Times were hard in 1944. A religion that could not attempt some sort of explanation of the war that was still ongoing was no use to CS Lewis. In this extract he makes clear why. Much as Pope Francis did with Laudato Si’. There are good Christian reasons for studying the ways we are invited to prepare for the future without burning carbon, it’s not an add-on, it’s part of our share in creation, and it’s serious hard work.
A vague religion – all about feeling God in nature and so on – is so attractive. It’s all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you won’t get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you won’t get to eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. And you won’t be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
In other words, Theology is practical … if you don’t listen to theology, that won’t mean you have no ideas about God. It’ll mean that you’ll have a lot of wrong ones.
Thomas Merton felt that more listening to Scripture was also part of the picture. He congratulated Ernesto Cardenal on his translation of the Psalms into Spanish, at a time when the Divine Office was recited in Latin: ‘These are the versions we should really be chanting in choir. How few monks think of the real meaning of the Psalms. If priests knew what they are reciting every day.’
Thomas Merton & Ernesto Cardenal, From the Monastery to the World, Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2017
What is it like to use the psalms for prayer every day and many times a day? By God’s grace, my experience of praying the psalms daily now stretches over nearly four decades. I shall try to say a little about what I have learned during this time.
The American writer Henry Thoreau claimed that we should not judge our wealth by the things we possess but by the amount of free time that we have.
By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish chaplaincy. Welcome back, Eddie!
By Thoreau’s reckoning I’ve been pretty wealthy during the pandemic due in part to working from home. My working day used to involve three or four hours of commuting and so I’ve had that time for other things. After the first lockdown had eased I was cycling with a guy in my club called Steve who, pre-Covid, I would see from time to time on the train back from London. He said that previously at a quarter to five he would be clearing his desk and getting ready to head to St Pancras to catch the train. “Now,” he explained to me with evident delight, “I walk down the garden path to the shed to get my bike out and I’m off.” It was a bit the same for me last summer: down to the shed at the bottom of the garden, bike out and away. I needed something a bit different this year and the Korean study has filled up a lot of my free time nicely, although I’ve still relished the extra time for a variety of sporting and other pursuits.
St Augustine described the monastic life as otium sanctum, which can be translated as holy leisure. The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton touches on the theme of otium sanctum in his book ‘Spiritual Direction and Meditation’. ‘Business is not the supreme virtue,’ he writes, ‘and sanctity is not measured by the amount of work we accomplish.’ That’s not to say that no work or business is conducted in a monastery. On the contrary, monasteries through the ages have been hives of activity, and you’re also as likely to find workaholics there as anywhere, Merton himself having been one of them! Yet, there’s a structure and a balance to the monastic day that gives time to work, time to pray, time to eat, time to read or study, time to rest, and time just to gaze upon the flowers in the fields. It’s the active in harmony with the contemplative, and a little sign that all of our time, ultimately, is a gift.
Having free time doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing but being perhaps less driven and more conscious and intentional about what we’re doing in any given moment. I like that the word leisure comes from the Latin licere, meaning ‘to be permitted’ or ‘to be free’. I also like one of the definitions of that Latin word ‘otium’: ‘leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavors.’ The key, perhaps, is taking time to enjoy and savour each moment in the day, and to take pleasure in the world and in those around us; to sit on a bench, to smell a rose, to listen to the birds singing. It could even be experienced in the midst of writing a report or a funding application, or when doing a 100 mile cycle ride! All is given, all is gift.
The key for Thick Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese monk and poet, is mindfulness. He counsels that when eating a tangerine, be aware that you are eating a tangerine! When drinking a cup of tea, be aware that you’re drinking a cup of tea! Just as in a Japanese tea ceremony, each step of the process is important and given the right amount of time and awareness: boiling the kettle, preparing the vessels, warming the pot, pouring the water, waiting for the tea to brew; and then sipping, smelling, savouring. Perhaps even giving a little thought and a blessing to those who grew the tea and picked and dried the leaves.
I’ll shortly have the great gift of two week’s of holiday in which Yim Soon and I will walk the West Highland Way in Scotland followed by Ben Nevis and then a few days on the Isle of Skye. I will consider myself the wealthiest person alive to have such otium sanctum and to be able to spend it in such a place and in such company.
It’s the feast of Saint Bernard, one of the founding fathers of the Cistercian reform of monastic life. Our reflection is from Thomas Merton, writing in 1952. The celebration of the Eucharist has changed in religious communities as much, if not more than in parishes; there is one Community Mass each day, but there is still room for silence with God.
Our picture is from the trailer for Outside the City, a film by Nick Hamer about the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire. Read on for Thomas Merton’s reflection on this day.
This week it is my turn to say the brothers’ Communion Mass, Our Lady’s Mass. It is always a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin, always the same. I like it that way.
In the summer time, this Mass is said at three o’clock in the morning. So I leave the choir after morning meditation to go and say it while the rest of the monks recite Matins and Lauds. I generally finish the brothers’ Communions by the end of the second nocturne, and then go off into the back sacristy and kneel in the dark behind the relic case next to Saint Malachy’s altar, while the sky grows pale outside over the forest and a little cool air seeps in through the slats of the broken shutters.
The birds sing, and the crickets sing, and one priest is silent with God.
Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Hollis & Carter, London, 1953, p336.
In another age, in another life, Thomas Traherne might have made a monk. In another age, in another life, another Thomas found his vocation as a Cistercian monk and writer. That’s how it was beginning to look in 1947 when Merton wrote the following journal entry. The message of the kneeler above contrasts with Traherne’s message in the last two days, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed’; at least superficially. But Traherne was also counselling the practice of meditation which begins with stillness. How that is achieved depends on the individual to a great extent; the fact that I came to stillness when cutting the grass was not appreciated by all my superiors… Over to Merton, who had chosen, been called to, a life of silence but not necessarily one of stillness.
The Cistercian life is energetic. There are tides of vitality running through the whole community that generate energy even in people who are lazy… We go out to work like a college football team taking the field.
Trappists believe that everything that costs them is God’s will. Anything that makes you suffer is God’s will. If it makes you sweat, it is God’s will. But we have serious doubts about the things which demand no expense of physical energy. Are they really the will of God? Hardly! …
If we want something, we can easily persuade ourselves that what we want is God’s will just as long as it turns out to be difficult to obtain.
Reading the two Thomases together, I wonder that any of us ever find any stillness in modern life. I no longer have access to a big, noisy, green, ride-on mower. But I do have the garden to turn to: news from there tomorrow.
Thomas Merton is living through the hotter part of the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis would blow up a year later; he had cause to be afraid. In the days before this diary entry,* bombers had been flying low over the Monastery of Gethsemane, his home. Thinking about US and world politics aroused:
… my own fear, my own desperate desire to survive, even if only as a voice uttering an angry protest, while the waters of death close over the whole continent.
Why am I so willing to believe that the country will be destroyed? It is certainly possible, and in some sense it may even be likely. But this is a case where, in spite of evidence, one must continue to hope. One must not give in to defeatism and despair, just as one must hope for life in a mortal illness which has been declared incurable.
This is the point. This weakness and petulancy, rooted in egoism.
Defeatism and despair are rooted in egoism, and they are not necessarily good survival tactics. Let us ask the Lord for a taste of the perfect love that casts out fear and despair
Thomas Merton, Turning towards the World, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p162.
Here is Thomas Merton in January 1966, writing from his snow-bound hermitage.* A challenge to us all to root our mission in our poverty; having first accepted that innate poverty as the norm.
In all these things I see one central option for me: to let go of all that seems to suggest getting somewhere, being someone, having a name and a voice, following a policy and directing people in ‘my’ ways. What matters is to love, to be in one place in silence, if necessary in suffering, sickness, tribulation, and not try to be anybody outwardly.
Yet daily we are encouraged to ‘get somewhere’ to be someone outwardly. Love can get pushed to the margins. We can get tied to policies, mission statements, and so on. Let go!
Tomorrow we celebrate the uprooting of the Holy Family to go into suffering and tribulation. Merton had to let go in a different fashion to the man we hardly know: Joseph the carpenter.
Learning to Love, Journals Vol 6, Ed Christine M. Bochan, HarperCollins San Francisco 1999 p15
Another posting from Eddie at the Irish Chaplaincy.
When coming away from my regular visit to one of our Irish Chaplaincy Seniors I was reflecting on how uplifted I felt and how it had to do, in part, by how much we had laughed during the visit. This particular lady is only in her 70s but has fairly advanced dementia, and her sister moved over from Ireland to stay in the one-bedroom flat as a live-in carer. It’s a challenging situation but we always regale one another with funny stories, and we hoot with laughter.
I’ve been enjoying a book by James Martin, the American Jesuit, called ‘Between Heaven and Mirth’ with the sub-title ‘Why joy, humour and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life’. He speaks of the importance of humour, especially in religious settings, which can easily become terribly serious and joyless. I imagine, sadly, that there are many people who might consider laughter to be incompatible with church or religion. And I was interested to see in a recent survey in the Church of England that people didn’t want their priests to be cracking lots of jokes in their sermons! It’s true that humour doesn’t really come across in the gospels. I fear this is a case of jokes getting lost in translation (besides the notion that religion is a ‘serious business’) because I like to think that the stories of Jesus were filled with humour and hilarity, and that he liked nothing better than to have a good laugh with some of the dodgy characters he hung out with.
I still remember the words of my dear friend Tony (and the jokes he told) in his best man speech at my wedding. He reminded us that the words ‘humour’, ‘humility’ and ‘human’ all come from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means earth and ground, so that when we laugh we are connected in a particular way with the ground we walk upon and with those we walk with. It could be said indeed that a sure sign of a growing connection and intimacy with another person is the ability to laugh together. Physiologically, as well, it’s healthy for us to laugh. A good, hearty laugh can relieve physical tension and stress and leave the muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes. It boosts the immune system, decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, therefore improving resistance to disease. It also reduces blood pressure and releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Laughter is almost as good for the body as going to the gym! And it doesn’t cost a penny in membership! I remember at one time somebody in the NHS having the idea to send comedians into hospitals to help patients to laugh but sadly it doesn’t seem to have caught on.
And talking of funny people, I was tickled to hear what happened when John Cleese met the Dalai Lama. They didn’t say a word to one another but simply broke into spontaneous and prolonged laughter! James Martin tells us in his book that the Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer Thomas Merton could be identified by visitors to his monastery in Kentucky (at a time, in the 1960s, when there were 200 monks there) because he was the one who was always laughing. And one of the many nice stories in the book concerns Mother Theresa from the time when John Paul II was pope and creating loads of new saints. A young sister asked what she would have to do in her life to achieve sainthood. Mother Theresa replied “die now; this pope’s canonising everyone”!
This season of Lent is perhaps not readily associated with fun and frivolity. Yet, in the scripture readings from Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent we have Jesus warning us (Matthew 6) not to look miserable when we fast; and we are reminded of the words from Isaiah 58 of the kind of fast that is pleasing to God:
“Let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke;
Share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor”
And I would add, try and have a bit of a laugh with people as well. It’s one of the things that most profoundly binds us together in our common humanity.
We invite you to walk the Via Crucis – the Way of the Cross – with us during these final days of Lent.
There are one or two differences between these Stations and the traditional order seen in most Catholic Churches. These have been made to bring the Stations closer to the events as told in the Gospels, and to finish the Way of the Cross at its true destination – the new life for which it is a signpost.
Each station is described by someone from the Gospels who would have gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Every one of their lives was changed by Jesus; now they are witnesses to his passion and death. Witnesses, not merely observers: as they tell us, each one knows this man Jesus. The meditations refer back to their encounters with Jesus. We see them learning what sort of person he was. Opening the Gospels at these passages in the light of the Passion story, may we open our hearts to let the Spirit work in us. The Scriptural reference is given for each meditation. The question, ‘Why did he have to die?’ is not an easy one to answer. These stations show how the lack of understanding, the falling short of total commitment of so many of his contemporaries — even those close to him — were part of the climate that allowed the crucifixion to happen.
You are invited to pray in solidarity with these bewildered bystanders, who, for all their failings, were good people; each of them loved, or wanted to love Jesus. At the end, none could halt his Way of the Cross. And each of them suffered a personal, private, crucifixion.
We need Jesus’ help to accept our own sufferings as the cross to be taken up daily, to follow him. We know at one level that we must suffer, but perhaps find it a long lesson to deal with it when it comes.
I have told you this now before it happens, so that when it does happen you may believe. John 14:29.
Jesus tells us his truth – then it has to become alive in us by working itself out within each of us in our crucifixion and resurrection. Thomas Merton.
(These Stations were presented at Saint Thomas’ Church Canterbury.)
Thomas Merton vividly describes the ongoing process of death and rebirth that we undergo in journeying into God:
‘It is sometime in June. At a rough guess, I think it is June 13 which may or may not be the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua. In any case every day is the same for me because I have become very different from what I used to be.
The man who began this journal is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began was also dead, and what is more that man who was the central figure in The Seven Storey Mountain was dead over and over. And now that all these men are dead, it is sufficient for me to say so on paper and I think I will have ended up by forgetting them. Because writing down what The Seven Storey Mountain was about was sufficient to get it off my mind for good. Last week I corrected the proofs of the French translation of the book and it seemed completely alien. I might as well have been a proofreader working for a publisher and going over the galleys of somebody else’s book. Consequently, The Seven Storey Mountain is the work of a man I never even heard of. And this journal is getting to be the production of somebody to whom I have never had the dishonour of an introduction.’
To speak of resurrection in terms of spiritual awakening is not to reduce it to a metaphor. The contemplative resurrections do not replace the resurrection of the body but rather anticipate it.