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Faith isn’t easy but what worth having or doing is? merton

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I loved Halloween when I was a kid. Dressing up, canvassing the neighborhood for candy…. Best of all, if Halloween fell on a weekday, there was never school the next day — because it was a holy day of obligation, All Saint’s Day. What a great holiday! Only Christmas could trump it.

Nowadays, I pay little attention to Halloween. Our street does not get trick-or-treaters. And, being a grown-up, I am aware of far too many real-life terrors to be enchanted by grinning jack-o’-lanterns and costumed monsters. But I retain affection for All Saint’s Day.

There are many saints who have provided me with support over the years. For instance, Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases, has more than once been my prayer-partner. I’ve also leaned on Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things, for help in finding everything from homework to misplaced keys. And what good Catholic hasn’t muttered, “Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, find a space for my machine-y” in a crowded parking lot? (Really? Just me?)

Certain saints, however, hold a more indelible place in my heart. Take St. Lawrence, my patron saint. Asked to present the Romans with the riches of the city, he brought in a crowd of poor people, an offense that bought him the death penalty: roasting alive on a giant barbeque. During his death, he was heard to quip, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.” I love him for his sense of humor, his bravado, his commitment to the poor. I see a lot of St. Lawrence in Pope Francis.

St. Theodora, also known as Mother Theodore Guerin, was the founder of the college I attended, St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Known for her commitment to educating women in a time when college was considered dangerous to a female’s health, Mother Theodore was a force to be reckoned with. She simultaneously embraced humility and obedience while refusing to back down from her commitment to her mission, even when the local bishop effectively kidnapped her, locked her up, and told her she was excommunicated from the Church. A woman who once gently directed her order to love children first, then instruct them, St. Theodora is a model of patience, kindness and strength.

And then there’s Thomas Merton, who is not a saint yet, but who ought to be. Brilliant from the get-go, the son of an artist, Merton was a long-time atheist who found God in the most surprising of ways. (I urge anyone who is unsettled on the question of God to read Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.) He became a Trappist monk and a prolific poet and writer, covering a wide variety of topics, such as social justice and Eastern religions. He died too young, and with him the world lost one of the 20th century’s great spiritual thinkers.

We are used to thinking of saints in the past tense. It seems incredible that saints might walk among us today, but they do. What do they do that the rest of us don’t? Not much, really. Sainthood is less a way of doing than a way of being. As Mother Theodore said, “Let us never forget that if we wish to die like the Saints we must live like them. Let us force ourselves to imitate their virtues, in particular humility and charity.” In a world where humility and charity are in short supply (just look at our politicians), let us not forget the example of the saints.

As you may know, I’m from Jersey. I’ve told a few choice “Joizey” jokes in my day, and they always get a laugh.

But if you try to knock New Jersey in my house? Oh, heck no.

I’d tell you to make like a banana. And split.

Make like a tree. And leave.

Make like a shepherd. And get the flock out of here!

It’s like this. You know how dysfunctional your own family can be. But they’re still your family. You might give your sister a hard time, sure. Goffa Bids (Jerzese = God Forbid) anybody else does it.

Likewise, I feel defensive when I hear anyone knocking religion. Even though I don’t belong to a particular church myself, my faith is the hinge of my life, and prayer is the door.

But lately, I’ve seen things in the news that make me wonder if certain churches didn’t get the memo – you know, the one about doing unto others. They may have missed the class on compassion, and they’re giving all of us who are spiritually inclined a black eye. The litmus test for a person of faith is simple: if you don’t treat people well, you don’t know God.

Take this church (please!) in Knoxville, Tennessee, with its billboard designed to offend those who believe everyone is entitled to equal rights.

Or this one in San Francisco, California, with shower sprays that aim out toward the front of its church building. Not to put out fires, mind you; no, they’re used for the sole purpose of discouraging homeless people from sleeping there by drenching them with water.

The great Thomas Merton said, “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” And these churches may really believe they are following God’s leading by driving away those souls already feeling disenfranchised.

Even though it isn’t always clear what to do in a difficult situation, one thing is certain. Nobody claiming to hold faith has any right to diminish another. I’m no theologian, but I know one thing, as sure as I’m sitting here. God has an open door policy. Everyone is welcome to walk through.

My former boss once told the story of a job he had as a teenager. He was in charge of loading up machines that automatically washed heads of lettuce, then used centrifugal force to dry them. One day, the lettuce was coming out too soggy. He tried a longer spin. Still mushy. He spun the lettuce longer. Even worse! Eventually, he figured out that all that spinning was breaking down the heads of lettuce and releasing their internal, cellular water, turning them into mush. The lesson in this story? Sometimes overworking a problem doesn’t make it better. It just exacerbates matters. It makes things mushier.

I’m the kind of person whose brain comes electrically alive the minute it hits the pillow. Suddenly, I think of a hundred things that need to be dissected, worried over, analyzed. All at the worst possible time, a time when I ought to be relaxing and letting go. I’m sure I’m not alone in this cycle of illogic. Millions of people suffer from insomnia. I am one of the fortunate ones; my natural sleepiness always overtakes me. It’s not so easy for other folks. What can you do when your brain can’t stop spinning?

I learned this trick from the great and good Thomas Merton, author and monk, and — in my head, anyway — a saint. You start at your feet and think, “I can’t feel my feet…I can’t feel my feet.” Slowly, your feet seem to disappear into weightlessness. That’s when you move on to your ankles, then your shins, etc. By the time you get to your head, you should be nearing sleep, if not already unconscious. It’s simply a way of breaking the spell of overworking problems in your head, of worrying yourself out of the sleep you need. It works wonderfully well for me.

Prayer also works well. Pick something soothing, that you know by heart. The rosary makes a magnificent choice. If your brain is busy following the familiar grooves of a favorite prayer, it can’t get lost in a worry rut. My friend SueBe has lauded the use of prayer beads and finger labyrinths. It’s all the same concept: You replace a bad thought cycle with a better one.

Who knows why some people are natural mush-makers while others drift through life carefree and breezy, falling asleep the second their noggin hits the pillow? I can’t explain it. God made us in our infinite variety, worriers and non-worriers alike. God may not be a worrier (it would be difficult to be both omniscient and anxious, anxiety hinging as it does on fear of the unknown), but Jesus understands how we feel. He knows what it feels like to anticipate, to know not only that bad things are coming but that — even as you worry — you can ultimately do nothing to stop them.

It’s comforting to know you’ve got a friend somewhere who knows what you’re going through. Especially if you’re a lettuce-head like me.

In a spirit most ecumenical, my husband and I went to our local Temple’s “Deli Day” fundraiser last Sunday, where we ate tender, spicy corned beef, mouth-melting brisket, crisp potato latkes and strudel so tartly delicious, I have never met its peer. Everyone was exceedingly nice. Yesterday, my friend Alice opined that she often pictures a beleaguered-yet-serene God as looking a lot like The Buddha — an admission she fears will get her excommunicated one day. Why are we so hesitant to embrace religious practices and cultures other than our own? What’s to feel guilty about?

As early as the 1950s, Thomas Merton (fangirl alert!) wrote about the need for Catholics (and others) to embrace “Oriental” spiritual practices. This does not stop me from hiding the cover of the haiku book I’ve been reading during my hour of Perpetual Adoration. To me, it is an ideal book for prayerful contemplation — God in the movement of the seasons, the struggle of the poet to state such magnitudinous ideas in such succinct ways. Still, there’s a part of me that worries what Father might think if he caught me with it. It’s not exactly the work of St. Paul, though my husband might argue the writing’s better. (He doesn’t care much for Paul’s style. I’m okay with it…except for the portions that were added post-Paul by a small-minded monk who thought Paul was just a little bit too free in his praise and support of women. But I digress.)

What’s so wrong with building a spiritual portfolio the way one might order from a Chinese restaurant — a Peking Duck here, a Mu Shu Pork there? Just because I identify as Catholic, can’t I take away nuggets of wisdom from other faith practices? Because I do. And I can’t help thinking it’s a healthy practice.

Some would like to believe that their chosen religious iteration has it ALL — the complete package of answers, practices and meanings. I just can’t get behind that. It’s a wide world out there, and it stands to reason that God has sprinkled God’s wisdom all over the place. So while I stand with Catholicism, I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of spiritual wisdom. It’s why I love reading SueBe’s and Ruth’s posts — it’s good to get a different view on things. It’s enriching. It makes one richer, in a spiritual sense.

So let your faith flag fly, all you Methodist-Confucian-Hindu-Sunnis! Feast from the banquet of spiritual delights. Build yourself a faith out of any materials you like. As long as it’s sturdy, who cares?

“My dad doesn’t believe in God,” my friend whispered.

“What?”

“He thinks that after you die, there’s nothing. No heaven, no hell. Just nothing.”

I had been invited over to my junior high best friend’s house for dinner when she sprang this news on me. It had never occurred to me prior to this that belief in God was optional. During the meal, I stared at my friend’s father, wondering if his nonbelief would show up in his everyday habits. Did he seem particularly sad? Joyless at the prospect of the lack of an afterlife? I couldn’t honestly tell. He looked like a man eating his dinner.

Since then, of course, I’ve met dozens of nonbelievers, of various ages and character. Most are nice people, generally optimistic, altruistic even. A number of them are kinder and more thoughtful than some of the so-called believers I know. They just don’t believe in God. Or religion. I get the sense that a few of them think I’m something of a soft-headed goon for being a believer. That’s okay with me. And I feel no need to proselytize to them. I don’t necessarily think they’re having a bad life without faith. Faith is necessary to me, but perhaps it isn’t for everyone.

However, I do know one thing: Not believing in God isn’t God’s fault. Oh sure, you can look around at the world, at bombs dropping and children starving and the worst sorts of inhumanities, often done in the name of God, and claim that God must not exist. The world is too spiritually polluted. And if indeed He is all-powerful, why does He let such atrocities occur?

We could argue about that point (free will and so on), but ultimately, God’s work is beyond our understanding. I tend to agree with the great Thomas Merton who, having himself been an atheist for many years, understood why some people choose this route. It is not God’s fault; it is religions’. Those who do not believe do so because no church has spoken to them of God in a way they can relate to. The God of most religious people isn’t good enough for them to believe in.

I get that. I often wonder at religions who claim their God wants war or who thinks their particular religious sect is superior to all others. The gods of these religions aren’t good enough for me. I even think God is kinder, larger and more expansive than my chosen religion, Catholicism, although for me Catholicism comes closest to my beliefs.

It all comes down to this: God is bigger and better than human beings can express. If you haven’t found God yet, it’s because nobody has given you reason to. We have failed. But please believe that God has not. He’s there, and He’s greater than you can imagine, and better than you could ever hope for. All I can do is pray that if someone truly wants to find Him, He will be found. And for the rest of the nonbelievers? I’ll let you eat your dinner in peace.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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