Participating in Movement for Justice

December 4th, 2020 by JDVaughn No comments »

Spirituality and Social Movements

Participating in Movements for Justice
Friday, December 4, 2020

I think there are three basic levels of social ministry, and none is better than the other. I believe all are the movement of the Holy Spirit within us for the sake of others. I like to imagine a river flooding out of control—symbolizing the circumstances and injustices that bring about suffering—overflowing its banks and sweeping those in its path off their feet.

At the first level, we rescue drowning people from the swollen river, dealing with the immediate social problem right in front of us: someone hungry comes to our door and we offer them some food, or invite them inside. These are hands-on, social service ministries, like the familiar soup kitchen or food pantry. Such works will always look rather generous, Christian, charitable, and they tend to be admired, if not always imitated.

At the second level, there are ministries that help people not to fall into the swollen river in the first place, or show them how to survive despite falling in. In general, these are the ministries of education and healing. Most of the religious orders in the Catholic Church in the last three hundred years went in that direction, filling the world with schools, hospitals, and social service ministries that empowered people and gave them new visions and possibilities for their lives.

Finally, on the third level, some ministries build and maintain a dam to stop the river from flooding in the first place. This is the work of social activism and advocacy, critique of systems, organizing, speeches, boycotts, protests, and resistance against all forms of systemic injustice and deceit. It is the gift of a few, but a much-needed gift that we only recently began to learn and practice. It seeks systemic change and not just individual conversion.

I don’t think most people feel called to activism; I myself don’t. It was initially humiliating to admit this, and I lost the trust and admiration of some friends and supporters. Yet as we come to know our own soul gift more clearly, we almost always have to let go of certain “gifts” so we can do our one or two things well and with integrity. I believe that if we can do one or two things wholeheartedly in our life, that is all God expects.

The important thing is that we all should be doing something for the rest of the world! We have to pay back, particularly those of us born into privilege and comfort. We also must respect and support the other two levels, even if we cannot do them. Avoid all comparisons about better or lesser, more committed or less committed; those are all ego games. Let’s just use our different gifts to create a unity in the work of service (Ephesians 4:12–13), and back one another up, without criticism or competition. Only in our peaceful, mutual honoring do we show forth the glory of God.

Spirituality and Social Movements

December 3rd, 2020 by Dave No comments »

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A Migrant Movement for Justice
Thursday, December 3, 2020

In the 1960s, while the Civil Rights movement was creating significant change on a national level, the farmworkers in the western United States, under the leadership of César Chávez (1927-1993), were organizing for better pay and working conditions. The movement was informed and strengthened by Chávez’s authentic Catholic faith. Marvin Mich shares some of the history of that time:

As a Mexican American from the farms of Gila Valley (near Yuma), Arizona, César [Chávez] had known the poverty, despair, and discrimination that went with being a migrant worker. In 1949 when Chávez was 22, he was married and living in a barrio of San Jose, California, called “Sal Si Puede” (meaning “leave if you can”). . . .

The young Chávez was being shaped by his own experience of poverty and despair, but also by the vision and moral principles of Catholic social thought. Rerum Novarum [the 1891 papal encyclical concerning the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor] and the Roman Catholic tradition were not distant, dusty principles for Chávez, but rather the building blocks for his emerging social, moral, and spiritual identity. . . .

The strike, la huelga, which began in September 1965, lasted for five years before contracts were signed with 140 grape growers and the United Farm Workers. During this time many church people and college students joined the strikers and supported the call for a national table grape boycott. [1]

Writer Daniel Rhodes explains how César Chávez’s spiritual roots impacted all aspects of the farmworkers struggle for justice:

The farmworker union was no normal union, and this would be no standard union struggle. It was a struggle that reached all the way down to their values, their spirits and faith—something Chávez understood and from which he drew. In fact, his first act after the vote [to strike] was to gather his family and pray a Hail Mary for each grower. Incessant prayer and regular Mass permeated the movement. [2]

The following prayer is César Chávez’s “Prayer of the Farm Worker’s Struggle,” which shows how devotion to God combined with action in the movement. I am deeply touched by the simplicity and humility of his prayer:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.

Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.

Amen. [3]

Spirituality in the Civil Rights Movement

December 2nd, 2020 by JDVaughn No comments »

Spirituality and Social Movements

Spirituality in the Civil Rights Movement
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The deeply spiritual foundation of the Civil Rights movement is often underemphasized. The movement that sought political and legal equality for Black Americans was grounded in faith. The devout Christian commitment of virtually all its leaders, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer to John Lewis, inspired them to work for the dignity and equality of all. Rosemarie Freeney Harding (1930–2004), the wife of civil rights leader Vincent Harding (1931-2014), recalls the power of the Holy Spirit working in the movement during that time.

One of the most exciting things for me about being in the freedom movement was discovering other people who were compelled by the Spirit at the heart of our organizing work, and who were also interested in the mysticism that can be nurtured in social justice activism. We experienced something extraordinary in the freedom movement, something that hinted at a tremendous potential for love and community and transformation that exists here in this scarred, spectacular country. For many of us, that “something” touched us in the deepest part of our selves and challenged us in ways both personal and political.

There was an energy moving in those times. Something other than just sit-ins and voter registration and Freedom Schools. Something represented by these signal efforts but broader. As I traveled around the country in the sixties, it seemed to me that the nation—from the largest community to the smallest—was permeated with hope; the idea that people can bring about transformation; that what we do matters. . . .

Martin and Coretta [King] and Anne Braden and Ella Baker and others like them had a beautiful effect on people who spent time with them. Living and working in their presence hastened changes in your own thoughts, your reactions, your priorities; even if you weren’t always cognizant of the shift. . . . Being constantly in the presence of people who lived so fervently in the power of nonviolence, who believed and acted from the understanding that love and forgiveness were essential tools for social justice; being surrounded by people like that fed those commitments in me, in many of us. And it infused the nation. . . .

For a lot of people in the Movement, our participation gave us a craving for spiritual depth. . . . Sometimes not knowing what was right or wrong in a situation, they had to be quiet about it. Had to go somewhere and just meditate about it. Pray on it. . . .

Rosemarie Harding’s description of the Spirit working within the young people of the Civil Rights movement reminds me of my time with the New Jerusalem Community where we also sang, prayed, and trusted that God would speak to us—and God did!

Spirituality and Social Movements

December 2nd, 2020 by Dave No comments »


The Catholic Worker Movement
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

After Brian McLaren’s helpful summary of biblical examples of social movements, I want to turn our attention to movements that originated within the United States in the last century. The Catholic Worker movement, established by Dorothy Day (1897‒1980) and Peter Maurin (1877‒1949), has continued to bear good fruit since its founding in 1933. Dorothy is renowned the world over for her love for the poor, while Peter Maurin is less well-known. However, the Gospel was at the center of Peter Maurin’s vision and an essential part of what has made the movement so long-lasting. As editor Robert Ellsberg writes, Peter believed:

One should not await some presumably propitious moment, but instead begin at once to live by a new set of values. “The future will be different,” [Peter] announced in typical style, “if we make the present different.” [1] And the revolution began with oneself. There was no need to form a committee to study the problem; the commandments of Christ were there before us, and all that remained was to give flesh to those words, to translate the Gospel into action, and attract others to the cause. [2]

Theologian Marvin Mich (1948‒2018) shows how Maurin’s radical commitment flowed from his reading of the New Testament, and his own Catholic faith:

Maurin brought with him a “gentle personalism,” which was a Catholic radicalism based on the literal interpretation of the Beatitudes. He rejected the liberal institutions of capitalism and the modern state and their faith in material progress and technology. . . . He proposed [instead] a radical imitation of the gospel life of voluntary poverty in solidarity with the weak, the poor, the sick, and the alienated. The Catholic Worker movement’s consistent intellectual position was based on a radical interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and on papal social encyclicals. . . .

The Worker encouraged communal living, ecumenism, and the concept of laypeople as missionaries. The movement is best known for its “direct action” on behalf of the poor. They started Houses of Hospitality, imitating the medieval hospice. These were soup kitchens, meeting rooms, clothing centers, and places of reflection. [3]

Finally, Dorothy Day reflects on how Peter Maurin’s love for God and people inspired the same in others:

Peter made you feel a sense of his mission as soon as you met him. He did not begin by tearing down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world. Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment. He made you feel that you and all [people] had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect and find it in others. . . . But it was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.” [4]

A Faith Created by Courageous Movements

November 30th, 2020 by Dave No comments »


Monday,  November 30, 2020

In his book We Make the Road by Walking, my friend and colleague Brian McLaren describes some of the Spirit-led movements that shaped Judaism from the time of Moses, and sustained Christianity. We must remember that such movements are not simply a past occurrence, but something in which we are called to participate in our own time. 

I believe that the Spirit of God works everywhere to bring and restore aliveness—through individuals, communities, institutions, and movements. Movements play a special role. In the biblical story [of Exodus], for example, Moses led a movement of liberation among oppressed slaves. They left an oppressive economy, journeyed through the wilderness, and entered a promised land where they hoped to pursue aliveness in freedom and peace. Centuries after that, the Hebrew prophets launched a series of movements based on a dream of a promised time . . . a time of justice when swords and spears, instruments of death, would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, instruments of aliveness [Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3]. Then came John the Baptist, a bold and nonviolent movement leader who dared to challenge the establishment of his day and call people to a movement of radical social and spiritual rethinking. . . .

When a young man named Jesus came to affiliate with John’s movement through baptism, John said, “There he is! He is the one!” Under Jesus’ leadership, the movement grew and expanded in unprecedented ways. . . . It rose again through a new generation of leaders like James, Peter, John, and Paul, who were full of the Spirit of Jesus. They created learning circles in which activists were trained to extend the movement locally, regionally, and globally. Wherever activists in this movement went, the Spirit of Jesus was alive in them, fomenting change and inspiring true aliveness. . . .

[Christianity] began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. . . . It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.

Spirituality and Social Movements

A Spirit-Led Christianity
Sunday,  November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent

The God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak to us. Jesus shows himself to be such precisely in the measure that he is present via those who are the absent, anonymous people of history, those who are not the controllers of history, namely, the mighty, the socially acceptable, “the wise and the learned” (Matthew 11:25). —Gustavo Gutiérrez

Much of what Jesus said seems to have been understood and taken to heart during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. Before the imperial edict of 313 that pushed Christians to the top and the center of the Roman Empire, values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, and love of enemies were common within the faithful community. The church at that point was still countercultural and non-imperial—a social movement for the reign of God. After 313 we lost that free position. Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning war, money, and authority.

If we look at texts in the hundred years preceding Emperor Constantine’s edict, it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army. The army was killing believers. Christians were on the bottom but, by the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and was now killing the pagans. In a two-hundred-year period, Christians went from being complete outsiders to directing the inside! Once Christians joined the inside group, they had to defend their power. There’s not much room for any talk of the cross or powerlessness anymore.

Official Christianity slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point, which is probably why what we now call the movements of “religious life” began and flourished in the desert after 313. People went to the edges of the church and took vows of poverty, living in satellites that became “little churches,” without ever formally leaving the big Church.

Francis and Clare of Assisi formed their own “social movement” through a foundational agenda for justice. They lived in humility and simplicity outside the dominant social, political, and religious systems. For the Franciscans who followed in their footsteps, the first priority was living the spiritual life in a visible way that shouted Gospel love! Their life, close to the bottom, was where they hoped to learn the science of love. Their small communities were to be patterns for living and disseminating the transformative power of the Gospel.

Imperial Christianity is always about power. It seldom teaches about nonviolence, forgiveness, inclusion, simplicity, mercy, love, compassion, or understanding in a primary way. Yet Spirit-led movements within Christianity have flourished and continued to emphasize the values that defined the early Church and made it so threatening to the social order. I believe that any future church will be led by the Spirit back to those foundational values, making it a much flatter and more inclusive community. The examples of non-imperial movements within Christianity strive not towards protecting their own power and influence, but toward supporting the supreme work of love flowing into the world.

Merton’s Call for Racial Justice

November 27th, 2020 by JDVaughn No comments »

Thomas Merton:
Contemplation and Action

Merton’s Call for Racial Justice
Friday,  November 27, 2020

In the midst of the intense struggle for civil rights, Thomas Merton insisted that Christians had a moral duty to address racism—on a personal and systemic level. His words were prophetic at the time and continue to be relevant to this day. In Seeds of Destruction, he writes:

The race question cannot be settled without a profound change of heart, a real shake-up and deep reaching metanoia [Greek for repentance or change of mind] on the part of White America. It is not just [a] question of a little more good will and generosity: it is a question of waking up to crying injustices and deep-seated problems which are ingrained in the present setup and which, instead of getting better, are going to get worse. [1]

The purpose of non-violent protest, in its deepest and most spiritual dimensions is then to awaken the conscience of the white people to the awful reality of their injustice and of their sin, so that they will be able to see that the Negro problem is really a White problem: that the cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences, is rooted in the heart of the white people themselves. [2]

In later writings, Merton elaborates on the pernicious evil of systems of oppression and how we must combat them through the use of faith, hope, and love.

When a system can, without resort to overt force, compel people to live in conditions of abjection, helplessness, wretchedness . . . it is plainly violent. To make people live on a subhuman level against their will, to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force. Those who in some way or other concur in the oppression—and perhaps profit by it—are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacifism. And their supposedly peaceful laws, which maintain this spurious kind of order, are in fact instruments of violence and oppression. [3]

Growth, survival and even salvation may depend on the ability to sacrifice what is fictitious and unauthentic in the construction of one’s moral, religious or national identity. One must then enter upon a different creative task of reconstruction and renewal. This task can be carried out only in the climate of faith, of hope and of love: these three must be present in some form, even if they amount only to a natural belief in the validity and significance of human choice, a decision to invest human life with some shadow of meaning, a willingness to treat other people as other selves. [4]

Merton’s Love of Nature

November 26th, 2020 by Dave No comments »


Thursday,  November 26, 2020
Thanksgiving in the US

Part of Thomas Merton’s legacy, which I believe has been underappreciated, is his great love of nature. In the hills of Kentucky, he found his connection to God strengthened by every leaf, every tree, every sunrise. I felt it as well in my time at his hermitage. Theologian and GreenFaith fellow Sister Kathleen Deignan writes of Merton’s relationship to the natural world, which inevitably led to his activism on the earth’s behalf:

Curiously, what remains hidden or obscure in [Merton’s] very public discourse on matters of the sacred is the significance that the natural world played as the ecstatic ground of his own experience of God. But a close reading of his voluminous writings reveals his intimate rapport with and progressive espousal of creation as the body of divinity—at once veiling and unveiling the God he so longed to behold and be held by. [1]

[Merton] chose to live alone in the forest as refuge for his own existential pain, but also to make reparation for the violation of earth and earth peoples. Here he became a poet, a protester, a prophet . . . [2]

Deignan’s selections from Merton’s journals demonstrate how his love for nature (he even calls the forest his “bride”) leads him to grieve and denounce nature’s abuse:

I love the woods, particularly around the hermitage. Know every tree, every animal, every bird. [3]

When I am most sickened by the things that are done by the country that surrounds this place I will take out the [Hebrew biblical] prophets and sing them in loud Latin across the hills and send their fiery words sailing south over the mountains to the place where they split atoms for the bombs in Tennessee.

There is also the non-ecology, the destructive unbalance of nature, poisoned and unsettled by bombs, by fallout, by exploitation: the land ruined, the waters contaminated, the soil charged with chemicals, ravaged with machinery, the houses of farmers falling apart because everybody goes to the city and stays there . . .

It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love, and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I cultivate this plant silently in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most beautiful of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. [4]

Richard again: It is passages such as these which let you know why I, like so many tens of thousands, consider Merton a primary teacher of the spiritual life. In our time, maybe the primary teacher. He puts it all together (and with such good words, too).

One God of the Earth

November 25th, 2020 by JDVaughn No comments »

Thomas Merton:
Contemplation and Action

One God of the Earth
Wednesday,  November 25, 2020

One way that our growth in love becomes stuck is when we identify so much with our group or country that it replaces our faith in the One God of all. As we see in politics in the United States, most people only know how to love people who are like themselves with regard to their race, their nationality, their religion, or their political party. Thomas Merton especially warned about the phenomenon we know in our day as “Christian nationalism.” When belief in country and religion merge as one, the alternative way of Jesus takes a back seat. I invite you to read Merton’s challenging words with willing mind and heart:

A “Christian nationalist” is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong. In such a case, it becomes “Christian faith” and “Christian heroism” to renounce even one’s Christian protest and to obey the dictates of the (unchristian) Nation without question. Instead of that Christian independence which realizes that the Nation itself may come under the higher judgment of God, there arises the notion of a “Christian” obedience in which the faithful are urged to accept the national purpose on the justification of any and every means. They renounce all judgment and choice in order to follow secular authority blindly since “the Government knows best.”. . .

The great question then is one of clarification. We can no longer afford to equate faith with the acceptance of myths about our nation, our society, or our technology; to equate hope with a naive confidence in our image of ourselves as the good guys against whom all the villains in the world are leagued in conspiracy; to equate love with a mindlessly compliant togetherness, a dimly lived and semi-radiant compulsiveness in work and play, invested by commercial artists with an aura of spurious joy. [1]

Richard again: While we can be grateful for any freedoms and privileges protected by our national governments, we cannot allow them to claim that they are themselves the foundational source of those rights. That role belongs to God! Our love and respect for human dignity must be extended to people of all nations, not just our own. I wrote this prayer almost ten years ago on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. We need the grace of universal solidarity to join the One God in our ever-expanding love for the world:

God of all races, nations, and religions,
You know that we cannot change others,
Nor can we change the past.
But we can change ourselves.
We can join You in changing our only
And common future where Love “reigns”
The same over all.
Help us not to say, “Lord, Lord” to any nationalist gods,
But to hear the One God of all the earth,
And to do God’s good thing for this One World.

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and Action

November 24th, 2020 by Dave No comments »


Recovering Our Original Unity
Tuesday,  November 24, 2020

What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. —Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was the first writer I encountered who spoke so clearly about the connection between contemplation and action. I believe that is true in part because he knew it from his own life. If you’ve ever read The Seven Storey Mountain, you know that Merton did not begin his faith journey as an activist. In fact, he lived his first two decades largely concerned with his own advancement, experience, and pleasure. It seems that he began his vocation to the priesthood motivated, at least to some extent, by the same egoic concerns, though pointed in a more holy direction. However, at some point, Merton’s personal agenda for self-improvement must have fallen flat, which allowed him to fall more deeply into God and his True Self. He became far less concerned with the “I” who prayed than he was with the “One” to whom, with whom, and in whom he was praying.

As Merton reflected: “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” [1] He had finally recognized that the “programs for happiness” which he had pursued his whole life were never going to bring him the sense of worthiness he desired. Instead, he embraced this paradoxical statement: “In humility is the greatest freedom. As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.” [2]

Merton had an uncanny ability to describe the truth of his own heart in a way the rest of us could understand. And he deeply believed that our inner healing was for the sake of the outer world. Near the end of his life, as Merton participated in ongoing dialogue between Eastern and Western monastic traditions, he shared the following prayer. It was radical in its time and remains just as necessary today:

Oh, God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. Oh God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is in Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit. Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse  ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen. [3]

Contemplative Responsibility

November 23rd, 2020 by JDVaughn No comments »

Thomas Merton:
Contemplation and Action

Contemplative Responsibility
Monday,  November 23, 2020

Thomas Merton has been a primary teacher and inspiration to me ever since I read his book The Sign of Jonas as a teenager. He was one of the most influential American Catholics of the twentieth century. It was Merton who reintroduced the Christian contemplative tradition to the Western church in the 1950s and 60s. By living a contemplative life, Merton grew in love for God and all of God’s children and creation—so much so that he became committed to doing what he could for the common good. Amidst the societal disruptions of the 1960s, it was not enough for him to simply pray. He also devoted himself to action—writing, collaboration, and teaching—though he never lost his deep yearning for solitude and contemplation.

As Merton began to seriously wrestle with the injustices plaguing the United States and the world, he published Seeds of Destruction, a book urging Christians to reflect on their moral responsibility to take a stand on issues such as racism, war, and poverty. His words speak to our moment as well:

The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors. . . . The monastic [that is, contemplative] flight from the world [or what I call “the system”—RR] into the desert is . . . a total rejection of all standards of judgment which imply attachment to a history of delusion, egoism and sin . . . a definitive refusal to participate in those activities which have no other fruit than to prolong the reign of untruth, greed, cruelty and arrogance in the world of people. . . .

The freedom of the Christian contemplative is not freedom from time, but freedom in time. It is the freedom to go out and meet God in the inscrutable mystery of God’s will here and now, in this precise moment in which God asks humanity’s cooperation in shaping the course of history according to the demands of divine truth, mercy and fidelity. . . .

Therefore it seems to me to be a solemn obligation of conscience at this moment of history to take the positions which . . . are, it seems to me, in vital relation with the obligations I assumed when I took my monastic vows. To have a vow of poverty seems to me illusory if I do not in some way identify myself with the cause of people who are denied their rights and forced, for the most part, to live in abject misery. To have a vow of obedience seems to me to be absurd if it does not imply a deep concern for the most fundamental of all expressions of God’s will: the love of God’s truth and of our neighbor.

Richard again: Thomas Merton knew that contemplation and solidarity with the universal suffering of creation (the planet itself, animals, humans) is to enter into the eternal suffering of God, what Dominican Gerald Vann called “the Divine Pity.”[1]

Thomas Merton:
Contemplation and Action

Joy and Sadness: A Lesson from Merton’s Hermitage
Sunday,  November 22, 2020

In 1985 my Franciscan “guardians” (as Francis called our superiors) gave me a year’s leave to spend in contemplation. It was a major turning point in my life, and ultimately led to the formation of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

The first thirty days of my “sabbatical” were spent in the hills of Kentucky, in Thomas Merton’s (1915–1968) hermitage about a mile away from the main monastery. I was absolutely alone with myself, with the springtime woods, and with God, hoping to somehow absorb some of Merton’s wisdom. That first morning, it took me a while to slow down. I must have looked at my watch at least ten times before 7:00 AM! I had spent so many years standing in front of crowds as a priest and a teacher. I had to find out who I was without those trappings—the naked me alone before God.

In the mornings I would put my chair in front of the door and watch the sun come up. In the late afternoons, I would move my chair to the other side of the hermitage and watch the sun go down. The little squirrels and birds came closer and closer. They’re not afraid when we’re absolutely still.

Father William McNamara’s definition of contemplation as “a long loving look at the real” became transformative for me. The world, my own issues and hurts, all my goals and desires gradually dissolved and fell into proper perspective. God became obvious and ever present. I understood what Merton meant when he said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.” [1]

I tried to keep a journal of what was happening to me. Back then, I found it particularly hard to cry. But one evening I laid my finger on my cheek and found to my surprise that it was wet. I wondered what those tears meant. What was I crying for? I wasn’t consciously sad or consciously happy. I noticed at that moment that behind it all there was a joy, deeper than any private joy. It was a joy in the face of the beauty of being, a joy at all the wonderful and lovable people I had already met in my life. Cosmic or spiritual joy is something we participate in; it comes from elsewhere and flows through us. It has little or nothing to do with things going well in our own life at that moment. I remember thinking that this must be why the saints could rejoice in the midst of suffering.

At the same moment, I experienced exactly the opposite emotion. The tears were at the same time tears of an immense sadness—a sadness at what we’re doing to the earth, sadness about the people whom I had hurt in my life, and a sadness too at my own mixed motives and selfishness. I hadn’t known that two such contrary feelings could coexist. I was truly experiencing the nondual mind of contemplation.