31 December 2014
We must learn to celebrate. I say learn to celebrate because celebration is not just a spontaneous event. We have to discover what celebration is. Our world doesn’t know much abut celebration. We know quite a bit about parties, where we are artificially stimulated with alcohol to have fun. We know what movies and distractions are. But do we know what celebration is? Do we know how to celebrate our togetherness, our being one body? Do we really know how to use all that is human and divine to celebrate together?
30 December 2014
"Among the Aboriginal People there is the tradition of the walkabout, an intentional time when young persons go out in search of themselves in the Outback, the remote places of interior Australia. I think there are times when we all could benefit from taking a walkabout of the soul, times when we let our spirits roam free, out into the wilder places remote from our comfortable dogma. We need the new. We grow in the strange. We learn from the challenge. God is not always found in the tame spaces, but in the outback of faith. So I think I will wander into the welcoming wilderness, looking to discover what waits beyond my own horizon."
Bishop Steven Charleston
29 December 2014
I find a lot to think about and ponder over at Seth Godin's blog. Today's offering was no different.
Okay, I know you have competing priorities and that your organization has grown and that maybe this isn't the most important thing on your agenda any more...
The thing is, your competition might actually act like the thing that they're doing is their only job. They might believe that in fact, treating this customer as if she's the only person in the world is worth it. That fixing that squeaky door, addressing that two-year old bug in the software, or taking one extra moment to look someone in the eye and talking to her with respect is worth it.
We don't become mediocre all at once, and we rarely do it on purpose. Instead, we start believing that the entire project is our job, not this one thing, this one thing we used to do so brilliantly.
The day the organization installs the, "your call is very important to us..." message is the day that they announce to themselves who they are becoming. Customers rarely care about your priorities.
Getting bigger is supposed to make us more effective and efficient. Alas, the way to get there isn't by doing what you used to do, but less well.
28 December 2014
Glad to see that my former professor from seminary, Dr. Prichard, has published a revised edition of his quite excellent book on the History of the Episcopal Church!
Psalm 147 or 147:13-21
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
- I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
- my whole being shall exult in my God;
- for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
- he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
- as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
- and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
- For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
- and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
- so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
- to spring up before all the nations.
- For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
- and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
- until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
- and her salvation like a burning torch.
- The nations shall see your vindication,
- and all the kings your glory;
- and you shall be called by a new name
- that the mouth of the LORD will give.
- You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
- and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
Psalm 147 or 147:13-21 Page 804 or 805, BCP
How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
- The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
- He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.
- He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.
- Great is our LORD and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.
- The LORD lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.
- Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.
- He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;
- He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.
- He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.
- He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
- But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.
- Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
- For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
- He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.
- He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.
- He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
- He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?
- He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.
- He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.
- He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
John 1:1-18In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
27 December 2014
26 December 2014
I always wondered about the story behind the wonderful Christmas hymn, "Good King Wenceslas." Check out the wikipedia background of this hymn below.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel
"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather
"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing
More about "Good King Wenceslas"...HERE at Wikipedia
25 December 2014
Having heard a wonderful sermon last night at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, VA (where I served as Associate Rector earlier in my career), preached by the Rev. Christopher Garcia, I got to thinking about "this story" which is "our story" and also the story of each of us. The story of Christmas has been told over and over, and has been preached over and over agin. It still resonates, it still brings hope for peace and joy! One of the first (if not the first) Christmas sermons was preached by St. John Chrysostom. Read it below.
~The Rev. Peter M. Carey
St. John Chrysostom’s Christmas Homily
BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.
Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.
And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.
Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.
What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.
Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.
Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.
What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.
For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.
Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.
Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.
To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.
23 December 2014
Teams are based on inter-connectedness and teamwork. A group of individuals working in harmony to create and accomplish something that could not be accomplished on their own. Of course, in that work, the team also needs each different member of the team to marshall their strengths and BE just who they are supposed to be.
This amazing video displays the way that a natural ecosystem also is dependent upon each of its species in order to thrive and survive. In this case, some amazing effects happen when wolves are reintroduced to Yellowstone.
This amazing video displays the way that a natural ecosystem also is dependent upon each of its species in order to thrive and survive. In this case, some amazing effects happen when wolves are reintroduced to Yellowstone.
16 December 2014
This is a wonderful piece, written by a wonderful church leader who I have had the privilege of getting to know. I would only extend Carolyn's wonderful advice beyond Christmas Eve!
Thank you Carolyn Chilton!
Thank you Carolyn Chilton!
7 Ways to Welcome Church Visitors on Christmas Eve
15 December 2014
From the National Association of Episcopal Schools:
Light in Dark Places
God of all creation, you are brightness of Light eternal, Sun of Justice. Shine into the various darknesses of this world and into our hearts—into all the corners kept secret and hidden—that the truth may be revealed. Thus, moving toward your Light, discovering the truth about the world and about ourselves, lead us nearer to you so that we may rejoice in our freedom, in light, in you, in life. We pray through Jesus Christ, who is Way, Truth, and Light. Amen.
- See more at: http://www.episcopalschools.org/cycle-of-prayer/lists/cycle-of-prayer/light-in-dark-places#sthash.go6ZJxfC.dpuf
11 December 2014
Below is a great piece that Rowan Williams wrote in 2008, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury
Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth
Wednesday 10th December 2008A lecture given to the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland (at St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate, London) on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Merton's death in 1968. Karl Barth, the great Swiss reformed theologian, died on the same day.
Alongside Merton's obituaries in 1968, in many publications, appeared obituaries of a very different figure indeed – possibly the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century: Karl Barth. I was at that time a first-year student of theology in Cambridge and during my first term I picked up the newly published British edition of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. And what are the first words of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander? 'Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.' I found myself speculating, in December 1968, about conversations that might be going in on in some heavenly waiting room between Merton and Barth. Apparently such very diverse figures: the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely publicized and widely-read Catholic writers of the age. What would they have to say to each other? Well of course Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander begins to give you the answer to that. The conversation did not begin in the anteroom of heaven (or some department of purgatory) in 1968: it had begun several years earlier. 16 September 1960 is the first reference in Merton's journals to his reading of Karl Barth, and during the early '60s Barth was so much of a conversation partner for Merton in his private journal writing, thatConjectures itself is, for a long time, referred to in the journals under the provisional title Barth's Dream (which is still the title of the first part of the published journal, Conjectures).
'Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart', and Merton was very struck by what Barth had to say about Mozart. Mozart, according to Barth, posed a major theological problem: Barth's dream was about trying to get Mozart to explain to him why he was an unreconstructed and not terribly devout Catholic. Barth took these things seriously and really wanted to know; but, Mozart had no answer to give him. Mozart had said all he wanted to say: and he hadn't said it in theological words. Mozart, said Barth, is the 'divine child' in all of us. And Merton seizes on this image, and says that even for a committed Protestant theologian like Barth, it's the divine child, the Mozart who saves us.
Barth says ... 'It is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us.' Some ... considered Mozart always a child in practical affairs. ... At the same time Mozart, the child prodigy, 'was never allowed to be a child in the literal meaning of that word'. He gave his first concert at the age of six. Yet he was always a child "in the higher meaning of that word.
Fear not, Karl Barth [Merton continues]. Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think: there is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation. (Conjectures, pp.3—4)
But Merton connects this in his journals with a much deeper groundswell of interest at that time in what he refers to as 'the sophianic': that is, that level of the world where divine wisdom in its receptive femininity is at work. That depth of silent receptivity, represented in scripture and tradition by the language of holy wisdom (particularly represented in the eastern Orthodox tradition by the icons of holy wisdom), is, for Merton, what Barth is feeling for – and not quite articulating. The 'divine child' belongs with this apprehension of divine Sophia, the wisdom of the heart of things. And Merton tends to read Barth at this point as if Barth the theologian stands simply for the principle of active – almost aggressive – divine love over against any attempt at human self-justification or human action. He fits Barth very effectively into the polarity between agape and eros: agape the divine love coming down actively, and eros the hopeless, human attempt by desire and longing to rise to God, always frustrated. Barth the theologian is on the side of agape and yet, (says Merton) scratch Barth a little and you'll find Mozart, you'll find eros, you'll find the divine yearning mediated through the human.
And that goes with Merton's reading of Barth at this point as someone advocating an extreme hostility to, or suspicion of, human culture and also as someone privileging the cerebral over the emotional or imaginative. That is of course how Barth has often been read. But I want to suggest this evening, that Merton's reading of Barth moved on very interestingly from that point, and moved on in such a way as to be as one piece with his apprehension of and his use of the very different religious world of Buddhism in his Christian journey. So that the bold suggestion I'm making is that Barth helped Merton to read Buddhists. (Barth, I feel, would not have thanked me for this!)
But even the very first quotation that Merton makes from Barth ought to flash a few warning signs: because that first quotation is from a Christmas sermon of Barth's in which Barth attacks the whole idea of religious system and religious proof. In other words Barth is undercutting his own intellectualism and cerebral temptation. Thus the Barth that Merton is reading is already rather more complex than simply the prophet of divine, aggressive, active agape mediated through the theologian's intellect, and yet secretly subverted by the divine child. And it's fascinating to trace in the journals of the early 1960s just how Merton's reading gradually opens out onto some deeper dimensions of Karl Barth.
In Conjectures later on, he's still reading Barth as someone wary of or hostile towards human culture, and compares him unfavourably both with Christopher Dawson (a great Catholic social thinker) and with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; saying that Bonhoeffer stands much closer to Catholicism than Barth does. But that first layer of the Barth/Merton conversation is already beginning to give way in the journals of this period.
Merton read Barth more and more deeply and by 1963 he had begun to hear another music as in Barth. Before '63 he'd read mostly one or two sermons and some slightly more journalistic pieces by Barth. But in '63 he was reading Barth's little book Dogmatics in Outline: the lectures that Barth gave after the war in the ruins of Bonn University, which are certainly still the best short guide to Barth's thinking. If we turn to the journals of 1963—5 we see something new opening up. Merton has begun to understand that Barth's concept of God, Christ and of faith is a concept far more in tune with some of his own deepest intuitions than he had ever spotted before. Here is some of what he wrote in the journal:
30 September 1963
'A magnificent line from Karl Barth: 'Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously. And if we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his gain.' What stupendous implications in that!'
Barth, in Dogmatics in Outline, is not simply mounting a conventional attack of agape against eros, faith against culture: he is rather saying that the self before God is not serious, it is groundless. It is not something that exists in its own density and solidity: the self before God is poised on the divine word, the divine communication over an unfathomable abyss. It is both deadly serious in one sense, and totally unserious in another sense. It's not surprising that Merton returns several times in his journal entries to Barth's humour in Dogmatics in Outline. (It has to be said, against popular myth, that Barth can be a very funny writer indeed, and often is, in these lectures.)
Now there are elements of the old typology still at work in Merton's reception of Barth at this time – a contrast that he draws between Barth and Frithjof Schuon (1907—98) at one point, as representing revelation over against a perennial philosophy of 'the religions'. Yet, more and more, Merton is drawn into what seems to be the heart of Barth's theological vision, and finds there both a deep resonance and a profound challenge. The key passage comes in 24 October 1963. I'll read it in its original form from the journal, though a version of it is reproduced in Conjectures, crucially placed almost at the end of the book – as if it's a point towards which Merton is working. Merton opens with a quote from Barth:
24 October 1963
To be a man, means to be situated in God's presence: as Jesus is. That is, to be a bearer of the wrath of God.' We need the shock of this sentence, which is of course immediately qualified by Barth himself. And the qualification is implicit, for Jesus bears that wrath and lives. But wrath is on us. And the Calvinist catechism "What understandest thou by the little word suffered?" "That he all the time of his life, but especially the end thereof, hath borne in body and soul the wrath of God against the whole human race.' How powerful, and how serious.
Catholic piety sees Christ suffering all his life, but in a different perspective. He is the bearer of all kinds of pains, but they are—so to speak—the pains of a person who has not been 'struck', who is not under the wrath; they are quantitative, detailed, exquisite, etc. But the full enormity of sin is perhaps not seen as well as here, for God seems to be pleased with this pain. No! it is his wrath! And Barth's terrific chapter on Pilate. I think I'll have to become a Christian.
Merton deals here with one of the most difficult, challenging, unattractive and indispensable bits of Barth – humanity under the wrath of God: Jesus under the wrath of God: what Merton calls later an ontological sense of wrath: that is, the wrath of God as something written into being itself. Merton reads this as saying that God is not 'pleased' with who and what we have made ourselves. But thus, he's not pleased with suffering, either Christ's or ours, suffering as quantitively piled up in order to placate God. Understanding suffering as something we can 'store up' in order to make God be 'soft' on us is to misunderstand completely the nature of the wrath of God and the pain of Christ.
'I think I will have to become a Christian', says Merton, meaning, if I read him correctly, 'I think I will have to understand that a proper theology of the death of Christ tells me I'm not serious: God is serious; my condition is serious; sin is serious; the Cross is serious. But somehow, out of all this comes the miracle, the 'unbearable lightness of being' as you might say: the recognition that my reality rests 'like a feather on the breath of God'. It is because God speaks, because God loves and it is for no other reason. And if we want to know what it is to say that I am, the only answer is 'I am because of the love of God'. And when I seek to justify, defend or systematize what I am, I become 'serious'. I cease to be a feather on the breath of God and gravity draws me down into darkness.
The point is that, at this particular stage, what Merton is picking up on is Barth's sense of God's freedom. God freely causes us to be involved in the life of the Spirit by freely choosing the means of salvation, not being coerced, he says, by some eternal and impersonal decree. God freely chooses to bring about salvation through poverty and death: through a renunciation which makes room for the freedom of God. Here is later on in Dancing in the Water of Life: 'In sacrificing the desire to be absent, man reveals the world to itself as the place of man's meeting with the glory of God in freedom.' Although a summary of Merton's own reflections a that point, that might equally well be a summary of the first chapter of Barth's Dogmatics in Outline, which speaks very powerfully of the world—and the human world—as the theatre of God's glory and liberty.
Merton has absorbed in all this some of the most difficult and apparently unattractive elements of Barth, the interpreter of Calvin. He's understood that when Barth writes about the wrath of God, he's not writing about some emotional feeling that God has towards us which we have to calm down. He's talking rather about that wholly destructive order of being which we set up when we attempt to fill the space that should be filled by the freedom of the love of God. And you'll see how this is developed still further in more depth in some of the later journal entries. It's a very paradoxical kind of 'natural theology', and much later on in Dancing(the entry for 12 August 1965), Merton explains what he means – implicitly contrasting Barth here with 'the Barthians', Barth's rather less gifted interpreters.
12 August 1965
Our very creation itself is a beginning of revelation. Making us in His image, God reveals Himself to us, we are already his words to ourselves! Our very creation itself is a vocation to union with Him and our life, and in the world around us, if we persist in honesty and simplicity, cannot help speaking of him and of our calling. The trouble is that there are no 'pure' natural traditions and everything gets overlaid with error. Still, there is truth there for those who are still able to seek it, even if they are few. Ought it to be called 'theology'? That is a technical question.
Our very creation is a vocation. Once again the centrality in Barth's theology of the calling of God as the essence of the creative act is used by Merton to establish what he thinks is a kind of natural theology that avoids the reproach of simply trying to climb from the world to God by a ladder of analogy. Existence itself is a word, my being is God's word to me. And in that entry, Merton sees this as something quite in tune, not only with Barth, but with Anselm.
It's not that there is, from this perspective, something in us, some element of human longing, human eros, which links us to God and leads us to God: not that there's some bit of us which if we spot it correctly gives us the right clues to work out the existence of God. It's the bare fact of our being, resting on God's gift: that is, 'word', calling, summons, the beginning of union. And that's why I used earlier on the admittedly quite controversial word, 'groundlessness'. I used that because it's one of the concepts that bridges something of the world of Barth and the world that Merton at the very same time was immersing himself in, more and more deeply: the world of Buddhist meditation and speculation. Groundlessness: there is no solid self independent of the relations, the chains of interaction, that compose the world: there is no solid self which exists over against God: there is only the call of God and the echo set up in creation: the possibility of union.
It's not to say everything is contained within God (this is not pantheism): it's to say rather that what is, is because God addresses it, because God relates to it. Although Merton doesn't seem to make the connection explicitly, this has all kinds of resonances with the Eastern Christian idea that it is the logoi, the words of God, which are the foundation of everything. Every reality is a communication of God, and everything exists therefore in virtue of God's communicating act.
Elements of Barth are feeding in here to the way in which Merton in this period is appropriating Taoism and Zen particularly. They become part of his own revolt against the seriousness of images of the self.
18 June 1965
'Solitude' becomes for me less and less of a specialty, and simply 'life' itself. I do not seek to 'be a solitary' or anything else, for 'being anything' is a distraction. It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with only hunger and sleep, one's cold and warmth; rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off (two last night – it is cold for June!) Making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working (ought to get on to the article on symbolism today), praying. I live as my fathers have lived on this earth until eventually I die. Amen. There is no need to make an assertion of my life, especially to assert it as MINE, though it is doubtless not somebody else's.
28 August 1965
I realized then that I have been running the risk these past few days of tying myself down with a mental delusion—taking the hermitage too seriously and myself with it—identifying myself with this stupid little cottage as if my whole life was bound up with it. What total absurdity! Looking at the hills and recovering the freedom of true prayer (of which, incidentally I have had so much at the hermitage too), I realized, that what is important is not the house, not the hermit image, but my own self and my sonship as a child of God.
Merton's revolt against the seriousness of the self-image, and therefore with an extraordinary prescience and depth, an acceptance of what he calls an 'unavoidable wrongness' in us.
5 July 1965
Certainly enough is evident merely in this Journal to destroy me for ever, after I am dead. But that's the point: not to live as one who can be so 'destroyed'. This means not ingeniously discovering infallible ways of being 'true' in the eyes of others and of posterity (if any!) but accepting my untruth in the untransferable anguish which is characteristic of death, and leaving all 'justification' to God. Everything else is only wrath, flame, torment, judgement.
I think you can see in that extract what Merton has done with Barth's notion of the wrath of God. It is what happens when we take ourselves seriously, when the self-image takes over from reality. And that passage is to me a very poignant 'opening out' onto the agonies of introspection in Learning to Love (the sixth volume of the journals), the volume which covers those anguished months of Merton's love affair. Here I can only refer to a few typical statements, where all of that thinking and reflecting of a couple of years previously comes into focus in the light of an experience of wrongness; being at odds, being unable to provide a self-justification and unable to settle down with a satisfying image of the self. As Merton says – rather poignantly and wryly – in the journals, he is both a bad monk and a bad lover. There is no way of bringing it all together in a single frame. So he can write—in a way markedly contrasting with some of what he said earlier about Christopher Dawson—about the risks of an escape into a 'beautiful lost world of extinct Christian culture. Will that simply reinforce the deceptions and delusions of my 'monastic' life? I don't say these are answers: but they are real questions.'
5 September 1966
What I see is this: that while I imagined I was functioning fairly successfully, I was living a sort of patched up, crazy existence, a series of rather hopeless improvisations, a life of unreality in many ways. Always underlain by a certain solid silence and presence, a faith, a clinging to the invisible God – and this clinging (perhaps rather His holding on to me) has been in the end the only thing that made sense. The rest has been absurdity. There is 'I' – this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence! There is no longer anything to pride my self in, least of all 'being a monk' or being anything – a writer or anything.
Again, that same month.
Where I am now, nothing unambiguous is possible. In a certain sense I have to be wrong up to a point, and what I'm trying to learn is how to be at least simple and honest about it and not try to say I am right, and not try to whitewash myself in terms of something or someone I cannot be. I am neither a good monk nor a good lover.
In those pages some of what both Barth and Buddhism have fed into Merton becomes incarnate in the most uncomfortable and challenging way. Because if it's true that I am a 'feather on the breath of God', that I exist because called, summoned into relation by God, that I have no seriousness within myself, but only the joyful 'unbearable lightness' of knowing myself held by God – if all that is true, then there is never going to be a way in which I can map my life, my sense of my identity onto a fore-ordained pattern of rightness and justification. I am bound to be dependent. I am bound to be receiving. I am bound to put on hold whether I can show myself to be 'right'. And it leads Merton to make some very stinging remarks in these journals about 'religion' as a means of self-justification, religion as a drama which seeks to gloss or to soften the challenge of faith: a very Barthian theme indeed. There's another telling little aside where Merton is reflecting on Teilhard de Chardin. He was initially quite enthusiastic about Teilhard, then read a bit and found it much duller than he expected.
10 June 1967
Are the neologisms of Teilhard much better? Good intentions, heart in the right place, wanting the right thing, but did he really have the necessary gifts? If it comes to science I would gladly read later and better scientists. If it comes to poets ... he does not even begin to be one. As for theology, I must admit that I become more and more suspicious of it in its contemporary form. After Barth. ...
as if something about the ambitious, harmonic cosmology of Teilhard comes to be insupportable once you've really digested Barth not only as a theologian, but as someone describing your reality, your unjustifiable reality which depends on the mercy of God. I don't fully endorse that judgement of Teilhard: it's a very typical bit of Merton's wild over-statement. But that little sentence 'After Barth.' is very significant there.
He sums a lot of this up in an entry from the private journal written in the summer of 1966 and designed for the woman he loved.
20 June 1966
The great joke is this: having a self that is to be taken seriously, that is to be proved, free, right, logical, consistent, beautiful, successful and in a word 'not absurd'.
4 February 1967
Let the idol fall on its face in the presence of the hidden child.
Right back to where we started – only the 'divine child' this time is not a sort of innocent, sophianic, indwelling reality, yearning heavenwards towards God; or a sort of buried innocence that you can strip your way down to. The divine child this time is the birth of God's freedom in the emptiness of solitude and the emptiness of realizing that there is no justification. And even having said that, we have to be careful: the full quotation is: 'Let the idol fall on its face in the presence of the hidden child. (Yeah, but beware.)'
We're back full-circle to Barth and Mozart. The experience of real eros in 1966 was not for Merton a revelation of original innocence or of a deeply buried 'image', but a revelation of the groundlessness of the self, a revelation of the inescapability of finding yourself wrong – and neither justifying the wrong nor pretending to be justified in any other way. A revelation of groundlessness (and yes, in that sense, 'Buddhist' up to a point) but still underpinned by an essentially Christ-focused awareness, awareness of the bearing of 'wrath' in Christ. It is Christ. in life and death and resurrection. who shows us how unserious we are, how little we can begin to do to justify ourselves. because everything is gift. And it may sound strange to read incarnation and cross and resurrection in that light, and yet in all those millions of words of Barth's Church Dogmatics, that is where he is driving. Although Merton hadn't worked his way through those millions of words, he had apprehended something central and focal in Barth's vision: We are not 'pleasing' to God: yet God wills to be pleased'. That's to say that we are not condemned to keep God happy, we are not bound to the fiery wheel of entertaining God, placating God or preserving God's good moods. Because God's pleasure is God's being and God's will directed towards us in creation and redemption, and therefore all we can do is say 'yes' to it. And to know this is to be finally free from the idols of the self.
Merton didn't discover all this in Barth; it's already strongly adumbrated in the 1950's in parts of Thoughts in Solitude – one of his most profound and abidingly impressive books. But somehow making the Christological connection seems to be one of those things that, with all the intellectual and spiritual and emotional turbulence of the mid-'60s in Merton's life, anchored him in the classical Christian vision of the Son sent forth from the Father, returning to the Father ('the Son's journey into the far country', as Barth calls it) the whole of our life, our universe, our individual pilgrimage swept up into that movement of outgoing and returning love, a love bestowed, a love which is also our homecoming, a love so profoundly anchored ontologically in the reality of God, eternally, non-negotiably, that the only thing we can do about any attempt ourselves to think that we have a part in this is to laugh. Barth's unseriousness, Merton's unseriousness, and perhaps Mozart's glorious unseriousness all converge here. To say this is not to minimize the depth of human betrayal or the intensity of human suffering. But it is to say – to go back to that phrase of Merton's in the '66/'67 journals 'the great joke is having a self that is to be taken seriously', when what is to be taken seriously—and yet unbearably lightly—is only and eternally God.
© Rowan Williams 2008