One degree of Thomas Merton

Written by Peter Smith on .

On today's centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the vastly influential Roman Catholic monk and author, it's worth remembering that he didn't just write classic books and think provocative thoughts. He also kept remarkable company. Amazingly so, for a cloistered monk who spent his last years as a hermit -- if you can call him that for all the visitors that came and went from his little hut in the Kentucky woods.


My article on the legacy of Merton at 100 is here

In fact, you can make a strong case that more than anyone else, you can tell the story of 20th century intellectual and cultural life through the story of Thomas Merton. 


The list of his contacts is encyclopedic. In fact you can look them up in the Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, a book that really exists and that is deserved by Merton as it is by few other authors.

Among Merton's contacts: French philosopher Jacques Maritain, with whom he corresponded and whom he hosted at his hermitage, spending some of the time listening to a Bob Dylan album; Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, with whom he corresponded across the Iron Curtain; Islamic Sufis such as Abdul Aziz; Buddhist luminaries such as D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh; and even folk singer Joan Baez, who visited him at the hermitage and with whom he hopefully didn't discuss Bob Dylan.

Wanting to learn photography, Merton drew on the help and darkroom expertise of the remarkable photographer John Howard Griffin -- whose life story is one of the most amazing even in that century of amazing biographies, only partly due to his "Black Like Me" Odyssey. Griffin took some of the best portraits of Merton, and developed and printed many of the monks' own meditative photos, including one of Merton's last, overlooking a Bangkok harbor, in a scene resembling Merton's description of a dream of his impending death.

 And as if a friendship with one remarkable photographer were enough, Merton also had a close one with Ralph Eugene Meatyard, about whom a poignant play has been written and who took many remarkable Merton portraits. Among the photos is one of Merton hosting a poetry reading at his hermitage with poets Denise Levertov and a young Wendell Berry, who has more than inherited Merton's mantle with his literary/social critiques nourished in the Kentucky soil.

You could call Merton the Zelig or Forest Gump of the 20th century religious world, but the difference is that these fictional characters had no clue about all the impressive people they were interacting with. Merton knew, and engaged deeply with them.

Here's another measure. At the end of the 20th century, the public-broadcasting show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly had an expert panel select the 25 religious figures who most influenced America in the 20th century, Merton was on the list, one of only six Catholics in total and one of only two American Catholics.

But what's more remarkable is how many others on the list he interacted with.

The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day was one of his early inspirations and a longtime correspondent. Later on, Merton corresponded with and hosted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a figure of titanic influence in articulating Judaism's bond of spirituality and socially prophetic voice. Heschel had been working behind the scenes with Catholics drafting the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which opened a warmer era of Catholic-Jewish ties. But there were challenges from bishops who wanted the document to insert language reaffirming the longstanding Catholic goal of converting Jews to Christianity. Merton, after meeting with Heschel, wrote to the cardinal drafting the document, encouraging him to stay with the more inclusive version, which ultimately was approved by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Another figure on that list was the Dalai Lama, with whom Merton met in India and formed a deep bond just weeks before Merton's accidental death in Bangkok.

"I always considered him a strong bridge between Buddhism and Christianity," the Dalai Lama said years later in a visit to Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani. "His sudden death was a great loss."

Merton also wrote to another person on the PBS list, Pope John XXIII, encouraging his reforms. Scholars have speculated whether Merton influenced John's landmark peace encyclical, "Pacem in terris," but both John and later Pope John Paul II (also on the list) are known to have been familiar with Merton's works.

A mutual friend was also working on arranging a visit by the Rev. Martin Luther King (also on the list) and Coretta Scott King to the hermitage in early 1968. Plans didn't materialize, but they hoped to arrange a meeting later. Neither would survive that traumatic year. Their legacies are still unfolding.



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Francis against fracking?

Written by Peter Smith on .

no al fracking


This has been percolating in alternative media some time, but it's getting new attention as Pope Francis prepares an encyclical on the environment, which is expected to address human-caused climate change.

In 2013, two of Francis' fellow Argentinians, also environmental activists involved in a documentary, had a lengthy audience with the pope. Francis gave an interview on issues of the environment and the economy -- and posed with a T-shirt saying "No Fracking" in Spanish. Apparently that's an issue in Argentina.

And, of course, it's an issue around here in heavily Catholic, heavily fracked western Pennsylvania. I've written before on Christians on both sides of the fracking divide -- fellowship among oilfield workers and efforts by Catholics and others to divest from all fossil fuels. Apparently Francis has staked out a position, although without elaboration.

In the interview, Francis didn't get into the specifics of fracking, but the Youtube excerpt shows he clearly knows what he's holding and why. And he does criticize open-pit mining, a practice that presumably would cover mountaintop removal coal mining.

In excerpts, the pope sounds like he's channeling Wendell Berry:

"We must take care of God's creation.

"(Humans have the experience of) transforming ignorance into culture, through science, art, work. Man is the author of culture. So what happens when he is no longer a builder? He takes over culture and uses it, not for improvement and the good of humankind but for selfish reasons. And then things happen. Think of Hiroshima just to name a faraway example. Things happen that create ignorance.

"Take manipulation, using people for your own good, consider ... for example mining ... open pit mines, which pollute the environment, or high voltage cables. ...

"Then man, with such culture, is capable of creating ignorance again. That is the second form of ignorance we must be careful of, because then we create and destroy.





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Weekend religion steady, but not always in church

Written by Peter Smith on .

Average Americans are using as much weekend time on religion as they were a decade ago, according to government data crunched by Catholic statistics guru Mark Gray.

But whatever they mean by religious activity, far fewer of them are doing it than who claim to go to church in other surveys.

Mr. Gray worked off the American Time Use Survey, which is produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by calling people up and asking what they did with their time the day before.

The findings might cheer or dismay those who believe the culture is heading in a more secular direction, because they show that 16 percent of Americans reported religious activity the most recent weekend, and those who did spent two hours a day at it (or four hours per weekend).

What the numbers don't say is whether they spent the time at church, praying at home, meditating or getting a spiritual rush by gazing at the stars, or any combination of the above. It's all grouped under "religious and spiritual activities."

Whatever it is, as many people are doing it now as were doing it a decade ago, and for the same amount of time.

On the other hand, 16 percent is far, far lower than the roughly 40 percent who claim to go to church on a given Sunday, which is what they've been telling Gallup for decades. But that's when Gallup specifically asks if they've gone to church. This raises the obvious question of whether people are answering yes because they think they should.

So what else are people doing with their time? Eating, sleeping, taking care of the kids and themselves, sports and leisure, including TV -- lots of TV.

On the other hand, "Americans spend more time, on average, doing religious or spiritual things on the weekend than lawn and garden care, volunteering, homework or research, caring for pets, home repair, or vehicle-related activities," notes Mr. Gray, of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Given the amount of screen time Americans are spending, Mr. Gray wondered if organized religion needs to compete with more and better TV of its own.

"Until then, when some Catholics (and those of other faiths) continue to tell survey researchers that they 'just drifted away' from their faith to be 'nothing' we may better understand where many really drift off to…"





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Presbyterians revise campaign seen as offensive

Written by Peter Smith on .

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is revising a marketing campaign for an upcoming offering after critics said it was racially offensive and made light of addictions.

Hundreds of people had posted criticisms in various online forums. The marketing materials included images such as of an Asian girl who has a "drinking problem" -- needing clean water -- and a brown-skinned man needing help getting "high" -- above floodwaters.

The ads were supposed to promote offerings to raise funds for humanitarian projects to address such needs.

The director of special offerings, Samuel Locke, said in a statement on Monday:

"We appreciate the passionate outpouring of concern about the new attention-getting campaign for One Great Hour of Sharing. You spoke. We are listening. We plan to revise the campaign.

"We apologize for the offense and pain caused by our effort to promote the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. We strive for excellence in our work, and are deeply sorry when we miss the mark.

"The One Great Hour of Sharing has a long and important tradition with the Presbyterian Church in meeting basic human needs. Those needs are greater than ever and so it is important that the promotion for this offering is done well."




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