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Zen Christian Experience

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Fr. Robert Kennedy - Kamila Zarembska

Fr. Robert Kennedy (Photo: Kamila Zarembska)

So often I have been asked to explain why I, a Jesuit, am also a Zen teacher who conducts Zen retreats for Christians.

Let me try to answer: it began one spring morning in 1976 in Kamakura, Japan, standing with friends outside the Zen meditation hall of Yamada Roshi where we had just finished a five-day period of Zen meditation, I was so convinced of the value of the guided meditation and the experienced leadership of Zen training that I said to my Catholic companions, ‘This belongs in the Church!’ That I would make such a statement reflects my Jesuit orientation of bringing to the Church ‘gifts of greater worth’. I believed then, as I do now, that Zen was a great gift to bring to the Church, even though I knew I would have much to do to prepare the Church to receive such a gift. Concerns I had made me wonder to which Christians I would attempt to bring the gift of Zen since most Buddhists themselves were not interested in the Zen expression of Buddhism.

The practice of Zen began as an attempt by Chinese monks to intuit and enflesh the ideals of Buddhism which they had received from India. Hence their life of meditation and compassionate service as well as their interpretation of their Buddhist scriptures were by no means accepted by the majority of Buddhists. Even the beloved saint of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran, was especially critical of the Zen ideal of urging people to strive for enlightenment. So I wondered, if the majority of Buddhists are not interested in Zen, how will most Christians appreciate my bringing them such a gift and how many will give this gift a welcome reception?

Let me explain the gift that Zen offers. It is an imageless way of responding to a truth we cannot imagine. Reflecting on this gift, I remember reading in the autobiography of St Therese, the Little Flower, that on her deathbed she suffered the temptation that there was no heaven waiting for her. I believe this is a way of saying she was tempted to think there was no God waiting for her either. Since St Therese is not only a saint but a Doctor of the Church, it is wise to pay attention to her experience.

I believe the temptation of St Therese was not a temptation at all, but for her and for some other Christians at least it is the natural evolution of the human mind. Accordingly the Benedictine and Zen Master, Willigis Jager, writes, ‘It is a decisive step when the individual in contemplation suddenly finds … God vanishing out of sight, or simply crumbling into pieces. This experience can at first give rise to great uncertainty. The Father’s hand is withdrawn, loneliness and a sense of lostness turn into a kind of abyss.’ Not only is the experience of the loss of God common to fervent Christians, I believe it is the experience that Christ himself suffered on the cross and we have still not fully understood his final words: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’

Contemplating Christ’s last words, I am reminded how Zen and the words of the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not put strange gods before me’, invite us to have no image of God: to discard not only all idols, but all conceptions and mental images of God as well. There is really nothing that we can say definitively about God. Not even that he is good. Given our limited language, we can say only what he is not. Meister Eckhart comes to mind: ‘Keep silent and don’t gape after God, for by gaping after him, you are lying, you are committing sin’. And later, ‘Hence I beg God that he relieve me of God’. To my thinking, Eckhart’s comment that ‘a man ought not to have a god who is just a product of his thought, nor should he be satisfied with that, because if the thought disappeared, God too would disappear’ clearly illustrates the commandment and Zen thinking.

It is true that most Christians do not journey on this arduous road of prayer, but for those who do, Zen contemplation can be of great help. The very purpose of Zen is to see into the emptiness of our concepts and emotions and into the emptiness of the culture which carries or expresses our faith. Zen reminds us of our own Christian truth that we need not subscribe to any philosophy or theology or any cultural expression of faith. Zen’s gift to us is to understand that often it is not belief in God that we lose but belief or interest in the philosophy, theology or culture that expresses this belief. Again I am reminded of the Little Flower who discontinued reciting the rosary when she did not find it helpful. The rosary, here, is but a symbol of any form of piety or thought in Christendom. Any cultural expression of faith is, in itself, not faith; let us not then cling to mere expressions of faith. Let us realize that to die and rise with Christ is quite enough.

Zen’s gift to us is by no means a foreign one. Our own Catholic tradition has long supported the truth that recommends the abandonment of all confrontational understanding of God that would line up opinions, whether Christian, Greek or any other against one another like horses at the starting line. Our tradition advocates a way of understanding God that transcends all differences. Among the Doctors of the Church, St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, in The life of Moses asserts, ‘The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life; for he has been diverted from true being to something devised by his own imagination.’

Here you may be asking yourself; if Christian thought itself has long taught us not to cling to any ideas about God, why should we now tum to Zen Buddhism? Why should we undertake a long training to end up where we were fifteen centuries ago? The answer to this question is that it is not the only goal of Christianity to keep repeating truths we were taught fifteen centuries ago. The Second Vatican Council and recently the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus stress that Jesuits, and analogously all Christian people, according to their personality and situation in life, must foster interreligious dialogue not just on the level of thought but also on the level of religious experience. Both urge us to share with one another spiritual experiences with regard to prayer, faith, and ‘ways of searching for God or the Absolute.’

To share our experience with others according to the 34th General Congregation implies two important principles. First, genuine dialogue with believers of other religions requires that we deepen our own Christian faith and commitment because real inter-faith dialogue takes place only between those rooted in their own identity. The goal of inter-faith dialogue is not to convert one another but to be converted to an attitude of listening to the other that can lead to mutual respect and admiration at how truth manifests itself in different cultures and personalities. Even more than admiration, true listening can lead to the astonishment of Jesus who listened to the centurion and exclaimed, ‘I have not found such faith in Israel.’

The second principle implied in sharing religious experience with others reminds us that Vatican II exhorted all Catholics to a dialogue with others to ‘acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found in other religions and the values in their society and culture.’ This principle underlines how far we have come from going to war with our brothers and sisters of other faiths! We are now exhorted not merely to tolerate their otherness, not merely to accept their truth, but to promote it. And if we are called to promote this truth, then surely we are called to seek it with all our mind and heart and strength.

Zen Buddhism has an extraordinary appeal for contemporary men and women seeking a true, personal spiritual experience. It has had a powerful hold on the Catholic mind. According to Robert Aitken, a Zen master in Hawaii, all the Zen centres in Europe, except one in France, have been started by Catholics. To my way of thinking this attraction to Zen practice is a God-given opportunity to practise the very exhortations that come to us from Vatican II, from the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, and finally from our own good common sense.

I view my having trained to be a Zen teacher and conducting inter­ faith retreats for Zen Buddhists and Christians as a response to Vatican II and to the 34th General Congregation’s statement which concluded that ‘to be religious today is to be interreligious in a sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism.’ Although some Jesuits have already been trained for this work, the Congregation continuously encourages each assistancy to prepare Jesuits for interreligious dialogue and to understand and appreciate the urgency of this task in today’s pluralistic world.

My interest in Zen Buddhism stems from my attempt to reach out to Zen Buddhism, not uncritically, but with a reverence for the truth which the Church admits is there, and to integrate these truths with our own truths for the benefit of all concerned. Let me now demonstrate what we do when Zen and Christian students come to sit together. Let me give an example of the Zen teaching that Zen and Christian students practise together. This teaching is taken from the 11th Koan of the Book of Serenity, one of the major books of Zen teaching which is familiar to Zen students and which teaches us to experience life free from preconceived concepts.

The Zen Master Yunmen states that when light does not penetrate freely, there are three types of sicknesses that grow in the dark. The first sickness is not to get on the donkey. I understand this sickness to apply to those who do not engage in practice but remain on the level of theory or thinking or dogmatic conviction. Practising Zen we overcome this sickness. Zen aims at doing, not just thinking. It is the doing, breathing and living that transform the practitioner and make him or her useful in this world. Zen teaches that the self is not different from its function in a world of action. Kathleen Raine, a contemporary British poet, apparently agrees with this Zen teaching. She writes:

Each creature is the signature of its action.
The gull swoops, shaped by wind and hunger,
Eyes and avenging beak, and strong with wings
Turned to a fine edge of beauty and power by wind and water.
Scream and wing-beat utter the holy truth of its being. Man acts amiss: pure only the song
That breaks from the lips of love…

The second sickness that grows in the dark where light does not penetrate freely is not getting off the donkey. I understand this statement to express a warning to those students who cling to the forms and rules of practice when these forms and rules have ceased to serve their purpose and no longer serve life. One Zen story tells of a monk far advanced in training who comes to a master for further instruction. He comes to him loaded down with Zen scripture, Zen customs, Zen language, Zen clothes; in other words he stinks of Zen. The Master asks him if he has had his breakfast. ‘Yes, I have,’ responds the monk. ‘Then go wash your bowl,’ says the Master. He means there is no such thing as Zen apart from our very life as we live it moment by moment. We are to live freely and not to be caught by forms that once had their place but no longer serve an adult and insightful life.

Concerning this, Dogen, a Japanese Zen philosopher of the thirteenth century, wrote:

Suchness is the real form of truth as it appears throughout the world – it is fluid and differs from any static substance. Our body is not really ours. Our life is easily changed by life and circumstances and never remains static. Countless things pass, and we will never see them again. Our mind is also continually changing. Some people wonder ‘If this is true on what can we rely?’ But others who have the resolve to seek enlightenment, use this constant flux to deepen their enlightenment.

My understanding of the second sickness is that when we cling to forms that we have outgrown, we stay on the donkey and we stink of Zen.

The third sickness, that grows where the light does not penetrate freely, is to say, ‘What donkey?’ Zen training is not meant to lead us into a vacuum called emptiness but to prepare us to return to the market place laden with wine and fish or with whatever those in front of us need at this moment. For Dogen and for the Mahayana tradition generally, doctrinal expressions and ritual forms must correspond to the suffering and ignorance of the world. Buddhist thought is true and its forms are authentic when they alleviate suffering and enlighten ignorance. We cannot say ‘What donkey is there?’ or ‘What world is there?’ We must turn to life with full hands and hearts, again and again and again.

Catholics legitimately want, and respond to, what Merton calls ‘the hardheaded spiritual realism (of Zen)… non-charged with melodrama’. The proof of this is in the large numbers of Christians who show up regularly for zen retreats in the New York area alone. ‘Why haven’t we been taught this before?’ or, ‘We’ve always known that God is unknowable – this practice gives us lay people an opportunity to experience this’ or ‘It’s great to know we can practise Zen without compromising our Christianity’ are the kinds of comments that come up repeatedly. A non-conceptual approach to prayer is of value, in itself and to balance out the whole spectrum of Christian prayer forms and retreats as well.

In summary, I am attracted to inter-faith work between Zen Buddhists and Christians because it is the work of the imagination. I have no better way of describing what I mean by imagination than to end with a poem by a contemporary American poet, Denise Levertov.

Imagine this blur of chill, white, gray, vague, sadness burned off.

Imagine a landscape
of dry clear sunlight, precise shadows,
forms of pure color.

Imagine two neighbouring hills, and
your house, my house, looking across, friendly:
imagine ourselves
meeting each other,
bringing gifts, bringing news.

Yes we need the heat
of imagination’s sun
to cut through our bonds of cloud.

And oh, can the great and golden light
warm our flesh that has grown so cold?

–Fr. Robert Kennedy, SJ

Robert Kennedy, SJ, born in New York, was ordained priest in Japan where he first practised Zen and studied with the Japanese Zen Master Yamada Roshi. He continued his study on returning to the United States and in 1998 he became the first Catholic priest in the country to receive inka whereby he received the honorary title of Roshi. He is Chair of the Theology Department at St Peter’s College, Jersey City, where he teaches theology and Japanese, a practising psychotherapist in New York City, and the author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit (Continuum 1995, 1998).

Written by MattAndJojang

February 19, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Pathways

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Photo: Luke Storms

Photo: Luke Storms

I don’t know why I was born with this belief
in something deeper and larger than we can see.
But it’s always called.
Even as a boy, I knew that trees and light and sky
all point to some timeless center out of view.
I have spent my life listening to that center
and filtering it through my heart.
This listening and filtering is the music of my soul,
of all souls.
After sixty years, I’ve run out of ways to name this.
Even now, my heart won’t stand still.
In a moment of seeing, it takes the shape of my eye.
In a moment of speaking, the shape of my tongue.
In a moment of silence, it slips back into the lake of center.
When you kiss me, it takes the shape of your lip.
When our dog sleeps with us, it takes the shape of her curl.
When the hummingbird feeds her baby, it takes the shape of her beak
carefully dropping food into our throats.

–Mark Nepo

Written by MattAndJojang

February 8, 2017 at 11:31 am

The Longing For Spiritual Freedom

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Paul Gauguin's "Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?"

Paul Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?”

There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.

All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.

Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.

–Huston Smith

Written by MattAndJojang

January 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Strangers No More: Catholic Monastics in Dialogue with Other Faith-Traditions

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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

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September 8, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters – and How To Talk About It

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Speaking of Faith

For the most part yesterday I spent the day reading, because of a 10-hour brownout. I read Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters – And How To Talk About It. Krista Tippett is the award-winning host of my favorite internet podcast On Being.

The book is full of gems of wisdom. These are some of the passages in the book that resonated with me:

We miss the essence of great religious figures…if we imagine them sitting, uttering a list of doctrines. And our theology… should be like poetry.

If we wait for clean heroes and clear choices and evidence on our side to act, we will wait forever, and my radio conversations teach me that people who bring light into the world wrench it out of darkness, and contend openly with darkness all of their days.

Healing, like faith, …is most effective when it incorporates what is broken rather than denying or curing it.

The way we deal with the losses of our lives, large and small, may be what most determines our capacity to be present to the whole of our lives.

Religious traditions give me language and ideas to hold on to ambiguity—the pleasure and pain of human experience that complicate and enliven each other.

A rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, gave me the best illustration I know of the difference between spirituality and religion. On Mount Sinai, she says, something extraordinary happened to Moses. He had a direct encounter with God. This was a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments were the container for that experience. They are religion.

We speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world.

The book is for people who want to make sense of what religion is all about and how to practice it in our modern, contemporary, 21st century society. It is also for those who have been wounded by the negative, unhealthy and life-denying aspects of religion. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love:

Her intelligence is like a salve for all thinking people who have felt wounded or marginalized by The God Wars.

Speaking of Faith is a book I will cherish and reread over and over again…

— Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 11, 2015 at 9:34 am

An Evening with Krista Tippett

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Krista Tippett reading from her book

Krista Tippett reading from her book “Speaking of Faith.”

Krista Tippett is the host of the Peabody Award-winning public radio program and podcast On Being (formerly known as Speaking of Faith). In 2014, she was also awarded the National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Growing up in the 60s in a religiously conservative family, she was deeply influenced by his grandfather, the Reverend C. T. Perkins. She later traces her attraction to religion to him.

My later fascination with religion had surely to do with his singular integrity among all the members of my family. Here I use that word integrity strictly; he had it all together, for better or worse. He discerned certain truths about the nature of the universe, and he lived by them. They both clarified and constrained his range of vision and movement.

Though he had only a third-grade education, he was a highly intelligent man.

…though, he only had a third-grade education, my grandfather possessed a strange prodigious intelligence. He could perform complex mathematical feats in his head. After his death, I inherited the bibles he studied and preached by — mighty leather-bound King James versions with feather-thin pages — and found page after page marked with notes, annotations, cross-references, every margin full of observations that speak to a love for the life of the mind. From an early age I sensed this in myself, an unlearned pleasure I could take in ideas, the written word, and the thoughts in my head, their powers of making sense.

However, some family members thought he was a tyrant, but she thought otherwise.

I could never buy in to the popular idea in our family that he was a tyrant. He was funny. He told jokes. He laughed easily. He bought a farm after he retired from evangelizing, planted a vegetable garden, and lovingly built wooden birdhouses. Even as he preached hellfire and brimstone, he had a sense of play. He was a man of God with a sense of humor — and to this day, that is a combination I admire and seek out.

Above all:

He taught me to trust in an overriding sense behind the universe. I learned from him to look for grace and for truths that reveal themselves, at times, baldly, but just as often, between the cracks in my ability to see and hear what is important. Above all, he imparted me with a sense of belovedness woven into the very fabric of life.

But as she moved away from Oklahoma, where she grew up, religion ceased to make sense to her. For most of the 80s, for most of her 20s she lived in Germany.

Starting out as a freelance journalist (writing and reporting for The New York Times, Newsweek, the BBC, the International Herald Tribune, and Die Zeit), she ended up working as a diplomat for the Reagan administration. First, as a special political assistant to the senior diplomat in West Berlin; and, after a year, as the chief aide in Berlin to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany.

During those times, however, she began to ponder the moral questions arising from her experience of being close to the powers-that-be. This led her again to explore religion and spirituality.

One of the religious thinkers that influenced her during this period of her life was the original memoirist of the Holocaust, Eli Weisel. Eli Wiesel was visiting Berlin for the first time since the Holocaust when she heard him speak before a group of young Germans. She was struck when he said:

I had never before considered that it could be as painful to be a child of those who ran the camps as a child of those who died in them.

Deeply moved by what she heard, she writes:

I was astonished that Wiesel, a victim of German genocide, was open to seeing the tragedy and the resilience of the human spirit on every side of it. His words unsettled and moved me. They stirred conclusions I was struggling to articulate in that country with a tortured past and present. I was thoroughly caught up in the enduring strategic, geopolitical consequences of Germany’s descent into Nazi terror. Yet through Elie Wiesel’s eyes, goals like human redemption and healing — and not just retribution, economic rebuilding, and balances of power — also appeared urgent. I felt that Wiesel’s words belonged on the front pages of newspapers, that they should be shouted to the world. But I believe this had nothing to do with God. Wiesel’s faith, as he wrote in Night, had been consumed forever by the flames of the ovens at Auschwitz. Two decades would pass before I could speak with him again, and be surprised again by his words.

Burnt-out, she resigned from her job as a diplomat in Berlin, and spent some time on the Spanish island of Mallorca. She describes this period of her life in this manner:

Quiet and submission born of fatigue were the beginnings of wisdom for me after Berlin. Fresh air and the sun’s warmth, almond and apricot and lemon trees, fresh bread and strong Spanish coffee, the ocean in late afternoon — these were its elements. I handed my resignation to the ambassador and his wife, believing I was headed for Washington in a matter of months. But first I decided to go back to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited — Deia, a village ringed by mountains on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I put my furniture into storage and packed two suitcases, out of which I would live, as it turned out, for the next two years.

Alone in Deia, I began to realize how tired and confused I was. I felt this physically, before I could turn it into ideas and words. This was salutary for me. I had made my way through the world up to now — and this is still my greatest virtue and vice rolled together — by my wits alone, headfirst. I forced myself out of bed at daybreak every day and rushed a silly, shallow novel about Berlin into being. I thought this was my purpose for being there and the accomplishment I would have to show for it. But in moments I thought were not productive, I looked out the tiny window by my desk. I saw a mountain, sky, and air that dwarfed nuclear weapons and the life and death they seemed to threaten. I breathed deeply. The world began to realign itself more generously, or rather my vision did. None of this was logical, none of it made sense.

Early, quite early, I put away most of the books I brought along. I read Rilke, whom I had loved for years and whose gorgeous iconoclastic language felt right in this place. I reread his advice to a young poet: ‘to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’

She eventually went back to the U.S., and studied theology for most of the early 90s at Yale Divinity School. The idea for a public radio show came to her while serving as a consultant to the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John’s Abbey and University of Collegeville, Minnesota. She wanted to conduct a conversation about faith, religion and spirituality in a way “that doesn’t proselytize, exclude, anger, or offend.”

Starting out as an occasional feature in 2000, it evolved, starting in 2003, as a weekly program. Since then she has interviewed theologians, scientists, educators, physicians, social activists, poets, and even atheists and agnostics.

…the words ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are narrowing boxes in our culture as well. Spiritual questions don’t go away, nor does a sense of wonder and mystery cease, in the absence of a belief in God. Non-religious people are some of the most fervent seekers of our age, energetically crafting lives of meaning.

In 2007, she wrote the book Speaking of Faith. Part memoir, part reflections on the issues of the day – it is also a record of the insights she gained from her weekly interviews of her conversation partners.

To watch her read excerpts from her book to a live audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, click this link:

An Evening with Krista Tippett

— Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

April 30, 2015 at 1:57 pm

An Invitation to a Zen Retreat

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Zen Retreat Invitation

An invitation to attend a Zen retreat 16 years ago from Sr. Perla Macapinlac, 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:

A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen

–Matt

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April 16, 2015 at 2:44 pm

The Book Thief

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The Book Thief

In my religion we’re taught that every living thing, every leaf, every bird, is only alive because it contains the secret word for life. That’s the only difference between us and a lump of clay. A word. Words are life…

–from the movie The Book Thief

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February 8, 2015 at 11:25 am

The Most Powerful Religion

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Money

Photo: chedder/Flickr

The love of money is the root of all evil. — I Timothy 6:10

If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of all– much more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on– is the people who worship money. That is really [the] most powerful religion. And the banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the hour we have business news– every hour– it’s a sort of hymn to capitalism.

–Tony Benn

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November 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton

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The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton

In Theaters 2015

 

 

Who is Thomas Merton?

In 1941, aspiring author Thomas Merton abandoned his bohemian life in New York City and ran away to the strictest observance of Catholic monasticism he could find—a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, where he took a lifelong vow of silence, poverty, obedience and stability.


Considering the moral laxity of his past life, Merton felt that writing would be at odds with his new monastic vocation. But while he vowed to put down his pen for good, his abbot recognized Merton’s literary talent and demanded he write his life story. In obedience, Merton hammered out 
his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which was published in 1948. To Merton’s surprise, the book became a blockbuster hit and shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It also sent scores of World War II veterans, students and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the United States and around the world as they sought to follow Merton’s example. Despite his best efforts to submerge himself in the anonymity of his religious vocation, Thomas Merton had become an overnight celebrity.

Though bombarded with countless speaking requests and the other unwanted pressures of his newfound fame, Merton continued to write and publish many books on sacramental living, prayer and contemplation. As the Cold War and mounting fear of nuclear holocaust took center stage, Merton used his celebrity to speak out against war, violence, racism and other hot button issues of the 1960s. As a prominent peace activist and proponent of social justice amidst such turbulent times, Merton quickly became both loved and hated by many.

During his twenty-seven years as a monk, Merton published 56 books. Since then he has sold approximately 15 million books translated into dozens of languages. Merton’s influence has grown exponentially since his tragic and unexplained death by accidental electrocution in 1968. He is widely recognized as an important 20th-century Catholic mystic who forged new paths into both interfaith dialogue and non-violent peacemaking. In addition to the International Thomas Merton society, currently there are 57 local Thomas Merton chapters and societies around the globe dedicated to keeping his legacy alive.

 

About the Film

Synopsis

The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton is a feature film about world famous monk and peace activist Thomas Merton. In the summer of 1966, Merton falls in love with a nursing student half his age, plunging him into the most agonizing predicament of his life. As he endeavors to prevent his secret romance from being discovered by his abbot, James Fox, Merton is brought to the brink of despair, realizing he must finally choose between serving himself or serving the world.

Endorsements

“A beautiful portrayal of one of the great spiritual masters of our time, “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton” highlights a period of tremendous creativity and volcanic change for the person who was, at the time, America’s most well known Catholic writer and sage. This lovely new screenplay ushers us into the often misunderstood world of monastic life, artfully showing the struggle of a man trying to remain faithful to his vows after having fallen in love. Both longtime fans of Merton and newcomers to his life will find it sensitive, nuanced and often deeply moving.”
James Martin, SJ, Jesuit priest and author of Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints

“Thomas Merton is serving history as a ‘Prime Attractor’. He excites, challenges, and educates the hardest of hearts and the most rigid of minds from so many different spheres of life. He seduces people into a future where there is room and compassion for so much more. You can jump into that future through this fully entertaining but profoundly true account of his life.”
— Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation

“I found it very gripping — read it in one bite!”
 — Jim Forest, friend of Merton, writer, peace activist

“Thomas Merton deserves to be known and read by a new generation, and Ben Eisner and Kevin Miller are creating an ideal vehicle to make the introduction. Those who have read Merton will find much here to deepen their understanding of the man, and those who haven’t read him will want to as soon as they leave the theater.
— Brian D. McLaren, author/speaker/activist (www.brianmclaren.net)

“The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton narrates with respect and humor significant events in the famous monk’s last years that challenged his personal integrity and his crucial relationship to his monastery’s abbot, James Fox. The screenplay realistically portrays the major role that Fox played in Merton’s life both as a down-to-earth spiritual mentor and as one of his literary career’s best friends. The screenplay follows Merton’s movement through personal challenges to his living out his vocation in a context of crisis that is mirrored in events of the Sixties that created turbulence for America’s own sense of its direction through world upheaval. This script deserves serious consideration for translation into a film that would attract a global audience.”
— Jonathan Montaldo, co-editor of The Intimate Merton

— Source: http://mertonmovie.com