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.

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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.

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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.

Immaculate Conception

No sooner had I written the heading for this blog post than I knew I was in trouble. Immaculate Conception. One word, the second, is non-problematic. A medical word. A human word. No problem. The preceding word, immaculate, in normal use is equally non-problematic. Put the two together and we enter a territory posted widely with advance warning signs.

To recap. For Catholics the two words, Immaculate Conception, refer to the scriptural and doctrinal teaching that Mary, a young woman in first-century Palestine was conceived, free from orignal sin. St. Augustine expended much intellectual energy and ink on the doctrine of original sin. However, he was less explicit about the idea of Mary having been born free of Adam’s original sin. He speaks of Mary having been “without sins“.

In the popular mind, however, this Augustinian inference which became dogma in the Catholic Church in 1950, is often conflated with the teaching on the virgin birth of Jesus. Today, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In Ireland, it is the traditional pre-Christian shopping day, acknowledged as such long before there was ever a Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

Of course, the idea of virgin birth, as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett would probably remind us, was a commonplace in the ancient mythologies, and elsewhere, too. I came across this view for the first time back in 1979 in John Hicks’ The Myth of God Incarnate. In the introductory essay to this book, Maurice Wiles, the noted liberal biblical scholar, suggested strongly that belief in the Incarnation was not an essential doctrine for Christianity. Many have argued as much since. However, it is true to say that for most Christians, this doctrine is still regarded as fundamental for their faith.

All of this was in my mind this morning as I prayed the liturgical Office of Readings. I expected the language of divine incarnation. But, unexpectedly, and perhaps because my theological antenna were acutely erect, I found myself drawn into the text and discovered a subterranean cluster of more contemporary ideas to which previously I had paid no attention.

The readings were from St Anselm and St Sophronius of Jerusalem. From St Anselm I read:

Yours was the privilege of carrying God into the world. (St Anselm)

Right there St Anselm pens in literary metaphor the traditional doctrine of the Church. I stumbled a little on the doctrine. But I admired the metaphor. And, then, thinking of a friend of mine whose baby is near term, I see the rightness of the language. What greater privilege is there for a woman than to bring a new human consciousness into the world. Men can’t do it. But focusing the new lenses of contemporary theological insight, there is a sense in which bringing a new human consciousness into the world is a birthing of the divine. Something akin to incarnation. It’s not just biological and evolutionary stuff.

To see human birth as a process through which the divine enters the world is an inheritance from the ancient world. Democritus, Epictetus and the Stoics, somewhat contemporaries of Jesus, believed this to be so. For them every human soul contained a spark of the divine. Equally, many of the Eastern religions see human beings as possessing the divine presence. Every human birth is an incarnation of the divine, they would say.

Today, we no longer believe that the human world alone is the locus of consciousness. From the work of people like David Chalmers (1995) we are invited to see consciousness as more widely present in the natural world than we hitherto believed. This remains disputed, of course. Nonetheless, many believe consciousness to be widespread and present throughout the natural world. John Feehan, among others, consistently stresses this insight (see his book, The Singing Heart of the World, 2012.

At the same time, self-consciousness is a defining feature of human identity (and not just reason as Kant would have it). On its own, the Universe cannot utter an “I”. Only with the emergence of the human has a consciousness of an “I” and a recognition of a “Thou” become possible. For this reason, many of our contemporaries understand evolution as the story of the Universe becoming conscious of itself.

Anselm of Canterbury
St. Anselm of Canterbury , died 1109

So, we can say, with St Anselm, that the human experience of giving birth participates in the transcendent mystery of the divine becoming present in the Universe. No wonder that he goes on to say:

The Universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the Blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Were these words from the pen of Matthew Fox or Brian Swimme we might not be surprised. But St Anselm of Canterbury! The Universe feels the presence of God. Strong language. And this presence is linked to Mary’s giving birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, it is true that the divine presence in the Universe has existed by the very act of Creation itself. The Universe is sacred. But human consciousness introduces the capacity for that presence to be recognised and come to being. And, in that sense, God is born, the divine comes into being.

That is what Incarnation is about. It is a myth. It is a reality. It is a daily miracle. And it is more. We celebrate Mary’s role in this miracle on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Truly, in Mary, all nature is blessed.

Death of John Tavener

Tavener_Main

John Tavener, the English composer, died yesterday at the age of 69. As a composer he is often compared to Arvo Pärt. He will be remembered as one of the great spiritual searchers of modern times.

I heard on Monday in a Radio 4 interview with Andrew Marr in a discussion of the place of spirituality in modern life. His music is disarmingly simple, soulful, emotionally engaging and profound in its intensity.

His own personal journey took him from the default contemporary position of indifference through Orthodoxy and the world religions to a sense of the deeper mystery at the heart of the universe. He was admired by people as diverse as the Beatles, Pope Benedict XVI and Roger Scruton.

Of his music, it has been said , “it is the nearest we will get to the voice of God”.

In the Beginning was Fire

In the Beginning was Fire

We learn from the astronomers, astrophysicists and the cosmologists that the universe probably began about 13.7 billion years ago in a “Big Bang”, what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry refer to as a “Flaring Forth” of cosmic matter that eventually evolved into the universe we know today. Cosmologists argue that every particle of matter, including the physiological particles that constitute the physical being of each one of us, was present in that initial moment of the “Big Bang”.

What is not clear is whether at that moment consciousness was present? Was matter already conscious? Or potentially conscious? To paraphrase Brian Swimme, at what point did the universe learn to “sing opera”?

The bible tells us in Genesis that the “Spirit hovered over the waters”. So there is a firm conviction in the biblical mind that consciousness was present from the very beginning, in some inchoate form that is unknown to us. The divine and the material world were intertwined from the beginning it would appear.

A Used Book Find

In one of my rambles across the city yesterday I popped into a second-hand bookshop where I was hunting around looking for a biblical commentaries. I have a high regard for some of the older non-Catholic biblical scholars, people like Lightfoot, Hoskyns, Dodd, and Nineham, as well as Catholic scholars like Meier, Brown, Murphy and Fitzmeyer.

This particular second-hand bookshop happens to be a favourite repository for books that once reposed on the shelves of clerical libraries. But yesterday there was nothing. However, I spotted a copy of Teilhard de Chardin’s, Hymn of the Universe, in a hardback edition and in excellent condition. It was once owned by The Hospital Library Council (1937-1967) in Dublin, a voluntary organisation that supplied library trolleys to Dublin hospitals (could you imagine that happening now!!).

This particular copy still had its library docket in the a pocket on the inside cover. The book had had four readers in its Hospital Library lifetime. two in 1967 (it was published in 1965) and two in 1971. After that the book disappeared into the holdings of the National Library and eventually found its way to my little second-hand bookshop. Needless to say I purchased it for the modest sum of some small loose change in my pocket.

It is an excellent book because unlike some of Teilhard de Chardin’s other books, it offers a beautiful reflection on evolution, cosmology, and the story of the universe. It offers a glimpse into Teilhard’s own spiritual life and the thinking which enabled him to integrate his cosmological insights with his deep religious faith. He understood that much of what we call religious doctrine is ultimately a metaphor and poetic account for the world of being and its relationship to the divine. His poetic imagination allowed him to see that biblical language, doctrinal language and religious language generally, are simply our inadequate attempts to give voice and image to our consciousness of reality. The ultimately real is beyond the language of the sciences and religion. T. S. Eliot once remarked that “Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed.” This statement might not find favour with the Vatican but it is a fairly accurate assessment of the task of Christian theology in the contemporary world.

In the Beginning ….

Here are some quotes from some early pages of Hymn of the Universe:

Fire, the source of being: we cling so tenaciously to the illusion that fire comes forth from the depths of the earth and that its flames grow progressively brighter as it pours along the radiant furrows of life’s tillage. Lord, in your mercy you gave me to see that this idea is false, and that I must overthrow it if I were ever to have sight of you. …

In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was Fire. This is the truth. …

So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of our ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being: everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.

From Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (1965), London: Collins, pp. 21-22.

The Story of the Universe

You’re out of date!

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Just now I logged on to my blog for the first time in over a year, I think. A New Year resolution to get back to writing each day has spurred me to me to begin again. As soon as I logged on to the blog dashboard a messaged flashed up: “your browser is out of date”. Since I’m using an old Mac G5 PowerPC I am becoming more used to these premptory messages. You’re out of date. It’s hard not to take it personally. Part of me relishes the excitement of having to ‘beat the system’ by maintaining my old Mac in optimal condition and finding work arounds to do what I need to do.

Enough on that topic. When it comes to tuning up the system in terms of how we live at the personal level, this time of the year always provides a new spur to the imagination and the will. This morning I was struck by the message in my inbox from Zen Habits, one of my ‘go to’ websites for spiritual and lifestyle practices. It was right on the money. Staring me in the face were what we might have called in an older language register ‘my besetting faults’, often the content for a conversation with one’s confessor or spiritual director: procrastination, perfectionism, jealousy, sloth, bad-mouthing people. Some things do not go out of date!

The Zen Habits site had one overall attitudinal perspective to offer, one that resonates strongly with me. Savour life! That’s it, savour life! Slow down! Take the time to be present to your own inner world and to what’s happening around you. Enjoy the pleasure of an empty road on a winter morning.

Brother David Steindl-Rast and the people at the gratefulness.org website remind me constantly of how spiritually enlivening it is to have a grateful attitude to life, to savour all of live and all of the things that happen to us as a blessing. Especially the people we meet each day whether friends, work colleagues or just people we run encounter on our daily commute or on the street.

Savouring life leads to slowing down, to living in the present and an openness to the mystery of all that is. As one gets older time appears to just speed up and yet at the end of a day it appears that little has been accomplished. Living in the moment and giving oneself to the task brings about fulfillment (and yes, if you want to use the word, ‘productivity’!).

Living life to the full is about savour each moment as it is given to us. Maybe that’s a lot better than trying weed out the persistent personal faults that have long taken root in our lives.