Monday, August 22, 2016

Fear, Thomas Merton, and William Willimon

Last night I finished two books just before going to sleep. I recommend them both.

I usually read a few books at a time but this time these two books provided me with a lot to think about. And they both concern “fear”.

Jim Forest’s The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton's advice to peacemakers was published this week and, getting it on Kindle, I devoured it in four days. 

Thomas Merton has been a significant person in my life.

Merton's collection of quotes from Gandhi in Gandhi on Non-Violence played a major role in helping me in the late 1960s discern how to respond to war and peace. I was against the war in Viet Nam, but Gandhi’s explanation of the courage that is needed for the nonviolence of the strong spurred me to a commitment to active nonviolence.

Merton's collection of quotes on the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert, opened up for me another aspect of living with God – especially the Zen-like quips and deeds of those who left for the desert – in part to offer an alternative to a Christianity allied with the Empire.

The collection of essays Raids on the Unspeakable sustains and challenges me even now. Here he wrote on the Eichmann trial, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial. His essay, “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room,” has provided me with a Christmas meditation almost every year. The opening essay, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” pulls together an ancient Christian writer, the existentialist dramatist Ionesco, rain, and war.

But the essay “The Root of War Is Fear” is one of his most important writings for me. It is full of great wisdom and a challenge for all of us.

Jim Forest, a personal friend, takes the title of his work from this essay but goes well beyond Merton’s challenges expressed there. Jim, who has written a great biography of Merton, Living with Wisdom, with fantastic photos – as well as one of Dorothy Day,  All Is Grace – gives an overview of Merton’s life, with great insights gleaned from Jim’s visits and correspondence with Merton.  

The book is filled with extensive quotations from Merton, most often situated in their context by Jim’s marvelous prose. The full text of the letter from Jim that provoked the Merton letter known in its abbreviated form as “Letter to a Young Activist” is included, together with the full text of Merton’s response – which reveals a wisdom and a sensitivity that are badly needed today. An unpublished satirical letter of Merton’s, in the style of Jonathan Swift, from Marco J. Frisbee, is included as an appendix.

I will return to this book in the next few months, savoring the wisdom of Merton.

The other book I finished last night was William Willimon’s Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love is the work of a Methodist theologian and bishop responding to the current site of fear in the United States (and around the globe).

I ran across Willimon’s writing many years ago and am probably one of the few Catholics who read and really liked the 1989 book he co-wrote with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens. I was also impressed by other writings, especially in relation to higher education. I thus persuaded the planning committee of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association to invite him to one of their national conventions.

In Fear of the Other, Willimon offers a vision of faith, centered in Jesus Christ, who comes forward to us and changes our way of being. As he writes, “God is shown, in Christ, to be pure will toward embrace.”

And thus, “I take the step toward [the Other] and open my arms, not primarily because of my enlightened redefinition of the Other but rather because of Jesus’s redefinition of me.”

Again, it is a book full of gems that challenge us, especially in his reinterpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan. I will not write here what he suggests, lest I spoil the impact it had on me – and may have on most US church-goers.

These two books are very different but they have both helped me begin to understand why I do not experience a lot of fear, even though there is violence around us here in Honduras. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to take seriously the challenge of Merton and Willimon.

Willimon writes:
         We are commissioned to the active, searching, seeking, embracing love of the Other.

And, as Merton wrote to Jim Forest:
All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Receiving a hundred fold

Why am I continually surprised here in delightful ways?

Sunday, the road from my house was blocked by a car that had fallen into the sewage ditch that the community is digging. But Isaías dropped by and told me that there was an alternative way, that we should be able to get through.

So we left, a little early – the car loaded with people going to Mass in Toreras. I made sure I had the four wheel drive ready to go.

But that wasn’t enough. On a muddy incline we got stuck. I had a heavy rope and so everyone got out of the car (except for a kid, a baby and his mother who were in the cabin) and the men and one woman tried pulling the car. That didn’t work. But within a few minutes at least five neighbors showed up and with them pushing and others pulling we got out of the mud and proceeded to Mass.

It takes a village.

I purposely parked my car that night up the road in the mayor’s yard. A good decision since not one but two cars got stuck in the ditch and had to be extracted by sheer manpower - no women pulling or pushing this time.

That afternoon one of the young men working on the ditch dropped by and told me that I could probably drive my car down here. I told him I preferred to wait, especially since it looked as if it was going to rain. And it later did – torrentially.

We talked for a while. But what really surprised – and gladdened me – is that this kid who has only finished fifth grade corrected my Spanish.

He had corrected me earlier that day and I had expressed my gratitude.

This really surprised me since most people are deferential and are reluctant to correct others (especially a gringo). What a gift Donaldo gave me.

There are some of the surprises that I keep experiencing.

Being here is not a sacrifice, since I find myself receiving a hundredfold. 

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Laughing at myself

Friday night I drove to Oromilaca for a meeting of their youth community.

I goth there early and went to the house where we were going to meet. I ended up playing with a precocious three year old, Jefferson, while waiting for the young people to arrive.

I have been meeting with the youth groups or communities in the parish to get to know what they are doing and how I can help them. I also try to bring a theme to work on with them.

This is a group of about 18 people, including some non-young people who accompany the young people. One of the young men had prepared a theme but let me develop the one I had brought – on friendship.

My method is to involve as many as possible in the process. I recalled the song “I want a million friends,” and asked them if they could really have a million friends – outside of Facebook. (Yes, Facebook is well known among the young people who access Facebook on their phones.)

I asked the young people how many real friends they have. Typically the answers were three or four, though one guy said he had thirty!

Then we shared what we liked to do with our real friends. Most said talk, share joys and difficulties.

Then I put a piece of paper on the floor and asked them to write down qualities of a good friend, without saying what they are writing. I do it this way so that everyone has a chance to share.

Then I read the contributions. At one point I was having trouble reading what was written and asked for help. A young man came forward and turned the paper. I was trying to read it upside down! We all started laughing – and I broke into a belly laugh. (The accompanying photo is from 2011 but is fitting.)

We finished sharing what was written and then added a few things that were missing. Not surprisingly one aspect of a good friend that no group had written was the ability to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.

We continued and then I had them write what damages or destroys a friendship. They rushed the paper and wrote down their thoughts.

After more sharing, I read the passage of love in the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I then re-read the passage, substituting “friend” for the places where Paul writes love. It is strikingly apt.

However, I kept on saying “love” instead of “friend” and they corrected me and we laughed together.

It was a great hour and a half and I left, to drive back the half hour to Plan Grande in the twilight. But it had been a great experience – in great part because I could laugh – at myself.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Saint Lawrence and Monseñor Romero

Tonight we celebrated the feast of Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr, in the little church of San Pedro in a barrio of Dulce Nombre de Copán.

Lawrence who served the altar of the Lord knew the true treasure of the church and presented them - the poor, the ill, the marginalized - to the Roman prefect who wanted the wealth of the church. 

Tonight was the first time I wore my red stole – the color of martyrs – which has an image of Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero. The stole was made by the Poor Clare Sisters in Planes de Renderos, near San Salvador.

When I read the Gospel for the day this morning I was struck that it was the Gospel that Monseñor Romero proclaimed the night he was killed in the chapel of the Divina Providencia Hospital for Poor Cancer Patients.
“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies it brings forth great fruit.” (John 12: 23-26)
Monsenõr Romero was celebrating the first anniversary of the death of the mother of a prominent journalist and remarked “how she put all of her educated upbringing, all her graciousness, at the service of a cause that is so important now: our people’s true liberation.”

He went on to refer directly to the Gospel:
you have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.
Tonight I proclaimed the Gospel and shared a few thoughts on the commitment of Saint Lawrence as well as these words from Romero. I pray that St. Lawrence and Blessed Monseñor Romero pray for me, that I have the courage and the creativity to speak and live this message of self-emptying for God and the poor.