Archive for thomas merton

A Way to God

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2021 by thecrossingchicago

In a 1967 letter from Thomas Merton to Matthew Fox, Merton wrote:

“I’m glad you are going to work on spiritual theology . . . I do think we are lying down on the job when we leave others to investigate mysticism while we concentrate on more ‘practical’ things.  What people want of us, after all, is the way to God.”

We all have our own way to God.  Writing, meditation, acts of social justice, and many other ways.  I employ all of these, but I am a writer.  

That statement, “I am a writer,” was always a difficult one for me to say.  I have long felt I wasn’t good enough to claim that title for myself.  But, as Fox came to realize himself, “I am a writer.  Because I am so happy writing and putting ideas together and in a form I can communicate with others.  And I learn so much doing this.”

Upon reading War and Peace, Charles du Bos commented, “Life would speak thus if life could speak.”  It reminds me of Parker Palmer’s admonition to let your life speak.  So, why not?

I want to write my way to God.  Perhaps not literally, but I want to compose words that speak to the collective heart of humankind.  I want to create sentences like Merton, Buechner, Brown Taylor, and Lamott.  I want to till the ground for a mystical experience like Tolstoy did for Fox.  Again, why not?

What about you?  What is your way to God?  Are you a singer?  Then sing.  Are you an artist?  Then paint.  Are you a social prophet?  Then speak.  The world is short on people who are living into who they really are and at what cost?

Imagine if DaVinci never painted because he thought he wasn’t good enough.  Imagine if Tolstoy never wrote because he thought his words didn’t matter.  Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. never spoke because he thought nobody would want to hear what he has to say.  Imagine if you don’t do that thing that burns like red embers in your soul.  Will yours have been a life well lived?

How would life speak if you were to put it into words?  Some of us need to hear it, so speak.  Some of us need to see the face of God in the work of your hands and heart.  Don’t try to keep it in, because after all, it will consume you if you do.

War and the Corporate True Self

Posted in ego, peace, service, true self, war with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Another Veterans Day is upon us and, as I do every year, I ask myself what it’s all about.  There is a cynical side of me that says we are glorifying something that should never happen under any circumstance.  The idea of exterminating human beings for the sake of being right seems appalling to me and to celebrate those who have participated in them in any way causes me to feel the mournful disdain of glorifying violence.  But, after much contemplation, I can see that, as in all things, there is another side of the coin.

Of course I realize that we are celebrating valor and the courage of those who were willing to risk (and sometimes lose) their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Sure, some may have entered military service to avoid jail time, some to kill, and some to enforce their ideals.  It is sometimes, however, those very ideals that perpetuate the violence in the first place.  Our addiction to being right all the time can lead to the reinforcement of a false truth.

On the way to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC this year, I was listening to a podcast with Fr. Richard Rohr.  He said that we know we are operating from the False Self, or the ego, when we are individually offended by some action or words.  As I drove on, with much time to ponder, I came to the conclusion that the opposite is also true: Any time we are offended on behalf of humankind, we are operating from our True Self.

So what does this have to do with war?  We have been called to defend and empower the least of these.  If someone is marginalized and oppressed, it is our duty to lend our voice to stopping the oppression and even to joining a revolution against it.  As we know, sometimes revolutions require force.

In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton calls the church to being in a constant state of revolution.  He says that the church must return to tradition, which seems like an oxymoron when placing tradition and revolution next to each other in synonymous relationship.  For most, tradition is the very enemy of reform as we do things “the way we have always done them.”  For Merton, though, the tradition is the revolution: “[T]his tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached” (143).

In other words, tradition is the outward manifestation, in practice, of the church’s True Self.  If individuals have a True Self and organizations are living organisms comprised of individuals, then they too must have a corporate True Self.  Too many churches and organizations have not only lost sight of who they are, but likely have never cared to know.

This is no less true for entire countries who allow or even create structures that lead to systemic oppression.  When it comes time to upend these systems, we hope that the revolution can be a peaceful one from the inside with the death of the individual and corporate False Selves.  According to Merton, “all the others demand the extermination of somebody else” (144).

If violence is the only means of insurrection and not an internal death of False Self giving birth to what is True, then indeed

There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends.  There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before (144).

It is arguable, and likely a fact that more wars have been started over religion than any other issue.  Dogmatic absolute “truths” lead humans to carry their ideologies on their backs into battle with sword and gun in hand. If we can hold our own created beliefs at arm’s length where they are visible to us and see them for the “dry formula of a dogmatic definition” that they are, then perhaps we can approach our ideas with humility, grace, and a fair reflection of our True Selves.  Instead of creating individual “truths” from a False Self that only leads to the extermination of human lives, let us find our oneness in the source of all being, the one in whom we find the image of who we really are.

The Resurrection of the Christ Within

Posted in Encouragement, true self, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

red-cross-jung-resurrectionIn his later years, Carl Jung became a genuine mystic and contemplative.  His theories of psychology eventually superseded the purely cognitive and reached in to the existential.  In his metaphysical journal that would come to be called The Red Book, Jung explored beyond the depths of the human psyche and into the eternal self, seeking the potential of individual humans and the interconnected humanity.

What is important and meaningful to my life is that I shall live as fully as possible to fulfill the divine will within me. This task gives me so much to do that I have no time for any other. Let me point out that if we were all to live in that way we would need no armies, no police, no diplomacy, no politics, no banks. We would have a meaningful life and not what we have now—madness. What nature asks of the apple-tree is that it shall bring forth apples, and of the pear-tree that it shall bring forth pears. Nature wants me to be simply man. But a man conscious of what I am, and of what I am doing. God seeks consciousness in man.

This is the truth of the birth and the resurrection of Christ within. As more and more thinking men come to it, this is the spiritual rebirth of the world. Christ, the Logos—that is to say, the mind, the understanding, shining into the darkness. Christ was a new truth about man. Mankind has no existence. I exist, you exist. But mankind is only a word. Be what God means you to be; don’t worry about mankind which doesn’t exist, you are avoiding looking at what does exist—the self.

In his transcendental thoughts, Jung points out that each of us has a divine potential that is at the core of our being.  The autonomy of the individual is merely an illusion – we are in actuality manifestations of the cosmic Christ and any individualistic tendency comes from a fissiparous human propensity.  Were we to awaken to the cosmic Christ and our own “divine will within,” peace and harmony would become the norm both in society and within our own souls.

While some are obsequious in their literal interpretation of scripture, I have an occasional tendency toward brash skepticism at most, or an intentional awareness of its metaphorical and allegoric nature at the least.  This is not to say that I do not “believe” in scripture, but I believe the way it has been interpreted and handed down over the years by mostly caucasian males has, in many ways, marred it’s true beauty and the divine imprint upon it.

Having said that, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” has, in the past, elicited equal doses of hope and doubt.  If Christ strengthens us, then why do we sometimes feel so worn down and beat up?  Why does Christ choose arbitrarily whom and when to gird and support when needed?  When I look at Paul’s adulation of Christ as something that originates externally with no interaction on our part, I find cynicism bubbling up from within.  However, when I consider Christ to be the logos, the divine manifestation, the source of all being that exists within all of us that calls us to a conversion into our true self, then I do not merely find myself able to nod in intellectual assent, but I am comforted in some place and at some level that I cannot describe.  To know that such strength exists within to draw upon not because it’s occasionally available but because it’s the very nature of our existence creates in me that “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, spoke of the human conditioned inclination to ignore our true self and choose to make excuses rather than become who we were meant to be.  Many times, we even sabotage ourself and make ourselves into victims who are somehow prevented by ill-intentioned people that prevent us from attaining our true potential.  In reality, we fear what we do not understand and would rather not know who we are supposed to be, let alone live into that reality.

Perhaps I am stronger than I think.  Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against myself, thus making myself weak.  Making myself secure.  Making myself guilty.  Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me.  Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself than strong in Him whom I cannot understand.

The only way that we can discover our true selves and experience the resurrection of Christ within is to sit with ourselves in the silent stillness and ask ourselves the powerful questions that we are afraid to answer.  Who am I?  What is my deepest passion?  What gives me joy?  If my life were ideal, what would it look like?  What is preventing me from becoming who God wants me to be?  What am I afraid of?  Ask these questions and you will find that the answers were there all along.  Live those answers and you will finally become who you were meant to be.  When the path seems daunting and fear wracks your mind, just tell yourself that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because indeed, it is the potential that has existed within you since before you were born.  Claim it for your time for resurrection is now.

Merton’s Ghost

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 23, 2015 by thecrossingchicago

In a cemetery behind Gethsemani Abbey, there is one grave that has a scarf laid across it.  It is also the only grave that contains a body in a casket.  The monastery owns one casket that is used for all monks as they lay in state. When the bodies are buried, they are lowered into the grave without a casket and a white cloth is placed over their faces.  This single grave was special, of course, not only because there was a casket in it, but because of who it contained.  unnamed (1)

You have heard me mention Thomas Merton and I have used his prayers in worship.  Merton was the author of more than 20 books and, in his later years, a champion of ecumenism.  It was this embrace of other religions and humans in general that indirectly (or directly) led to his death in Thailand while he attended a gathering for monks.  Some believe that his mysterious death (electrocution when touching a fan as he got out of the bath) was not an accident as he was a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War and a vocal proponent of civil rights.  He was 53 when he died in 1958 and was transported back to Gethsemani in the casket that he would remain in.
As I encountered these enigmatic individuals in their white robes and black scapulars, I wondered what would drive them to leave the world and its materialistic trappings and commit to a life within those hallowed walls.  After a five-and-a-half year “trial period,” the monk has to give away all of his earthly possessions and make a solemn vow to live the rest of his days among these brethren.
Seven times a day, the monks and retreatants would make their way into the sanctuary and, after genuflecting and bowing toward the altar, sit silent awaiting the bell to begin the chanting of the liturgy.  The cantor starts off the praying of the psalms and the monks sing in response followed by a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  This happens these seven times plus mass all the way up to the last prayer of the day at 7:30.
The psalms being chanted reverberated off of the cavernous walls of the sanctuary that was dark except for a couple of candles.  As I made my way with the other retreatants and the monks toward the abbot who was sprinkling holy water on each bowed head, there was a certain sense of peace that washed over me.  We had chanted the portion of the liturgy of the divine hours known as Vespers and entreated God the same was way done at the end of each day: “Protect us O God from the darkness and awake us in the morn with the light of your new day.”
As two candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary and the baby Jesus, the spirits of Merton and of every monk who had arrived at Gethsemani since it’s beginning in 1848 were alive and well.  And for that moment, while I had a glimpse of why these monks would choose this life, there was the feeling of confidence that the words uttered so long ago by St. Julian of Norwich were true: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Prayers in the Grotto

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 23, 2015 by thecrossingchicago


As I was hiking over the land at Gethsemani Abbey where Thomas Merton was a monk, I came across a small shed with prayers tacked to the wall and ceiling.  I obviously did not expect to find it in the middle of the woods, but I was deeply moved by the heartfelt longings that filled the space.

Prayers in the Grotto

They were not mere verses penned on a whim.

They were not the simple obligation to write something when presented with paper.

They were heartfelt pleas to the universe.  Legitimate questions to the essence and core

of all being.  Not rhetorical, but genuinely and desperately seeking an answer.

They were the same laments that had followed their authors

everywhere they went. 

The inescapable pleas for a sign, for hope, for healing that had not yet found their way home.

These were the cries that had been hurled into the wind that now hung heavily in that grotto

like a dark damp cloth wretchedly in need of sunlight and fresh air to dry and breathe and be.

Their words, our words.

The supplications of those whose God is so near as to seem absent.

The awareness of how a simple “I love you” or “You’re good enough” or “I affirm you” can be

the very voice of God to those who need it.

Curled up pieces of paper and freshly written ones hanging from the walls and ceiling with longing

and expectation that God will actually peer in and read them.

May those prayers find their way out through the cracks

and float freely in the light of a new morning;

finding their way back to the hearts from whose lips they were uttered.

May they be blessed by that light who turns sorrow into joy, sadness into laughter.

– Brandyn Simmons