Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’
I have been reading about freedom in confined spaces. How a prison cell can become a practice ground. I have never been to a prison and somewhere in my mind I have an image of a cell as a stark, empty place, a place of isolation and silence. It does not seem a far leap to link the word “cell” with a monk’s quarters.
Paradoxically, the most vivid the world has ever been to me was during a sesshin, a week-long Zen meditation retreat. No television, no books, no writing, no eye contact, no radio, a strict schedule and limitations everywhere.
All of a sudden the empty world around me was alive – a teacup filled with magenta, a colour my eyes had never witnessed, the syllables in the chant book leaping off the page, each one distinct and embodied with life. I wonder what this space of silence is, where what seems to be empty is in fact very full and what feels like a prison can be a vast open space? With this in mind, I go to meet Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Sister Elaine lives in a modest house on a crescent in a residential, east-end Toronto neighbourhood. This is the main house belonging to Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949. It looks as if it could be an old people’s home or a retirement community; nothing spectacular here. On the inside there isn’t anything obviously religious about the space – just a communal kitchen with a long counter, a living room with large windows looking out onto a ravine, violets growing in the windows, a sofa and some modest chairs, a coffee table with a doily, a calendar on the wall. Not a cross or icon in sight.
Sister Elaine MacInnes has been on the phone all morning. At eighty-two, things are not really slowing down for this Roman Catholic nun who is also a Zen Roshi. She was talking to the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, where she was director for seven years. Next she had to handle an incident involving sex offenders in one of the Canadian prisons where she sends yoga and meditation teachers now. It seems that some of the teachers are uneasy working with pedophiles. Sister Elaine does not distinguish between sex offenders, murderers, political prisoners, young offenders or lifers – they are all people she can offer help to and bring a little more freedom into their trapped places. “We hold out a little hope for people in doing meditation when they are in that state,” she says confidently.
Sister Elaine has led a truly extraordinary life. When you look back, it appears to have been guided. Originally from a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after studying violin at Julliard in New York. While training to become a nun, she read the writings of St. Francis Xavier and was struck by his experience of attempting to encounter a monk on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in Japan. She made a secret vow that where he had not succeeded she would.
As fate had it, in 1961 Sister Elaine’s first missionary assignment was to Japan. Not only did she climb Mt. Hiei and meet a monk, she went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, where she lived for eight years. She then practised zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study in the Sanbo Kyodan order in Kamakura under the tutelage of Yamada Koun Roshi, from whom she received transmission in 1980 as a Roshi or “old teacher.”
In 1976, Sister Elaine was transferred to the Philippines during the worst years of the Marcos regime. It was through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila that she ended up teaching meditation to political prisoners. Her work in prisons would become her vocation.
Wearing all black clothes, the only splash of colour a cloth flower in vivid hues of orange and red attached to her lapel with a clothespin, her eyes shining as bright as the day she was born, she does not look like a monk or a nun, a Buddhist or a Catholic. Her voice has its Maritime lilt still intact despite the forty-three years she spent abroad, testimony to how vivid and true her personality is.
She may have had “the bottom fall out in a most spectacular way” when she experienced satori, but the “no-self” or “extinguishing of the self” that Zen points to has led to the much more vivid human being. No spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on. And perhaps that is her greatest majesty and greatest mystery. Sister Elaine seems ordinary, someone you might encounter on the street in a small town, a warm-hearted neighbour, and yet it is quite clear that she is the real thing, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met: a true mystic.
Surprisingly, Sister Elaine does not consider herself to be a Buddhist. In Kamakura, she studied with a unique teacher from the Sanbo Kyodan order, a mixture of the two dominant schools of Zen (Soto and Rinzai). He was a teacher who did not draw lines of division between lay people and monks, men and women, or even between religions. “You know, there is no separation. We make separation.” She describes the Sunday talks that her teacher Yamada Roshi would give, and said they were filled with Buddhist references.
“I was never moved to be a Buddhist,” she says. When people in Japan asked her about it, she would say, “Look, I was just brought up in Moncton, New Brunswick. I can’t all of a sudden say I have had a hundred lives beforehand. I was born on March 7th in 1924 and I was fresh and clean and I have my own personality. I’m not another hundred thousand people behind me.” When her teacher noticed her first breakthroughs in Zen practice, he simply said, “Now you go out and be a better Christian and a better Sister.”
Sister Elaine speaks of Zen as being about direct experience, not words or objects. “There was never anything but the right now, right here.” Even the Buddha requested that his words not be recorded. He taught from experience and it was these practices that were later to be the basis for Zen teachings, but the terms themselves and the religious elements of Buddhism were recorded later. “Scholars say the Buddha grew up in a Hindu country so that he just went back to the religious matrix of his time.”
Of her own teaching Sister Elaine says, “I have Jewish people and I have Muslims and I have people with no religion and it doesn’t bother me at all. I just try to use quite a few different terms so that people won’t get stuck on one. We don’t find it necessary to impose a god on you, we just ask you to sit down and keep quiet.” She laughs heartily at this.
“My teacher in Japan used to say ‘we are all born to be mystics.’ And I say that goes for each of us. There were twenty-four lifers who had all committed murder in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in England and I went around to each one and I said, ‘that means you’ and there wasn’t one snicker.” When Sister Elaine talks about the prisoners she works with, it is with a great deal of love and an incredible dose of optimism. “There is no guile there, you know, and they’re lovely, lovely to work with.”
In 1992, Sister Elaine was invited to become the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, UK, whose patron is the English actor Jeremy Irons. She set up a network of yoga and meditation teachers who go into penitentiaries across the UK and Eire, teaching simple yoga postures and breath-centred meditation to prisoners who voluntarily come to the classes. The idea behind the Prison Trust is that the space of a prison cell can become a practice ground, not unlike a monk’s cell.
My first image of a prison cell was perhaps a little off. Sister Elaine tells me that most of them are filled to the brim with “fifteen or twenty pictures of all kinds of different girls, a teapot, cups, all sorts of mementos…My experience working with people is that the more they go into Zen the less they need accoutrements.” So an empty cell only comes later, with an empty mind. It is also a constant struggle to find silence in a prison; they are noisy, bustling places “full of society.”
The yoga and meditation taught are a practice of “silent body, silent mind,” and apparently it works. By the time she retired from the Trust, Sister Elaine had set up eighty-six teachers in prisons across the UK and they receive thousands of letters each month from the inmates. “I would say our discipline is therapeutic and that is why it is so important for prisoners.”
The kind of zazen they teach is Shikantaza. “‘Shika’ means ‘only’ and ‘ta’ means ‘to hit’ and the ‘za’ is squatting on the floor. It is something that will hit the mark.” Simple counting of breath is emphasized, as well as correct posture. “The bottom line of meditation for a teacher is that you’re bringing people to a deeper state of consciousness and that involves something very, very touchy. There is something in practising silence the way we teach that is very safe, and to my knowledge it has never been known for anyone to crack up.”
In her prison programs, Sister Elaine felt it necessary to balance meditation practices with yoga instruction. Yoga Outreach, a charity organization based in Surrey, BC, was asked to implement a yoga program for the correctional institutions in Canada. The yoga postures taught are breath-centred to facilitate a link between body and mind.
The practice of yoga and meditation brings a space of silence to the prisoners, and with this seems to follow discipline, productivity, a sense of purpose, an alleviation of depression, a reduction in violence, and in the long run, a reduced rate of recidivism. This approach fits in with a paradigm shift slowly being introduced into the judicial system called Restorative Justice.
One of the most moving letters Sister Elaine ever received was from a nineteen-year-old prisoner: “As long as I can remember I have had a pain in my chest. When I got to prison it got worse. For one month I have been doing just what you say and I want you to know that not only is the pain better now, but for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark within myself that I can like.”
Initially, it was her experience in the Philippines that convinced Sister Elaine of the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as tools for working with prisoners. When sent to the Philippines during the Marcos regime to open a zendo (Zen meditation hall), she unwittingly attracted many dissidents into the practice.
“Boy” Morales, a renowned rebel who headed the New People’s Army against the dictatorship, asked her to come and teach meditation at the Bago Bantay detention centre, where he and nine other political prisoners were being held and tortured. It took the protection of the Canadian Embassy to ensure her safety – General Verr, the head of Marcos’ army and Intelligence, happened to owe them a favour. And so, in spite of her fears, Sister Elaine went to teach meditation to political prisoners. “I couldn’t have said no. And it was an eye opener for me how a person can change from an angry, enervated, depressed person into … I saw them come out of all their jerkings (from the shock treatment) and they became productive. But you need a lot of sitting if you want real results. In some ways you can say there are no miracles in Zen.”
Because of that work, Sister Elaine became director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. When she returned to Canada she decided to set up a similar organization here. It is called Freeing the Human Spirit and in spite of initial resistance from the Canadian prison authorities, she has managed to place yoga and meditation instructors in prisons across Canada. “You don’t find much openness toward anyone in prison in Canada, do you? There is no death sentence here, so a lot of them are going to be back on the streets again, so it is to our advantage to rehabilitate them. Prisons don’t work, that’s the first thing we have to remember.”
Even though Sister Elaine sees the flaws in our penal system, she continues to run Freeing the Human Spirit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, and she does it because it works for the prisoners. “I suppose everybody in a position like mine goes through a time when they try and get more justice in the system.” Sister Elaine recognizes that the work she does is separate from a political struggle for change. She says that if she were to take that up, it would only build a dichotomy between the officers and the prisoners. “I am staying on the prisoners’ side,” she tells me. “Other people will try and get a better idea going. I don’t know what that idea is, but Restorative Justice is a very good step.” In 2001, Sister Elaine was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
When thinking about Sister Elaine, the image I am left with is from a documentary film made about her life and work called The Fires that Burn. The image of an inmate – shaved head and tattooed arms, his muscled body suddenly looking very fragile as he holds himself in Plank pose. I have never seen anyone do yoga with such tenderness and fear before. This is clearly fertile ground – the space for things that are broken to mend in silence.
Note: Almost 40 years ago I had my first sesshin in 1978, that is, a Zen retreat, with Sr. Elaine Macinnes. Thanks to Sr. Marie Jose Garcia who introduced me and some friends to Sr. Elaine. (By the way, Sr. Marie Jose visited I and my wife yesterday. I was so happy to see her. It was almost 20 years since I last saw her).
On my first dokusan or interview with a Zen teacher, Sr. Elaine gave me the Mu-koan. It took me 20+ years before I could have some insight on the koan. But it was worth it. It happened when I attended a one-week Zen retreat with my 2nd Zen teacher, Sr. Sonia Punzalan. I wrote an account of what happened to me during that retreat in this blog post — A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen.
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men… The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… [to] recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
–Nostra Aetate, Official Document of the Catholic Church
March 13, 2016, marks the third anniversary of election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome. Upon his election in the Sistine Chapel three years ago, he took the name Francis and told us he did so because of his love for St. Francis of Assisi. Over the past three years, many have associated the new pope’s gestures and actions with the “Poverello” or “Little Poor One” of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved saint of the Catholic tradition. One day in the late 12th century, the young Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (later named Francesco) heard the plea of Jesus from the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano chapel on Assisi’s outskirts: “Go and repair my church.” And he certainly did that in his lifetime and through the huge Franciscan family that he left behind to carry forward his dream and continue his work.
We can become easily fixated on lots of eye-catching, buzz-causing externals, great photo opportunities and now famous sound bite expressions that Pope Francis provides for us on a daily basis: A pope who abandoned the red shoes—that were never an official part of the papal wardrobe! A pope who dresses modestly, pays his own lodging bills, rides around Vatican City in a Ford Focus or in foreign cities in small cars. A pope who invites street people to his birthday breakfast. A pope who tells the driver of his vehicle to stop at the dividing wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem so that he may pray before this glaring sign of division and pain. A pope who invites Muslims clerics to ride with him in the popemobile in the war-torn Central African Republic.
This Roman pontiff specializes in kissing babies and embracing the sick, disfigured broken bodies and the abandoned of society. He knows how to use a telephone—and uses it often. He waits in line for the coat check at the Vatican Synod Hall and delights in holding in-flight press conferences with journalists while many church leaders hold their breath at what will come forth from those now legendary encounters. He has restored Synods of Bishops to their proper place in the church: meetings and encounters of church leaders who speak with boldness, courage, freedom and openness rather than staged gatherings of pseudo-concord.
Many sit back, smile and utter: “What a sea/See change!” “What a revolution!” “What simplicity!” “Wow!” “Awesome!” “Finalmente!”
And for many who are watching all of this with differing forms of angst and shock, they ask: “What is he doing?” “How can he continue at this pace?” “Does he remember that he is the Vicar of Christ?” “Will the Francis reform succeed?” The answer is: “Yes.” Francis’ reform is inevitable because it is not emanating from Assisi, Loyola, Manresa or even from Rome, as significant as those holy places may be! It is based on a great story coming from other lands where we find Bethlehem, Nazareth, Nain, Emmaus, Mount Tabor, Galilee, Jerusalem and the Decapolis: the lands of the Bible. Pope Francis has based his Petrine Ministry on the Gospel of the fisherman of Galilee who was Son of God and Lord, Savior and Redeemer of the human family.
Pope Francis wants us to be warm, welcoming and forgiving as Jesus has modeled to us on every page of the New Testament. He reminds us day after day that we have a Lord and Master who shared in the joy of the spouses in Cana of Galilee and the anguish of the widow of Nain; a Lord and Master who enters into the house of Jairus, touched by death, and the house of Bethany, perfumed with nard. A Master who took upon Himself illness and suffering, to the point of giving His life in ransom.
Following Christ means going where He went; taking upon oneself, like the good Samaritan, the wounded we encounter along the road; going in search of the lost sheep. To be, like Jesus, close to the people; sharing their joys and pains, showing with our love the paternal face of God and the maternal caress of the church. Francis wants us to eat with tax collectors and sinners; he wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery (while admonishing her to sin no more); he wants us to welcome and respect foreigners (even our enemies); and, above all, not to judge others. He has spoken simply, powerfully and beautifully about returning to lost unity. He wants to build bridges that everyone can cross. He is especially conscious of the poor and those who have been marginalized—social outcasts kept on the fringes of society. He has spoken out strongly for the plight of refugees and decried the evil of abortion and euthanasia. He stands for the consistent ethic of life, from the earliest moments of conception to the final moments of natural death.
At the very beginning of his Petrine Ministry, he said loud and clear in St. Peter’s Square: “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient” (Angelus, March 17, 2013). His rallying cry has been “mercy” for the past three years. Just before Lent this year, Pope Francis’ personal book, The Name of God is Mercy, was simultaneously released throughout the world. The main theme of the book is mercy, and the pope’s reasons for proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy this year. The centrality of mercy is “Jesus’ most important message.” Mercy is essential because all people are sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and it’s especially necessary today, at a time when “humanity is wounded,” suffering from “the many slaveries of the third millennium”—not just war and poverty and social exclusion, but also fatalism, hardheartedness and self-righteousness.
In a very provocative challenge to his newly-created brother cardinals last Feb. 15, 2015, Pope Francis recalled with them that “the church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.” This means “welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.”
Pope Francis is very critical of those eager to cast stones. Pride, hypocrisy and the urge to judge others in terms of “preconceived notions and ritual purity” are the targets of his ire. He has chastised church bureaucrats for their “theological narcissism,” and he says in his recent book that “we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own.”
On the late afternoon of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church. What we have witnessed over the past three years is simply a disciple of Jesus—and a faithful disciple of Ignatius of Loyola and of Francis of Assisi—repairing, renewing, restoring, reconciling and healing the church. There are those who delight in describing the new pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has caused a massive shipwreck. But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 88).
And the second revolution he has inaugurated is the revolution of normalcy. What he is doing is normal human, Christian behavior. These are the revolutions at the heart and soul of Pope Francis’ ministry. It is his unflinching freedom that allows him to do what he does because he is unafraid and totally free to be himself at the same time of being a most faithful son of the church. It is Francis’ humanity, goodness, joy, kindness and mercy that introduce us to the tenderness of our God. No wonder why he has taken the world by storm, why so many people are paying attention to him, and others are frustrated with his exercise of freedom and his universal outreach. Everything the pope is doing now is not just an imitation of his patron saint who loved the poor, embraced lepers, charmed sultans, made peace and protected nature. It’s a reflection of the child of Bethlehem who would grow up to become the man of the cross in Jerusalem, the Risen One that no tomb could contain, the man we Christians call Savior and Lord. Pope Francis has given us a powerful glimpse into the mind and heart of God.
This Bishop of Rome demands a lot while preaching about a God of mercy, by engaging joyfully with nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics and those sitting on the fences of life—many who thought that Christianity has nothing left to add to the equations of life. For journalists and those in media, he has made covering religion and the church interesting, exciting and enticing and rewarding once again. We need the bold, Francis revolution of tenderness, mercy and normalcy now more than ever before.
Lord our God,
We thank you for always providing shepherds to guide the church.
We thank you most especially for Francis,
the one you have chosen to be our chief shepherd
and guide at this moment in history.
Bless him with health and vision, boldness and courage,
wisdom and compassion, and boundless joy and hope.
Make him an instrument of your peace, compassion and mercy,
In your mercy you called Francis and you call each of us
to cling to Jesus, the rock of fidelity and truth.
May Pope Francis inspire us to be better Christians,
faithful Catholics and architects and citizens
of the civilization of love that your son entrusted to us.
We ask this in Jesus’ name, who lives with you forever and ever.
–Father Thomas Rosica
Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is the CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and English language attaché, Holy See Press Office.
Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
I was surprised and taken aback when Pope Francis honored Thomas Merton in his speech before the U.S. Congress. It is not that I wasn’t not happy about it, but considering the bad blood between Merton and the American Catholic Church hierarchy — it was quite unexpected.
Who is Thomas Merton? Why did Pope Francis honor him? Is he still relevant for our times?
Thomas Merton was an American writer and intellectual who became a Trappist monk, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which is considered one of the strictest Catholic religious orders, in 1941 at the age of 26. Before that, he was a restless young man living a troubled life. But in 1938 he converted to Catholicism; he was only 23 years old. He spent the next 27 years of his life living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
It was not an easy decision for him to become a monk, considering his extroverted and gregarious personality. But, above all, it wasn’t easy for him to give up writing. The Trappists are known to live a simple life of prayer and manual labor. And intellectual pursuits, like writing, are not encouraged in the monastery. Fortunately, his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a man who valued and appreciated Merton’s writing abilities. Thanks to him, thousands upon thousands of people have been and are still inspired by Merton’s books.
In 1948 he wrote his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a best-seller. On a personal note, I read this book when I was in my teens and it changed my life. His autobiography as well as the many books he wrote later inspired not only monks and nuns, but also ordinary people, even non Christians, to live spiritual lives. For Merton, the experience of God’s presence and love is something that is available to everyone.
Later in his life he became a social activist, who was involved in the peace and civil rights movement in the 60s. Unfortunately, this drew heavy criticism from officials of the Catholic Church. This rift between Merton and the Catholic establishment continues to this day.
10 years ago the first national catechism for adults was published in the U.S. Included in an earlier draft was Merton’s story. Sadly, though, his story was removed from the final version. It was a bad decision, because Merton’s story is significant and central to 20th-century American Catholicism.
Two influential Catholic officials considered him a lapsed Catholic, due to the fact that he was involved in dialogue with people of other faith traditions, especially Buddhists. They said he spent his last days “wandering in the East, seeking consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality… ” I find this incomprehensible. The Vatican II Council, a gathering of Catholic bishops in the 60s, came out with an official document encouraging dialogue with other faith traditions. In the document, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Catholics are encouraged to respect and even learn from other religions. It states:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men…
The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
Cardinal Wuerl, who was often seen at the side of the Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S., was the chairman of the committee tasked to write the catechism. When the catechism was published, the then U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Bishop William Skylstad said they were deeply disturbed by the exclusion of Merton. He said:
Merton, has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience.
Merton’s pursuit of a deeper spiritual life led him to embark on a trip to Asia in 1968. During that trip he explored Eastern spirituality and met with people of other faith traditions. One of the most significant persons that he met with was the Dalai Lama, who continues to talk about Thomas Merton as his “brother.”
He met an untimely death, at the age of 53, in Bangkok, Thailand, electrocuted by a faulty fan.
Almost 50 years after his death, Merton continues to be an inspiration to many people, especially through his books.
Pope Francis, in spite of the rejection of Merton by the official American Catholic hierarchy, honored him:
Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
So, if you ask me: “Is Merton still relevant?” My resounding answer is “Yes!”
And here are some of the reasons why:
Merton was a genuine human being; he was no plaster saint. He didn’t like pretense and phoniness. He had his share of struggles, weaknesses and failures, and didn’t attempt to hide them. He wrote about his doubts and questions. Towards the end of his life he writes:
When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further in solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions… I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts…
His Respect for People
During Merton’s Asian trip, John Stier, an American government official, hosted him during his stay at Sri Lanka. As they were discussing Buddhism, Stier asserted that Buddhism was a negative approach to life. Having studied Buddhism in-depth, Merton disagreed with him. Stier says: “He was surprisingly gentle in disagreement, he had a wonderful way about him.” Hundreds of the people that Merton related and corresponded with will agree with Stier’s observation. Merton respected and responded to people in their uniqueness; he accepted them as they are.
Merton is known to have cultivated many interests; he also related with people of diverse cultures, races, and religions. He was capable of communicating with people who had a different background and tradition than his own. He wrote about William Blake, James Joyce, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Louis Zukofsky, Flannery O’Connor. His correspondence was voluminous, having written to a great number of people. Here are few of the names: Jacques Maritain, Erich Fromm, Ernesto Cardenal, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Haring, Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Ruether, D.T. Suzuki, Rachel Carson, Louis Massignon, Mark Van Doren. This gave him a great insight into the human condition that enabled him to articulate our deepest longings; his insights transcended that of his own life and his own generation.
His Deep Spirituality
Once Merton stated that he didn’t want to have any disciples. He urged people not to follow him but to follow Christ. But in spite of his protestations he has become the spiritual director of many people. He wrote about the spiritual life in a fresh and attractive way; he articulated the depths and riches of the spiritual life in a way that can relate to the modern person. Whether he liked it or not, he guided the spiritual journey of many people, even those who didn’t have any link with any institutional religion. For these people, his writings will continue to be a continual source of inspiration and guidance.
An invitation to attend a Zen retreat 16 years ago from Sr. Perla, an ICM nun. Attended the 6-day retreat, and it changed my life. An account of what happened to me during that retreat is found in this blog post:
Amos Smith‘s Healing The Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots is a joy to read!
As a lay person who has studied our Christian mystical heritage (my favorites are Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross) for 40+ years now, I’ve come to almost similar conclusions as the author. The themes that he tackles in his book, like paradox as the key to understanding Jesus, the nondual approach to Christianity, the transformative power of contemplative prayer, compassion and social justice as the fruit of spiritual practice really resonates with me.
Our Christian theology since the Middle Ages has become over-analytical and too rational, leaving no room for paradox and mystery. This has resulted in a Christianity that is too intellectual, legalistic, formal and rigid – and for the most part irrelevant to the contemporary person. What the 21st century man or woman wants is a direct encounter with God. And this is what is meant by Christian mysticism – a direct experience of God through the person of Jesus, which results in personal transformation as well as the transformation of our society.
If I’m not mistaken, this is what the book advocates, based on a theology which sees the person of Jesus through the eyes of the Christian mystics, specifically the Alexandrian mystics. And herein lays the value of the book: it is not just a book only about mysticism but about Christian mysticism, solidly built on a Christology based on what the author refers to as the “Jesus Paradox.”
Like the author, I’m convinced that paradox is the key to understanding the deepest truths in life, and that includes the truth about Jesus. Another author puts it this way:
Paradox is the best form of language for expressing some of the fundamental truths of human existence.
Jesus is not only divine, neither is he only human. He is absolutely divine and relatively human! This is the key to understanding Christian mysticism. And for those who can absorb it– this could be a life-changing experience!
What the book offers us is a fresh approach to Christianity that is not only based on theology (although the book is very theologically sound), but one that is also based on a personal encounter with God – an encounter which leads to personal transformation.
One thing that I and Fr. James Martin have in common is our love for Thomas Merton.
Armed with a prestigious Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from one of the best business and Ivy League schools, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he was on his way to corporate success.
One day, however, after having a bad day at the office, he decided to watch TV. After flipping channels, his attention was grabbed by a PBS documentary on the life of Thomas Merton. It was a turning point in his life.
The documentary spoke to him in a way that made him decide to be a Jesuit priest.
He’s been a Jesuit priest for 26 years and has become one of the most popular spiritual writers today.
On a personal note, Fr. James Martin is one of my and Jojang’s favorite authors. He writes most of the time about his personal experiences; that’s probably why most people could relate to him.
His simple, direct, and practical way of presenting spiritual truths is what makes his books relevant for our time.
Just recently he was interviewed in a podcast entitled Finding God in All Things. Krista Tippett, the host of the podcast, introduces him with these words:
Before Pope Francis, Fr. James Martin was perhaps the best known and loved Jesuit writing in American life. He’s followed the calling of the founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, to “find God in all things” – and in 21st century forms, as editor of America magazine, but also as a wise and witty presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Stephen Colbert has proclaimed him the chaplain of “the Colbert Nation.” To delve into Fr. Martin’s way of being in the world is to discover the spiritual exercises St. Ignatius designed to be accessible to everyone more than six centuries ago. These underpinned the Jesuit way of “contemplation in action” and are now shaping the Vatican in a new age.
To listen to the podcast, click on the link below: