Monday, January 31, 2011

Thomas Merton's birthday

Thomas Merton with Daniel Berrigan photo by Jim Forest.
Some rights reserved by Jim Forest. Original here.

On this day in 1915, in southern France, Thomas Merton was born. He is most known as the American Trappist monk and spiritual writer, but his writings and his life embraced the world and offer a profound critique of violence, oppression, and racism.

Here are four quotes from his proliferate writings. They don’t really need any comment from me.

On June 2, 1949, he wrote a letter to Sister Marialein’s class:
“I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.”
The Road to Joy, p. 317
In his introduction to his collection of sayings from the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert, he wrote:
“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.

“Proof: the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds, they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.
Thomas Merton had a love for Latin America. In “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” in Emblems of a Season of Fury, he wrote
"The tourist never meets anyone, never encounters anyone, never finds the brother in the stranger. This is his tragedy, . . .

"If only North Americans had realized . . . that Latin Americans really existed. That they were really people. That they spoke a different language. That they had a culture. That they had more than something to sell! Money has totally corrupted the brotherhood that should have united all the peoples of America. It has destroyed the sense of relationship, the spiritual community that had already begun to flourish in the years of Bolivar. But no! Most North Americans still don’t know, and don’t care, that Brazil speaks a language other than Spanish, that all Latin Americans do not live for the siesta, that all do not spend their days and nights playing the guitar and making love. They have never awakened to the fact that Latin America is by and large culturally superior to the united States, not only on the level of the wealthy minority which has absorbed more of the sophistication of Europe, but also among the desperately poor indigenous cultures, some of which are rooted in a past that has never yet been surpassed on this continent.

"So the tourist drinks tequila, and thinks it is no good, and waits for the fiesta he has been told to wait for. How should he realize that the Indian who walks down the street with half a house on his head and a hole in his pants, is Christ? All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesús."
I don’t have the source of the last quotation, but it’s very pertinent:
“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”


Mary said...

Hi John,
Thanks for posting these quotes. The first quote from the Wisdom of the Desert was what I needed to hear today. Hope all is well on your side of the world. We are praying for peace in Egypt right now.

Anonymous said...

I love the quote that "All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesús."

To respond to Merton's question, "If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?” I had an interesting experience with a (Hong Kong) Chinese scientist, who told me about how enthusiastic about America he was. Interested, I probed him to find out what it was that he loved about the US. The nice labs, the equipment, the ability to do important and interesting research... not a word about freedom, about governance, about the willingness of Americans to help one another, or even about social mobility.

In the end, I concluded that what he most loved about America was the money. I don't think he's atypical for many immigrants to the US... or even for many American-born people. To answer Merton, what we will have left if the bloom of money ever leaves us is a mess, a frustrated mass of people who have no loyalty to or love of their country.

Lord, be patient with us.