A Prophetic Pope and Inspirational Figures in American History

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It been a pleasant and relaxing weekend after the demands of leading back to back retreats at Nether Springs over the last two weeks. A great time on both weeks: hosting a German group from Nuremberg (whose attitude and response to the refugee crisis is so markedly different from our own Government’s response) and for all the leaders who were on the mentoring retreat; great folk, ministering in tough contexts, with sparse resources and so little support. Both experiences needing time for me to reflect and pray about. A lovely time relaxing with good friends who were staying with us from Cornwall, enjoying the sheer beauty of autumn here in Northumberland, another winning team performance at curling, a game of tennis and a walk by the sea along the promenade at Spittal, all valuable in the relaxing and refreshing that is so vital after the demands of giving out to others.

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The weekend afforded me the time to read about the Pope’s visit to the United States last month. His addressed a joint meeting of Congress. In what was an historic speech he reminded his audience of the contributions of four remarkable people who had shaped America for good: President Abraham Lincoln, the Baptist pastor and leadr of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, the monk Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Workers Movement.

Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day have been influences in my own life and ministry and that of the Northumbria Community. I have written before about Luther King so for the purposes of this blog will focus on Merton and Day.

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Pope Francis, in many ways reflects Merton’s emphasis on prayer, deep spirituality, social justice and a disdain for sanctimony and religious or political protocol that gets in the way of compassionate humanity, the fruits of love for God.

Merton is a fascinating character and one whose writings have inspired and influenced many believers. His famous, bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, tells the story of a sad childhood. Orphaned at six and fifteen by the death of his parents, he endured a lonely adolescence and a wild young adulthood, including a short period at Cambridge University before he got into difficulties and was forced to come home, only to endure more setbacks and at one point, feeling so depressed, he contemplated taking his own life. His turbulent lifestyle, troubled background and tortured mind all played a part in him seeking God which led to a dramatic coming to faith in Christ and his conversion to Catholicism. The transformation in his life led him to becoming a monk in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. His autobiography, published in 1948 sold 600,000 copies in hardcover, surpassing 1 million copies shortly after its paperback release. The book revealed early on that he was a talented writer and poet and able to communicate movingly about lots of life and faith issues.

His writings encourage people to seek God, discover the joys, gift and grace of prayer and contemplation. His well-known books, No Man Is An Island and New Seeds Of Contemplation have helped millions of people in their devotional life, Catholics, Protestants and many spiritual seekers. He pioneered what he called, “Contemplation in a World of Action”, anticipating the discovery or renewal and popularity of meditation in our contemporary world. He worked tirelessly for social justice and peace. He was someone who gave permission for Christians in the West to look to the East. It was his respect of other Eastern traditions, including Buddhism that led many to write him off as a heretic but he remained Christo centric and true to his Catholic faith. Pope Francis described Merton as “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

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Merton was a discontent throughout his life. A controversial character, somebody who didn’t comply with many things. I find it really interesting that somebody who was called to a life of solitude had so many interactions with other people, both within the monastery and on his many travels. He was constantly discontented, always looking for something more. A paradoxical character; loving solitude, living as a solitary within a hermitage in the grounds of the monastery yet accompanied by friends on many occasions. The ultimate gift however of Merton, grows out of his prophetic calling. The things he felt, saw, imagined, the things he fought for and fought against all come from his prophetic calling.

As Rowan Williams, another great influence on our own Northumbria Community through his writings, writes in a brilliant foreword to a recent book on Merton. A coherent and comprehensive reminder of why Merton has mattered and still matters so much to so many diverse readers. He remains hard to categorise, a dangerous ally for anyone looking for support for any kind of party. At his best – and there is so much that is his best – he diagnosis as no one else both the spiritual and the political dis-eases of the post-war world, and we can still recognise the problems. But equally he displays wonderfully the richness and resourcefulness of the renewed world of the gospel.

Over the summer I read Jonathan Sack’s excellent book, Not In God’s Name ~ Confronting Religious Violence and found myself thinking how we could do with a modern day Merton, someone who could understand deeply and communicate authentically about the struggles within the human heart that spill out in the consciousness of religious fundamentalists, Islamic extremists, etc. Someone who could read the signs of the times, and make the connection between the human heart and human behaviour. At a time when the issue of nuclear armament is back on the political agenda here in Britain, we would do well to revisit some of Merton’s writings on war, peace and nuclear non-proliferation. He refused, even when ordered by the abbot general of his order, to stop writing against militarism, nuclear armament and war. He was committed to peace and nonviolence at a time when his views were denounced, as indeed such views would find hostility today.

We can view Merton as we might view some of the Old Testament prophets; they carried something of the pain and heartache in their own lives and were a challenge and pain to their contemporaries, both within the religious community and those outside. They too, often, like Merton, carried a brokenness in their own lives, that far from undermining their calling, added validity and authenticity.

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Merton died in 1968 at the age of 53, a tragic death, electrocuted by a faulty fan in his hotel room in Bangkok. We can but wonder what he may have contributed had he lived longer but we can nevertheless draw wisdom and inspiration from his prophetic voice that speaks so powerfully to us today.

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Dorothy Day, was once described as the patron saint of people who can be impatient. She loved God and she loved people.

Francis could have chosen from several notable Catholic Americans, but he mentioned two who had been in trouble with the church at different points of their lives. Merton was silenced by his superiors for writing against the Cold War and Day was told not to use the word Catholic.

She famously said that, The Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified, quoting theologian Romano Guardini, who happens to be the Pope’s favourite theologian.

Day lived out what Pope Francis is known for: compassion for those on the margins, championing the rights of the vulnerable and weak, and his great emphasis on “the least” as the most important people of all, that the poor and wounded in our midst are especially beloved of God, and thus especially deserving of our love and generosity.

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In his addres to Congrees Pope Francis said; We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible,” he added, “as we educate new generations not to turn their backs on our neighbors and everything around us. Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who used her faith to work for social justice. In 1940, TIME noted that, “Among U. S. Christians who care for the poor, none are more blessed with selfless zeal than those Roman Catholics who labor in the Catholic Worker movement.”

The movement she founded blended zeal for reforming the whole social system with practical concern for helping the individual poor. She was arrested a dozen times, the first as a suffragette in 1917, the last during a workers’ demonstration in California in 1973, and took part in scores of labour and antimilitary protests. The movement spawned hospitality houses around the country that served as refuges for the poor and centres for intentional living and social-justice organising. She was a woman of great faith and prayer, which sustained her through her many years and fuelled her commitment to nonviolence and to serving the poor and to speaking truth to power.

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Pope Francis in highlighting three nonviolent Americans fits with his call to end the arms trade. To do so before the Hawks in the Congress reveals his courage and radicalness. To advocate nonviolent figures to an audience more used to deploying force of arms was both subversive and prophetic.

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May church leaders like Pope Francis be prepared to speak truth to power, as Anglican bishops have done today in rebuking the Prime Minister, David Cameron for his government’s pathetic response to the humanitarian crisis facing the world.

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