"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Thursday, 10 October 2013


The life, philosophy, and thoughts of Thomas Merton
Love is our true destiny.
We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—
we find it with another.
We do not discover the secret of our lives by mere study
and calculation in our own isolated meditations.
The meaning of our life is a secret that is to be revealed
to us in love, by the one we love.
We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love….
Love is the revelation of our deepest personal meaning, value and identity.

-Thomas Merton

This issue was acute following the Second World War as people found their faith shaken by the horrors of the Holocaust and the awesome atomic bomb. Compounding this haemorrhaging of believers was the continuing Cultural Revolution spearheaded by jazz musicians and the Beat writers. The resulting explosion of Rock and Roll and Pop Culture would change the world forever and the Catholic Church was no exception to this.

In reaction to the strange new world the Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council to reassess and reform the Church and its philosophies in the modern world. While Vatican II instituted some of the biggest changes ever seen in the Church it was merely the crashing of a wave of reformative thought which had built up within the Church during the 20th century.

One of the most important thinkers who drove this reformation movement was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. A poet, writer, social activist, student of comparative religion, and unconventional thinker Thomas Merton was able to reconcile the Catholic Church and its doctrines with the quickly changing wider world. It was most likely his unconventional, excessive, and melancholic youth that made this convert into one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the 20th century as he spoke of Christian love in a way the new generations could understand.

Born in France in 1915 Thomas Merton was the first child of Owen Merton, an Anglican painter from New Zealand, and Ruth Jenkins, an American artist and Quaker. Baptised in the Church of England Merton’s early life seems to have been mostly agnostic and religion didn’t seem to be a source of solace for him after the death of his mother when he was just 6 nor during his tumultuous school years as he moved around between family members, schools, and continents.

The sense of loss and solitude brought about by the death of his mother, his father’s often absence, and his separation from his only brother and other family during his time in boarding school made Merton into a melancholic child. Though not devoid of friends this solitude and introspection surely informed the philosophies he would later become known for. More important than this, however, was Merton’s relationship with his father and his father’s approach to relationships and love.

After the birth of Thomas the family moved to New York. It was here that Merton’s mother died and it was here that Thomas’ brother, and later Thomas himself, would be left as his father travelled and pursued an affair with the writer Evelyn Scott. Though the affair was broken off because of the inability to reconcile Scott with Thomas and Owen moved to France with the children Thomas’ relationship with his father would remain distant as he was placed into a boarding school.

Though he attended church during his time in school Merton’s relationship with religion did nothing but deteriorate and even the news of his father’s brain tumour and resulting death didn’t reconcile the young Merton with god. Instead, as a teenage orphan with financial security, Merton embraced the rambling and artistic life of his late father. It was during a visit to Rome that Merton began his religious awakening. Inexplicably drawn to churches and religious sites Merton commented that he would like to become a Trappist Monk after visiting their Tre Fontane monastery.

This brush with religion would fade, though as Merton failed to find the same inner fervour during his trips to churches in the States and back in England. In 1933 Thomas entered Clare College, Cambridge, and a dark and negative period of his life began. He began drinking and spending to excess and garnered a reputation as a philanderer. There are numerous rumours surrounding Thomas’ leaving of Clare College but what is known is that in 1934 he enrolled in Columbia University as a sophomore.

Merton found a welcoming home in Columbia and the move was certainly a key moment in his life. Here he met many of his lifelong friends and set himself on the course to follow the example of Gerard Manley Hopkins to convert to Christianity and become a priest. By the end of his studies in Columbia Merton was a Confirmed Christian and on his path to become an ordained priest of the Franciscan Order.

The path to priesthood would be blocked, however, by confessions of his past and it wouldn’t be until 1942 that Merton would be welcomed into the monastic life, though as a Trappist monk not a Franciscan as earlier planned. During his time learning his vocation Merton continued his writing, encouraged by his father superior. This amalgamation of spirituality and writing would catapult him to fame as his writings, especially his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain, struck a chord with post-war society.

What may have enamoured him to the evolving society in the latter half of the 20th century was his interest in inter-faith spirituality. Of special interest to him were the so called Eastern philosophies and religions; Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sufism. Along with Christianity these topics dominated Merton’s time and thought and he corresponded extensively with others on matters of faith and spirituality.

While he continued his writings from the monastery Thomas Merton strove for leave to venture internationally. In 1968 this was granted and he toured Asia on a spiritual journey. There he met and spoke with the Dali Lama, the Japanese author Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He was commended for his knowledge and understanding of Eastern religions by those he met and became one of the most important figures in bringing understanding between Eastern and Western philosophies and encouraging interfaith dialogue.

This was all to prove ill-fated for Merton, however, as he died after speaking at an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Catholic monks in Bangkok in December 1968. Though some question the circumstances of his demise the official account is that he was accidentally electrocuted after stepping from his bath. On his death he was one of the most progressive and important Catholic thinkers and writers of his time and is still one of the most important figures in 20th century spirituality and interfaith understanding.

This Sunday ‘Talking History’ takes a look at the fascinating life of Thomas Merton and assess the importance and legacy of his writings. Find out about his exciting and emotional youth, his enlightening studies and writings, his dedication to pacifism and social reform, and his love of people—especially women. Did he father a child in his youth? Did he fall in love with a nun while recovering in hospital? Was the end of this fantastic life a simple accident or something more? Listen back here to find out.

For the two excellent mp3 recordings, turn to 

http://www.newstalk.ie/Monasticism-and-Love- which is the origin of this post


I don't know if Pope Francis has ever read Thomas Merton or whether Thomas Merton ever helped to mould Pope Francis's ideas; but I do know that understanding one will help us to understand the other.   The basic belief of both is in the incarnate God whose presence and salvific activity finds its fullness of expression in the Catholic Church.   The Church is uniquely Catholic and true because it is the body of him who is the universal Cause and Source of salvation.   However, they are both conscious that, when God became man , he was united to the whole human race by the power of the Spirit. 

 A change took place at the very heart of each human being, at the point, deep down, where God's creative action across time and space results in each person's continued existence .   At the very point where Infinite Love loves us into existence, a link was made  by the Holy Spirit at the Incarnation between each person and Christ, a link that unites us all to Christ and to what he did to save us.  This link allowed Christ to take all our suffering and all our sin on himself, and gave his sacrifice the capacity to be our sacrifice too, his death and resurrection to be ours.   Thus, in Christ, the whole human race became one in a new way, an organism brought about by Grace.

The moment when Father Louis (Thomas Merton) realised this has become famous.   Here is his own account of his experience:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.
He wrote on another occasion:
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. ” 
He also said that Christ is everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and we must dig to find him in every situation.

 As a Desert Father put it, just as a change in the weather affects both good and bad alike, so Christ's death and resurrection brought all human beings into a radically new situation.   However, it is a situation which we must poritively choose whenever the opportunity arises.
We were brought into the world without our consent; but, as far as possible, we will be saved by Christ only in so far as we consent to his action in us.  

 To this end, Christ founded the Church which proclaims the Truth and celebrates the Christian Mystery, becoming one body with Christ, Christ's visible presence on earth.   It is the place where the Christian life can be consciously chosen and lived.   It is also the place for absolute values arising from our relationship with the absolute authority of God. We can assent to them because membership of the Church offers us the possibility of sharing in Christ's mind, mainly through our sharing in the Liturgy and in Catholic Tradition.   Hence the Church is a place for clear, authoritative teaching.   

In contrast, we live in a world in which each person has to decide what is good and pursue it, find out what is bad and reject it.   No one is exempt from this; no one can stop thinking and simply passively accept other peoples' judgements.   In the words of Thomas Merton, we must all stand on our own feet.   Even when we come to realise the necessity for a teaching Church with clear moral principles, we arrive at that position, swimming against the current, by our own individual choice, by following what we believe to be good and rejecting what we believe to be evil.   Cardinal John Henry Newman came to accept the authority of the Catholic Church,  but only after a long pilgrimage and a chain of highly personal decisions.

In Pope Francis's interview with Scafari,  the following dialogue took place:
He [the Pope] is still smiling and replies: "Proselytism is a solemn foolishness, it makes no sense. We must get to know each other, listen to each other, and increase the understanding of the world that surrounds us. It happens to me that after one encounter I have the desire for another, because new ideas emerge and new needs are discovered. This is important: to get to know one another, listen to one another, broaden the circle of thought. The world is covered with roads that come together and draw apart, but the important thing is that they lead toward the good."
Your Holiness, is there a single vision of the good? And who establishes it?
"Each one of us has his own vision of good and also of evil. We must incite him to proceed toward that which he thinks is the good."
Your Holiness, you have already written about this in the letter you addressed to me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and each must obey his own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous passages spoken by a pope.
"And I repeat it here. Each one of us has his own idea of good and of evil, and he must choose to follow the good and fight the evil as he understands them. This would be enough to improve the world."
Pope Francis is only following the teaching of John Henry Newman who wrote: "It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing."   He also said,"I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards."
Thomas Merton also put emphasis on the individual's personal quest.  He wrote: 

In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for 'finding himself.' If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.
Both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton choose dialogue as the main means for communicating with the world around them.   Teaching Catholic Truth about faith and morals is only apt for those who have attained enough communion in Christ and the Church for the teachings to make sense.   When this is not so, and it is not so for most people in the modern world, what Pope Benedict called the "Tyranny of Relativism" is often the only option.   Hammering away at them with our absolute prohibition of abortion, for example, will not convince them.  Neither will hiding our conviction that abortion is wrong.   However, there are other, more basic subjects that have to be agreed between us for our conviction against abortion to make sense to them

What drives both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton to dialogue is the conviction that Christ is already present anonymously in the people who are struggling to discover what is good and reject what is evil, even when they are in disagreement.   We look for Christ in them, look for common ground; knowing that, if we discover this common ground and the work of grace in them, we will also learn more about what it is to be a disciple of Christ.   Humble obedience to Christ, wherever he is, and however he presents himself, is the secret of growth.   The dialogue partner of Pope Francis is "modern man"; while the dialogue partner of Thomas Merton was, so often, Buddhist and Hindu holy men.   Dialogue can only take place if we believe that, in Christ, God united himself to the whole human race, and that God's activity in the heart of each human being complements the Church's task of proclaiming the Gospel.  What is offered by God to all is a reality above and beyond words: in the heart, God acts at  deeper level than the place where words are formed; and, in the proclamation by the Church, it is not the arguments so much as the witness of those who proclaim the Gospel that tells people that there is a Reality beyond the message that reveals itself through the message, nothing less than a share in the divine Life. 
We are used to Popes who teach faith and morals as though all those who listen are sufficiently "Catholic" to simply accept what they say because they share the same faith as the Pope.   For some time, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have urged the necessity for a New Evangelisation.   Perhaps they did not realise that it would be necessary to speak to the "de-evangelised" in a different way from the way they were accustomed to speak to the faithful.   That is what Pope Francis is doing.

The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts is delighted to announce its forthcoming Graduation Show of the Icons & Wall Paintings Diploma. 

This fascinating exhibition results from four years of study by graduates Carol Armstrong, Iulia Clow, Caroline Coleman, Blazena Dzurjanikova, Alex Echeandia, Susan Pangburn, Christopher Perrins, Rachel Sim, Marcella Spreadbury, Monica Thornton, and Hanna Ward. 

The Show will take place in the School’s gallery at 19-22 Charlotte Road, London from 9.30am on 23rd October to 6pm on 1st November 2013. The Show will be open from 9.30am to 8.30pm Mondays to Fridays, 9.30am to 4.30pm on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.

All are welcome. For further information about icons and the content of the Icon Diploma, contact Aidan Hart, mail@aidanharticons.com.

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