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RIP, Brother Patrick Hart

Written by Peter Smith on .


br patrick 2013 sm

I was sorry to hear the news of the passing of Brother Patrick Hart, who was the last secretary to fellow Trappist monk Thomas Merton and who went on to edit and write works by and about Merton.

I had a handful of encounters with Brother Patrick over the years and always knew him as a gracious, welcoming presence at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.

The following is adapted from an unpublished reflection I wrote after attending a conference at Gethsemani in 1996 between prominent Catholic and Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, who had befriended Merton shortly before the latter's sudden death on a trip to Asia in 1968. The following is written in the present tense as of 1996:

Throughout the week, groups of us went out to visit Merton's hermitage in the woods, receiving a guided tour by Brother Patrick Hart, who served as Merton's last secretary and who was then involved in the mammoth effort to edit seven volumes of Merton's journals.

Even the sparse furnishings of the hermitage, which remains largely as Merton left it, testify to the man's extraordinarily eclectic vision. There was one noteworthy difference: "It wasn't as neat as this," said Brother Patrick. "He wasn't a very good housekeeper. That wasn't his charism."

Merton had a simple bed, and in his kitchen, wall hangings included a picture of the Shaker tree of life and a framed Latin blessing from the pope. His living room had a fireplace, a woodstove, a Shaker-style desk made by a friend, and a small bookshelf whose contents included a work on Celtic monasticism and a book titled, Philo Kalia. The tiny chapel where Merton said Mass every day included several icons, a Navajo rug given by a friend, and a ceramic crucifix made by his friend Ernesto Cardenal.

[Note: Cardenal left the monastery and went on to join the Sandinista government in his native Nicaragua; that got him suspended by Pope John Paul II after a dramatic airport tarmac confrontation between the leftist priest and the anti-communist pope (google the photo). Just in the past few days, Pope Francis lifted that suspension on the now elderly Cardenal.]

"When did he (Merton) find time to write?" someone asked. Merton's output of books and articles is mind-boggling considering the amount of time spent in scholarship, prayer, chores and even a relationship with a nurse he met during a hospitalization.

"We think he wrote in his sleep," said Brother Patrick on a tour of the hermitage. "He used to walk for hours in the woods and then come back and bang them out."

Patrick told us his fondest memory was the last day before Merton's trip, when he said Mass for five monks in the hermitage. Afterward, the group polished off the remainder of the communion wine bottle. "He said, we can't leave half a bottle of communion wine till I come back in six months," Patrick said.

Merton never came back, and though there was no leftover bottle, there was enough leftover business from Merton's literary legacy to occupy Brother Patrick for much of the rest of his lift.




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States of sin

Written by Peter Smith on .


This starts out like it could be funny -- which are the most sinful states. Then you read the methodology, and it's really depressing.

Usually lists like this define "sin" the way a certain brand of moralism would -- drinking, smoking, gambling, extra-marital sex, etc. And yeah, Nevada lives up to its reputation, being an epicenter of the legalized gambling and sex industries, and also high in the list is Louisiana, home of Mardi Gras.

But this list by WalletHub would probably pass muster among more holistic moral theologians, who would also have a problem with a whole range destructive and self-destructive acts.

The rankings are based on reviews of seven categories of vices, loosely based on the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. Just get as far as "anger" and you'll find rankings based on violent crimes per capita, sex offenders per capita, the bullying rate, maltreated adults, mass shootings and teen dating violence. Go on to other categories like lust, and there's the teen birth rate, prostitution arrests and relevant Google searches. In the category of excesses and vices, there's smoking, excessive drinking, overdose deaths, etc.

Other categories could be debated as to how sinful they really are. Vanity is measured in part by the concentration of beauty salons in each state. That could just correlate with age, which may be why Pennsylvania is on the list. Just a guess.

For what it's worth, Pennsylvania ranked as the 13th most sinful state, between Oklahoma and Ohio. Bible Belt states generally rank high on the sinful scale. Some of the least sinful were in New England and also happen to be among the most secular, so presumably fewer people have a sense of these vices as being sins, at least in any religious sense of the word.

Read it and weep. Really.



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Seeking wholeness and holiness

Written by Peter Smith on .

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Norma Gentry emerges from her baptism by the Rev. Paul Abernathy on July 14, 2018, at St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District. (Nate Guidry/The Post-Gazette)

For some years, I had heard of the work of FOCUS Pittsburgh, an Eastern Orthodox charity based in the Hill District. From distributing food and clothing to deploying trauma response teams to provide psychological first aid after violent crimes, FOCUS members have become an important part of the community's network of social service.

As the religion reporter, I'd been curious about how Orthodox spirituality informs that work. It turns out, it informs it in insightful ways, as explained by the Rev. Paul Abernathy of FOCUS. The sacramental theology of the church undergirds its mission to make the world both whole and holy. And while an African-American neighborhood may not seem fertile soil for an Orthodox church, there's a shared experience between the Orthodox sense of emerging from an ancient church of martyrs and the Black Church experience, rooted in the experience of slavery and secret worship.

More at the link here:


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Two reckonings over bigotry in Kentucky

Written by Peter Smith on .

Earlier this year, Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster statue was removed amid the nation's wider reassessment of other public art, especially Confederate statues and similar monuments to institutional bigotry.

This week saw two such historical reckonings down the Ohio River in the state that Foster lionized in "My Old Kentucky Home." (Incidentally, that is still sung at the Kentucky Derby each year, omitting the offensive lyric that reflected the kind of condescending racism that led to opposition to the Foster statue here). 

2018-12-14 13 15 40-Prentice statue removed from Louisville Free Public Library grounds   Wdrb-video

On Tuesday, the city of Louisville removed the statue of 19th century newspaper editor George Prentice from its longtime perch next to the public library's main branch. Prentice edited one of the predecessor newspapers for the one I used to work for, the Courier-Journal. In 1855, in the run-up to an election, he raged against immigrant Catholics in print, calling them the "most pestilent influence of the foreign swarms" loyal to "an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day." Beginning on election day 1855, at least 22 people were killed in rioting that targeted Irish and German Catholic immigrants. Whatever Prentice's "stylistic contributions" to his craft were, as the plaque next to the statue used to say, the city decided he shouldn't be in a place of honor anymore. So now his statue is in storage.

On Wednesday, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also in Louisville, issued a detailed historical report acknowledging the depth of white supremacy throughout a history that it has been trying to repent of in recent years.

We long knew the founders were slaveholders and that the seminary used to be a bastion of Confederate nostalgia. But this report lays bare the extent of the ideology of white supremacy that ran through the marrow of the school for its first hundred years or so. One early 20th century president said: “It is immoral and wrong to demand that negro civilization should be placed on par with white." That was E.Y. Mullins, elsewhere a champion of free conscience, sounding a lot like the contradictory Thomas Jefferson. And he was far from alone at the seminary.

All of this was in the archives, but the current president lamented a "sinful absence of historical curiosity."  In some ways the seminary had skated on its reputation for having hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. despite internal denominational opposition, and for paying the short-term price of withheld donations. ("Money well spent," said one of those who invited King.) But as elsewhere in the South (and North), integration there was late and slow.

A couple thoughts:

Back when there was a raging controversy in the seminary and Southern Baptist Convention between moderates and conservatives, each side claimed different early seminary leaders as historical precedents, if not patron saints. Names like Boyce, Broadus, Whitsitt and Mullins were tossed about in the debate. What this report shows is that all of them were implicated. Pick your hero, pick your poison. 

Also, if you go through the archives of almost any historically white religious institution, you'll find similar skeletons.

Several years ago in Kentucky, in fact, I did an informal survey of archives and historians to see if I could identify examples of any white-led religious institutions in the state with a clear historical conscience.

None of the big ones that I could find.

The Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists all split over slavery, with the southern branches supporting it. Segregation reigned in their churches long afterward. 

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was one of the first denominations to issue a formal apology for historical racism. At that denomination's Cane Ridge shrine in rural Kentucky, the epicenter of the Second Great Awakening, I attended the dedication of a small cemetery marker that honored the previously unrecognized burial of a slave there. A healing if belated gesture; the ceremony drew the descendants of slave and slaveholder. 

As for Roman Catholics: Local religious orders of women researched their antebellum histories and dedicated monuments in belated honor of their slaves.

Two religious groups had relatively clean consciences.

One consisted of the Shakers -- members of a radical, millennial sect with two settlements in Kentucky. They insisted on freeing the slaves that came into their community. But even they reluctantly paid slave owners for the much-needed labor of their slaves to help the group expand its properties.

Still, it's worth noting that it took a countercultural, egalitarian bunch, one that others deemed to be a heretical cult, to get some distance from society's metastasized evil. (The Shakers also don't exist in Kentucky or almost anywhere else anymore, an understandable result of their commitment to celibacy.)

The other group is the small band of abolitionists who founded Berea College in eastern Kentucky just before the outbreak of Civil War. They were driven out pretty quickly but returned after the war to run a racially integrated school for decades until a Jim Crow act known as the Day Law forced its segregation. It integrated again when it could.

Lots of institutions could only wish for such principled legacies. It's not erasing history, as some claim, to re-evaluate it and make new decisions about those whom we honor.





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