Haunted by Thomas Merton

I see him at various stages of his life as related in his books as I walk the streets of New York City. More than any other person, he has helped to open my spiritual life to new dimensions.

William Van Ornum
03.10.2013 // PRINT
J. K. Rowling was inspired by visions of St. John the Baptist as the saga of Harry Potter and friends percolated in her mind. He became the archetype for Professor Dumbledore – a wanderer in worlds earthly and spiritual – as well as a tutor, guide, and friend of Harry Potter.

I am haunted by Thomas Merton. I started reading his book, Seven Story Mountain, a few months after he died. I was in a public high school, and his love of God, the Church, and many things spiritual opened a new dimension in my life. The writing was beautiful. I can still remember the line in one poem, “Dear brother, if I do not sleep, my tears are flowers for your tomb,” written in memory of his brother, who had been killed in World War II.

This started a backward journey of sorts into Merton’s life. He wrote about his early days in the monastery in The Sign of Jonas with great sweetness and joy. Initially, Merton may have thought that he signed up for this journey, but he quickly discovered he had experienced a divine intervention similar to the kind that freed Jonas, who was trapped at the bottom of the sea.

I grew more socially aware as I read some of Martin’s other books. One in particular was Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. Many of his thoughts on nuclear war and civil rights – discordant with the spirituality of many Catholics and their prelates – were argued thoughtfully and reasonably. World War II was still part of the contemporary cloud, and in his prophetic way he warned us toward backsliding toward this kind of evil. After this, he was ordered by the censors in the Trappist order to stop writing about nuclear war. Instead he started to publish on peace!

He wrote back and forth with Boris Pasternak, recent winner of a Nobel Prize, but imprisoned in the political machinery of the Soviet Union.

There were both tragedy and beauty in Merton’s poetry, whether he was writing of the girls who were burned and killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham Alabama, or of weak reeds that bend with the wind until they finally break.

Nearly two decades later, I moved to New York. Without re-reading any of his books, his life appeared to me as I walked through Manhattan. On Fifth Avenue, there was the Scribner’s bookstore where he once picked up a volume by Hemingway. Then there was Madison Avenue – the center of materialism and consumerism which he inveighed so eloquently against. Of special note was 31st Street and the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. I thought of him praying in this church, maybe near where I was sitting at 6:15 in the morning. I felt close to him.

Another day, I walked up Broadway on the West Side. This called to mind his raucous but embryonic gestation at Columbia University, where William Blake opened doors to the spiritual realms that Madison Avenue was unaware of.

There were even some funny moments: walking by the Hotel Pennsylvania on Sixth Avenue, where an inebriated Merton checked in and dried out.

His thoughts have led me to visit three Trappist monasteries. There are few things more beautiful than getting up at 2 AM to pray with the monks and remaining there with a few of them until sunrise, when the amber glow from candles frames bright reds and blues in the stained glass windows at sunrise.

I frequently wonder what Thomas Merton would think about or say about contemporary events. He was a true progressive: one of the first to stand up and courageously confront the nuclear arms race and the racism in our United States. He even held retreats where people like Robert Kennedy and Robert Coles became inspired and then set out on their own pilgrimages.

Yet he was traditional, and conservative in the best meaning of the word. Just as environmentalists want to conserve clean streams and virgin forests, Merton wanted to keep the best aspects of the Catholic Church alive. Many emphasize his dialogue with the contemporary world, but another of his great achievements was to find inspiration and hope by going backwards in time in the Church – even if it meant reading long-gone Christians of antiquity who were martyred eighteen centuries ago.

Before Marty McFly, he traveled back to the future. He was a conjecturer, a paradox, and an iconoclast. Most importantly he was “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedek.”

In browsing through Disputed Questions, I found these words – was he thinking of 2013 when he wrote them?

"I know from my own experience that in the last twenty years, the world has moved a very long way towards conformism and passivity. So long a way that the distance is, to me, both frightening and disconcerting. America... not that the people do not complain and criticize, but their complaints and criticisms, indeed their most serious concerns, seem to be involved in trivialities and illusions.

The problem of the person and the social organization is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important problem of our century.  Every ethical problem of our day – especially the problem of war – is to be traced back to this root question.”

Along with Merton, Pope Francis affirms the crucial importance of the person, a higher good than even the organization and dogma of the Catholic Church. C. S. Lewis, another writer of Merton’s era, put this somewhat differently. He said that the human person and the Eucharist were the most precious things on earth, because in each of these, we encounter immortality.

Thomas Merton lives on here in his writing, but as one of his many biographers concluded, it is good to know that “...his light still shines brightly in some other place.”

William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for American Mental Health Foundation in NYC: www.americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.

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KCBC Bible Commission & Kerala Catholic Bible Society POC

A Kerala Model for New Evangelisation It‰Ûªs just awesome! 560,829 are the participants this year for Logos Mega Bible Quiz to be conducted on 30th September 2012 in Kerala the great and ancient centre of Christianity in India. The interest in the Quiz has gone up steadily since it was initiated in 2000 the Great Jubilee Year by the Bishops‰Ûª conference. This year saw an increase of 25,000 compared to last year‰Ûªs registration (537,300). This colossal phenomenon, called ‰Û÷Logos Mega Bible Quiz‰Ûª, invites the keen attention of the universal Church at the dawn of the Synod on New Evangelization. The Aim The Logos Bible Quiz, which is organized by Kerala Catholic Bishops‰Ûª Council‰Ûªs Bible Commission, provides people opportunity to read and study the Holy Bible carefully. ‰ÛÏOur aim is to promote interest in Bible reading and to cultivate a culture of systematic study of the Bible in order to make a vibrant Christian life possible‰Û, says Rev. Dr. Joshy Mayyattil the chief co-ordinator of Logos Mega Quiz and Secretary of KCBC Bible Commission and Kerala Catholic Bible Society. The Mode The participants, in the quiz conducted by Bible Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, are divided into six age groups. People of all walks of life can participate in this popular Bible quiz. Many religious and priests too participate in it. The preliminary round of the Logos Quiz, conducted in parishes under the auspice of Diocesan Bible Apostolate directors, lasts for one and half hours in which the participants will answer multiple answer questions. Three toppers from each age category will participate in the written quiz conducted in KCBC headquarters at Kochi. Top ten from each age category from this round will be eligible for the final round which includes audio, video, written, oral and Bible verse recitation tests. Once the final round gets over, the winners in each category is awarded with gold medals and cash prizes. And the champion of the Logos Quiz (Logos Prathibha) will have a free pilgrimage to Holy Land. The possibility of introducing scholarship for Bible study for the Logos winners is under consideration. Last year the Logos Prathibha (i.e., Logos Champion) was Sr. Betty LAR from the diocese of Palai. Year before last it was Miss Reshma Pius a 16-year old student hailing from an economically poor family. This Bible lover has proved that her family‰Ûªs richness consists in their love for the Scripture. A Year-long Preparation for 35 chapters! People prepare themselves well in advance for the quiz. The syllabus of almost 35 chapters from the Old and New Testaments (the syllabus for this year: Exodus 25-40; the Gospel of Mark; II Peter) for the quiz is announced a year in advance so that the contestants can get ample time to prepare. Often people carry their personal Bibles during travels in order to read the portions. In many cases parents and children get ready for the Logos making collective study and preparing notes in the family. It is not a rare thing in Kerala to see members of the same family, especially children, competing among themselves to learn biblical verses by-heart. In some places, the participants of the Logos Quiz sit together after the Sunday Catechesis and revise the topics. Study guides are also available. Last year more than 20 various guides were available in the bookshops. In Future ‰ÛÏLogos Quiz has become a Herculean task for the conducting team. However it is also a pleasant task‰Û, says Bishop George Punnakkottil the Chairman of KCBC Bible Commission. ‰ÛÏLast year we introduced on-line registration (visit: www.logosquiz.org). In a few years we will be able to conduct on-line exam also. Thus the desire of numerous Keralites abroad to participate in the Logos Quiz would be realized‰Û. ‰ÛÏThe KCBC Bible Commission has plans to make this Bible Quiz popular in other parts of the world too. For this purpose, the Bible Quiz, which is currently conducted in Malayalam and English, will be made available in other languages also‰Û, added Bishop Punnakkottil. The e-mails that the organizers of the Logos Bible Quiz receive are evidences for the desire of the people around the globe for such methods and tools for Bible study. The great success of this Bible contest in Kerala could be a pointer for the universal Church ‰ÛÒ Bible Quiz, if culturally adapted, may be one of the best means for the new evangelization.
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