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 An unpublished satirical letter of Merton’s, in the style of Jonathan Swift, from Marco J. Frisbee, is included as an appendix.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.

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