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.


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.


Biblical Interpretation

This morning I took down from my shelves the slim volume, The Bible without Illusions by the two Hanson Brothers, Bishop Richard and Professor A. T. Hanson (it was their last book together since Bishop Richard died before its publication in 1989). I purchased the book for €1 from Milltown Institute when it’s library closed in 2012.

The topic of the book is essentially biblical hermeneutics. It dispels early on the notion, popular among some fundamentalists, that a pure interpretation of the biblical text, unmediated by other forms of interpretation, is not only possible but is the only valid way to read the Bible. The authors are at pains to stress early on that there is no such thing as an un interpreted biblical text. There is no such thing as an un interpreted Bible.

It speaks to my poor knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics that I was until now largely unaware that the LXX introduced a certain accommodation of the original Hebrew text to the circumstances of the day in its translations. Hanson notes, for example, that the LXX translation of the Psalms tends to emphasise the universalist dimensions of revelation, a perspective more suited to the context of the spread of Judaism to the Diaspora and beyond. He also points out the ways in which the LXX sought to tone down the cruder anthropomorphises when referring to God in the Hebrew text. Clearly, we can see here the influence of the more philosophically aware prevailing Greek culture.

In the second chapter of the book he provides some examples of how the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament texts from within the tradition of first century Judaism. Furthermore, he points out how Jesus himself did the same. The example in this regard is the discussion of the Sabbath where Jesus refers to a text from Samuel concerning David. Jesus speaks about David and his little band. However, the biblical text contains no mention of ‘a.little band of followers’. But this was the interpretative tradition in first century Judaism. Clearly, Jesus was aware of it, as were his hearers, and so it served to underpin the point he was making concerning the Sabbath.

The chapter refers to many other examples showing how the New Testament writers consistently interpreted the OT in light of the prevailing rabbinical tradition of their day. All of which reinforces the main point: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted bible.

At the end of the chapter Hanson notes the progress in the development of an ecumenical understanding of the Bible in the twentieth century. He refers to Pope Leo XIII’s attempt through the 1902 establishment of the Biblical Commission to provide authoritative interpretations of biblical texts that would assist Catholics who were confronted by the initial phase of post-Enlightenment thinking and the findings of historical criticism. In Hanson’s view this was a total failure. The Biblical Commission no longer exists and is incorporated into the Pontifical Institute with a relationship to the CDF.

On a more personal note I discovered that Father Fearghas O’Fearraill, the amiable and learned parish priest of Windgap in County Kilkenny, is a member of the Pontifical Institute.

Maurice Blondel

Maurice Blondel

When I was a student at the Institut Catholique in the 1980s, I participated in a course by Dominican priest, Bernard Quelquejeu, a course entitled, “Action”. My theological education at that point was eclectic that I failed, at least, initially to make the connection to Maurice Blondel’s 1893 seminal work of the same title. To this day, the word ‘action’ in this context leaves me confused. I had thought of the term as referring to ethics, to the how we answer questions about what is the good and just thing to do. That was a kind of Aristotelian response to my question. More recently, re-reading old essays of mine, I have begun to see that the term refers to some thing more like the ‘work of human hands’ in the liturgy. It is about the connection between the divine and the human in world of human affairs.

However, I now know that it is more precisely about the relationship of human subjectivity to the objectivity of divine revelation. One writer, William Portier, an American, refers to the Baltimore Catechism definition of faith: faith as the assent to revealed truths on the authority of God. My own Maynooth Catechism was equally a reflection of the Neo-Scholastic position on these matters. If I had read Garigou-Lagrange’s Reality (1949) I would have heard exactly the same definition of faith.

It seems that the question revolves around those twin poles of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, the search for truth presumes that there are objectively knowable religious truths and on the other hand there is the human subject who appropriates these truths. It was Blondel’s historic insight to appreciate, probably one of the first to do so, the fundamental importance of the subject in the assent of faith. I am presuming that Newman was also on to the same thing.

The opposition to Blondel was in large measure prompted by the Church’s total opposition to the turn to the subject that took place in the nineteenth century, a reaction that was in large measure against Immanuel Kant. All of the calamities that the Church experienced in the nineteenth century were laid at the door of subjectivism. It was the Jesuits of La Fourvières in Lyon who were among the first to read Blondel sympathetically, among them the famous Henri de Lubac who published his famous Le Surnaturel in 1940. This book and de Lubac himself contributed significantly to Vatican II.

What I found interesting in reading Portier’s essay was the later connection to John Paul II’s encyclical Fiedes et Ratio which appeared in 1998. This encyclical was intended both to reconnect with De Lubac and also a rehabilitation of Blondel.

See William Portier’s Blondel paper in Communio here.

See the following for notes from Notre Dame on Fides et Ratio.

See also John Fagan’s commentary and summary of Fides et Ratio on the CERC site here.

The Time is Now


I believe that the time is now for resolute and inspired action in the Church. The Cardinals gathered in Rome need to take seriously the presence of the Holy Spirit among the community of believers as well as among themselves. They need to let go once and for all of an outdated understanding of revelation as something fixed in dogmas, rigidly cast in the aspic of timeless eternities.

In his 1926 Lowell Lectures the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said:

Religions commit suicide when they find their inspirations in their dogmas. The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion. By this I mean that it is to be found in the primary expressions of the intuitions of the finest types of religious lives. The sources of religious belief are always growing, though some supreme expressions may lie in the past.

Niebuhr, in his book The Meaning of Revelation, has argued that religion and religious beliefs arise within the lived history of people. Neither metaphysics nor science have given us religious beliefs. Quoting Luke’s Gospel (1:1) Niebuhr points out that the origin of Christian faith are “those things which happened among us and to us”. What we believe as Christians is as much about the conclusions we reach on the basis of a shared reflection on our stories as believers as it is on what is set down in the catechism. Whitehead, by the way, in his Lowell Lectures was at pains to point out that there is a role for dogmas in the shaping of religious beliefs.

So, back to the Cardinals, it is my own personal hope that the Cardinals will give time to discernment, reflection and talking. They should not be limited to whatever is presented by way of ‘official guidance’, whether this should come in the form of an official sermon or by any rigidity in the interpretation of their task as electors.

Let us hope that they will give all the necessary time required to reflect on what the times are saying, what the people of God are saying, and what recent events are saying. It is only in this way that they can possibly understand what is ‘revealed’ to them.

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