning that we bring to the text, from whatever age the text comes. Gadamer was correct when insisted on the inevitability of the hermeneutical challenge. Our texts remain at once both wonderfully original and provisional. And that is the reason why they can prompt a re-calibration of our own mindset.

The Burning of the Leaves

Image

In our part of the world at this time of the year leaves are gathered. Sometimes an industrial blower is used to push the leaves into a neat pile. More often than not the task requires the use of brushes, rakes and shovel. Leaves are binned, bagged and taken away by trucks. Careful householders who are ecologically aware pile the leaves into their compost heaps where next spring nutritious mulch will be produced for fertilising gardens. The cycle of life continues.

Some time ago I came across a poem, The Burning of the Leaves, by Lawrence Binyon. I greatly admired the verses and their theme of destruction, death, renewal and new life. Mistakenly, I had thought at first that the burning of the leaves referred to the annual autumnal leaf burning, a practice now forbidden on ecological grounds. It turns out, on closer reading, that the burning of the leaves refers, in fact, to a forest fire. We now know that forest fires contribute directly to the renewal of growth in a forest. Foresters engage deliberately in tree burning to promote new growth.

Lawrence Binyon was born to a distinguished Quaker family in Lancashire, England, in 1869. He went on to read classics at Oxford. He took up a position at the British Museum where he went on to become the Keeper of its Oriental Department. Following his marriage to Margaret Powell in 1904 he became acquainted with a circle of artists and poets, among whom were Ezra Pound and Walter Sickert.

HIs most famous poem, often cited at Remembrance Day services, at this time of the year is For the Fallen. Although written prior to the war, it has now become firmly associated with the commemoration of the dead of World War I. He himself participated in the war as an ambulance driver. Following the war, he resumed his work at the museum and continued to publish poetry. In the 1930s he was named Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and on his return to England was honoured by further academic and literary honours. During World War II he was living in Athens and narrowly escaped the Germans when they invaded Greece. He returned to England where he died in 1943.

The poem, The Burning of the Leaves, was published posthumously in a book of poetry of the same name in 1944.

 

The Burning of the Leaves

Some verses from The Burning of the Leaves:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

The freshness of leaves is from them, and the springing of grass,
The juice of the apple, the rustle of ripening corn;
They know not the lust of destruction, the frenzy of spite;
They give and pervade, and possess not, but silently pass;
They perish not, though they be broken; continuing streams,
The same in the cloud and the glory, the night and the light.

 

For the Fallen

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam

Thinking about Nature

frost_on_grass_600x380

In an article entitled “Climate Change: Economics or Ethics?”John Sweeney, professor of geography at NUI Maynooth has made a thoughtful and lucid contribution to the current debate concerning climate change. The article appears in the current issue of Working Notes, a publication of the Irish Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The recent report of the UN Inter-Governmental Conference and the up-coming Warsaw COP19 Climate Change Conference are contexts for renewed thinking about the issue of climate change.

Why is there so little movement on putting in place binding agreements at the international level on practical policies to combat climate change? There are many reasons. But one of them is the prevalence in the Western scientific and public consciousness of deeply-engrained attitudes toward the natural world. Sweeney notes that “the anthropometric worldview has blinded humanity to the obvious fact that far from being above nature we are dependent on it today as were the Neanderthals, though the relationship is more complex.”

A key ethical question that cuts across all political and philosophical discussions of climate change is whether we have an ethical responsibility towards those future generations who may have to bear the consequences of our selfish disregard for the current fragile state of the planet. The answer might appear obvious, but so brainwashed are we by the dominant individualistic culture of contemporary liberalism, that the answer is not at all obvious.

Sweeney refers to a classic essay by Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967) where White argued that the prevailing attitude asserting human dominance over nature is culturally derived from the Christian tradition. White has shown that our sense of a separation from nature coincides with the rise of Judeo-Christianity. Anthropocentrism is deeply embedded in Christian theology and anthropology. Celtic Ireland, however, experienced a deep connection with nature. Even as late as the Middle Ages, the Brehon laws counselled a respectful attitude towards the natural world.

Fundamentally, Sweeney argues that the scientific worldview has failed us. It lacks the moral power to persuade. Ethics and religion have a role to play in this regard. A religious worldview that has integrated the sacredness of the natural world within its ethical framework can be a powerful and persuasive voice in the raising of consciousness concerning the dangers that confront our planet. In his day, Saint Francis was such a voice. We need someone today of the stature and personal appeal of Pope Francis to spur us to paying some attention.

mindfulness

I am currently involved in mindfulness meditation training. I am finding it challenging and very beneficial to my way of being in the world. Mindfulness is inspired by the Buddhist tradition although most spiritual paths offer similar approaches to meditation and contemplation. What is central to mindfulness is the commitment to live in the present moment, to live from moment to moment as Jacob Kabot-Zinn says in his book, Full Catastrophe Living. We have, he says, only “moments” to live. Quite a dramatic way of putting it.

Grand Canal Sunset, Dublin, Ireland

Mindfulness encourages a contemplative presence in the world. It is about letting go and letting things be as they are, without trying to impose our will on what is happening. This does not mean that we cannot change what is going on around us, whether in our family life, our workplace, or wider society. What it does mean, it seems, is that our way of bringing out change comes from a different mindset, a different spiritual place. It means doing things in ways that acknowledges that we are limited people, that other points of view matter, that being patient and attentive is important, and that somehow the universe will conspire with us to see that things go right.

It is a new way of being, one that is challenging for people like myself who have been goal-driven and action-oriented for most of my life. Maybe in these days I can learn some wisdom.