St. Benedict on Mercy

Just a tidbit from Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent piece in Commonweal entitled “How a Monk Learns Mercy: Thomas Merton and the Rule of St. Benedict.”

“The most destructive forms of speech in community, Benedict understood, are those that involve judgments against the other.  Benedict calls this form of speech ‘murmuring,’ included [sic] all forms of griping, gossiping, and nagging.  He forbids it absolutely.  When I was a monk, I thought that the rule of silence was mainly in service of contemplation.  Now, after many years of suffering poisoned discourse in the halls of academe, I have come to understand that silence was mainly about charity.  As we learn every day in our new world of constant chatter, savage judgment, and long-distance shaming via (anti)social media, when speech is totally without restraint, mercilessness is an almost inevitable consequence.”

There are a number of other useful insights in the article, but whether it is at work, church, or in the home, I can relate to Johnson’s experience here.  So much of the talk is negative, tearing down either the hearers or others who aren’t in the room.  It makes me think, maybe my house needs more silence…

On the other hand, how do you convince kids to fold their laundry without nagging?  I am open to suggestions.

And then, how do you convince them not to nag and judge each other?  Besides by example, which, clearly, I’m not good enough at to count on.

Still, this passage in particular was a reminder for me to be careful with my speech.  Especially around my kids, who are forming their own patterns on mine.  Yikes.

Johnson closes with this thought, summing up the rest of the article.  It sounds like marching orders to me:

“But if Christians are to cogently and consistently represent the face of mercy – which is the face of Christ – in this valley of tears, then in some fashion, I think, they must find ways to gather together for prayer, to sing the psalms and canticles, to practice silence in the name of charity, to readily confess their faults to each other, and to receive strangers as Christ.”

Merton and Day

So I finally did it.  I went out and got myself a spiritual director.  And as I was explaining to her what I’ve been doing recently in my prayer life (this was difficult and guilt inducing!) I mentioned that I had been reading a lot of Merton, and before that some Dorthy Day.  Which Sister thought was an odd combination.  And for half a second or so, I nearly began to correct her, and say that it wasn’t odd at all, actually, but I thought better of that and moved on.  But I have kept thinking about it, and I think I was right (though the ideas are rough and not backed by specific texts at the moment – my Tulane degree is cringing as I write this!), they are really not far removed when you get down to what they each preached.  Simply, love your neighbor.  And that means everyone.  Both felt senses of guilt for the state the world was in, based mostly on their pre-conversion lifestyles.  Both argued that love of God comes to fruition in caring for other people as well and as sacrificially as we can.  Merton did this with prayer behind closed doors, but there seem to be times in his writing where the thinks that if her were worth his salt, he would be out doing exactly what Dorthy Day was doing.  On the other hand, Day emphasizes the need for spiritual grounding to survive the sort of work she engaged in.  The two complement each other clearly.  The fact that both felt they had been forgiven so much stirred both of them to charity and forgiveness, though neither ever shied to name and denounce sin wherever they found it.  The honesty, often the bluntness of both of their writings shines of the desire to know and be known, to open themselves and to thereby lead their readers further down whatever their personal paths might be.  Merton felt he needed the cloister to keep him from the temptations of the world, and that that sort of solitude was necessary for his salvation.  But he repeats that it does not free him from the necessity of loving his neighbor, within the monastery walls or without them.  The two have different methods, because of their different gifts and struggles, but one message.  Love greatly, for you are greatly loved.

Merton on Materialism, or, Merry Christmas to All

Now that you’re probably basking in the post-Christmas pile of, well, stuff, (as we are) here’s a little Merton to make you feel good about it all.  Or not.  If you don’t want to possibly feel guilty or depressed, don’t read on.

“It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness.  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”

Seven Story Mountain

And this was published in 1948!  What amazes me is, we’ve somehow managed to keep it up for this long!

Merton on Suffering

Merton is speaking of seeing his father in a hospital bed, unable to speak and disfigured by a brain tumor.  He is 14 or 15 years old, and has no faith or relationship with God to speak of.

“What could I make of so much suffering?  There was no way for me, or for anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it.  It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.  You had to take it, like an animal.  We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men withiout faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death.  You just had to take it, like a dumb animal.  Try to avoid it, if you could.  But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more.  Take it.  Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much.  But you will always have to take some of it.  And it will all devour you in the end.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to  your fear of being hurt.  The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all.  It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.  This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”

Seven Story Mountain

Which was a little helpful thinking about my Dad suffering, and my Mom now in grief, and one of Craig’s uncles who has been sick and in pain for years now.  And relating to childbirth, as well.  But with faith and by joining suffering to Christ on the cross, it is not so dire.

Summer Breeze

[A note:  I started this post on June 14, 2009, and finally was able to finish it today.  That explains the time differences, if anyone would have noticed them!]

I hope I never forget those afternoons last May when we were going without air conditioner.  (We mostly made it until June, by the way, but I’m not strong enough to do without when it’s getting up over 90 degrees every day!)  I’d be trying to get the girls down for a nap, and it seemed so hot, and just a little breeze would come in through the open window, and it felt so cool and refreshing…how I praised God for those little breezes!

I had occasion to remember those afternoons yesterday while I was helping my father-in-law shovel dirt/tree shavings from a pile the size of our living room into wheelbarrows to deliver to various gardens around the house.  It was too hot, and just the time of day when we probably should have been inside, or at least in the shade, but my father-in-law doesn’t believe in leaving for later work that can be finished now, so I was out helping.  And here and there we would get a cool breath of wind, and well, I would almost fall down in rapturous praise.

Silently, of course.

Because my father-in-law, though respectful, is not a religious man.  (Unless you count the cult of LSU in some way, which I do not.)  He does, however, have a great appreciation for nature.  He and I share a yearning for mountains and forests, wild things as yet untamed.  He brings what he can of this nature into his gardens, where he spends hours digging, potting, transplanting, mulching, and doing all those little things which I hope I’ll learn as I try to grow my own little patches of paradise.  It is not worship, I don’t think, but there is certainly sacrifice involved!  For me, as I think I’ve said before, gardening can be a very spiritual experience, a chance to slow down and appreciate the wonderous creation God has put on this earth for us.  I had to wonder, as I tried not to swoon from joy during one of those welcome breezes, what does my father-in-law feel out here?

Because it seems to me that if there is anywhere that it should be easy to meet God, it must be in nature.  Of course you can meet Him in the Eucharist, in other people, in great art; but I think that in these sort of places, you more often have to be looking.  God can give you the flash of knowing, like Merton on the street corner in Louisville, but I have to think that experience would be hard to take when you are not disposed to try and see other people as your brothers and sister.  Out in His creation (as opposed to our concrete creations – there’s another post!), where He made the rules, there are fewer hangups – no race, to gender, no strange clothing or hair colors.  No maniacal drivers to dodge.  No repetitive, square, bland, (and did I mention repetitive?) buildings.  Everything sings the praise and glory of our God, every creature joins in extolling how wondrously it is made, how carefully its designs fit together with its surroundings so that all survive and thrive.  It is a simple kind beauty, in the way, I think, that we speak of God as “simple”.

So standing there, wondering these things, shovel in hand, mother-in-law’s straw hat on my head, those little breaths of wind brought me more refreshment than relief for my steaming body.  They carried to me, for those whom I love who doubt, a little breath of hope.

Simplicity and Sincerity

Some friends and I were discussing the heated discussions that tend to happen on the Catholic blogosphere (how do you spell that??), and today I came across this reading, which I thought worth noting.

“False sencerity has much to say, because it is afraid.  True candor can afford to be silent.  It does not need to face an anticipated attack.  Anything it may have to defend can be defended with perfect simplicity.

“The arguments of religious men are so often insincere, and their insincerity is proportionate to their anger.  Why do we get angry about what we believe?  Because we do not really believe it.  Or else what we pretend to be defending as the “truth” is really our own self-esteem.  A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself. …

“In the end, the problem of sincerity is a problem of love.  A sincere man is not so much one who sees the truth and manifests it as he sees it, but one who loves the truth with a pure love.  But truth is more than an abstraction.  It lives and is embodied in men and things that are real. And  the secret of sincerity is, therefore, not to be sought in a philosophical love for abstract truth but in a love for real people and real things – a love for God apprehended in the reality around us.

“The saint must see the truth as something to serve, not as something to own and manipulate according to his own good pleasure.  The selfishness of an age that has devoted itself to the mere cult of pleasure has tainted the whole human race with an error that makes all our acts more or less lies against God.  An age like ours cannot be sincere.”

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, excerpted in A Thomas Merton Reader, pp. 123-125

Wow, that is harsh.  And hard.  Merton does not mince words.  I have certainly found much in his writing (thus far) that is inspiring, and even more that is challenging.


“Those who love God should attempt to preserve or create an atmosphere in which He can be found.  Christians should have quiet homes.  Throw out television, if necessary — not everybody, but those who take this sort of thing seriously.  Radios useless.  Stay away from the movies — I was going to say ‘as a penance’ but it would seem to me to be rather a pleasure than a penance, to stay away from the movies.  Maybe even form small agrarian communities in the country where there would be no radios, etc.

“Let those who can stand a little silence find other people who like silence, and create silence and peace for one another.  Bring up their kids not to yell so much.  Children are naturally quiet — if they are left alone and not given the needle from the cradle upward, in order that they may develop into citizens of a state in which everybody yells and is yelled at.  (pp. 301-302)

“…When you gain this interior silence you can carry it around with you in the world, and pray everywhere.  But just as interior asceticism cannot be acquired without concrete and exterior mortification, so it is absurd to talk about interior silence where there is no exterior silence. (p. 302)”

-Thomas Merton The Sign of Jonas, excerpted in Henri Nouwen’s Pray to Live, pp. 118-119.

Quiet children.  Now there’s an idea…   Not just shut up, but naturally peaceful and quiet.   But how to go about it?

On that note, Samantha is now crawling!  It’s not perfect crawling, she uses on knee and one foot, but it gets her across the room, and she can now crawl up to me and pull herself up a little on my pant leg and express that she wants something.  Along with crawling has come a banshee baby sound, which tends to mean, “Lucy took my toy from me again!”  But for the moment they are actually sleeping, and I can think about silence.