The Thomas Merton Prison Project

 

“Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” – Pope Francis

Merton's Jesus 001.jpgChrist is always calling ― do we listen? He said faith even as small as a mustard seed could move mountains. To initiate this faith, we need to first till the field. We can do that by recognizing the suffering of others and honoring the other in ourselves.

Thomas Merton, born in the French Pyrenees in 1915 to an American mother and New Zealander father, both painters, began life as an outsider, the other. The sounds and smells of the First World War lingered close to his home. The Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michel-de-Cuxa, one of the first to spark young Tom’s imagination, was close by. Decades later, portions of the Abbey found itself reborn on the banks of the Hudson in upper Manhattan as the Cloisters. A tortured circuitous route also brought Merton to upper Manhattan and Columbia University in the years before the Second World War. (Drawing of Christ by Thomas Merton. Used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)

Like Thomas Merton, I lived as an outsider in a foreign land. My father, an ESSO oil executive, had moved my family out of the US just before I was born. After growing up in Venezuela, where I was exposed to scenes of inequality and suffering, and in Libya, which provided me a first-hand view of Islamic culture and beliefs, coming to terms with social injustice and religious intolerance became my primary focus.

That focus continued through my adolescent years. In 1965, after my mother became ill, my family moved to Miami where I went to high school. In my senior year, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Several months later, two weeks before Christmas vacation, I was attending college in Switzerland when I learned my mother had lost her battle with multiple sclerosis and had passed away. That year of devastation prompted me on a lifetime search for spiritual answers and remedies.

That’s when Thomas Merton entered my world. Gandhi on Non-Violence ― a slim volume of Gandhi quotations edited by Thomas Merton — fell into my hands. I read Merton’s introduction, Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant, and was hooked. Here was a voice who clearly understood the complex interweave of international culture and common human community which defines the world today. His fearless openness to different cultures and beliefs was learned early and appeared to be a driving force in his inter-faith outreach. Many have mistakenly believed that Merton was seeking answers from other traditions because he was willing to explore them. The answer, I believe, is quite different. Merton personified the heart and intellect of Christ, the Hidden Ground of Love as he called it. He summoned the world spiritual community together, to heal and pray as one.

I resonated deeply with Merton’s writings, and he began to have a profound effect on my life. I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain which depicted his human frailties as a troubled youth in search of truth — a narrative I could definitely relate to. His introspection, spiritual searching and mystical insights as well as his willingness to speak about his conversion to the Catholic faith and his own inner trials made him accessible. He was also outspoken about war, in particular the war in Vietnam, and since I was registered for the draft, his message of peace was all the more poignant.

Merton’s writings, I discovered, actually covered a wide range of interests. In addition to merton-dalai-lamabeing outspoken on issues of peace and non-violence, his observations made him a contemporary spokesman on key matters that are still driving communities apart today:  race, income inequality, and a decline in moral and religious values. In addition, Merton strongly supported interfaith understanding and pioneered dialogue with prominent spiritual leaders of various faiths. Although he followed a Christian path, Merton’s writings on Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and later Islam, are profound since he believed that all religious traditions are a search for ultimate truth. After meeting Merton in 1968 the Dalai Lama said, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity . . . It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word Christian.(Photo used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the  Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)

sophia-001Merton’s ability to reach above and beyond what is normally viewed as Christian is what makes him such an outstanding teacher. Merton said, “The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason.” But he knew how to communicate those subtle “in between the lines” truths in a timeless manner. The seeds of contemplation Merton planted in the spiritual heart of the world continuously yields new fruit. One book on Thomas Merton’s writings which gives great insight into his thoughts on Christ is Christopher Pramuk’s, SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, called it “the best book ever written about Thomas Merton. SOPHIA provides an in-depth view of Merton’s understanding of the intuitive wisdom tradition.

As my study of Merton progressed, I found that ultimately, Thomas Merton’s greatest gift was his capacity to wrap whatever conversation he was engaged in around the message and meaning of Christ. He helped me, along with many other readers, to realize the moral necessitude of a spiritual life.

 That realization culminated in the fall of 2013 when I went to work for an electrical contractor inside a New York State medium security prison. At that point, forty years of Merton study took on new meaning. My wife Angelina broached the thought first. There must be a reason I’d been sent there. Why not offer them spiritual books, she suggested. Why not indeed?  Merton indicated that the prayers of one monk in his cell would be enough to prevent the destruction of the world. Why couldn’t that one monk be an inmate in a prison cell?

From her simple suggestion the Pure Vision Foundation’s Thomas Merton Prison Project was born. Through the project, I’ve come in contact with Catholics and Christians of different sects as well as Jewish and Buddhist leaders who wish to help those incarcerated heal and change. It’s an arena that I believe Merton would approve of ― providing books that assist chaplains of different faiths as they encourage spiritual growth, allowing inmates the opportunity to broaden their own perspectives and learn to resolve conflict within themselves and with others. Benefiting the correctional community can only have the wider effect of benefiting society at large, enabling inmates through the power of their spiritual beliefs, to redeem themselves and assimilate into a wider, more diverse world once they return to civilian life.

In fact, we must believe that redemption is possible. Pope Francis has indicated as much, blessing the world with his boundless love, a love that is inclusive and nonjudgmental. Visiting Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, the pontiff spoke directly to the prisoners:

“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”

The heart of his message has reached other prisons as well. While at Cereso No. 3 Penitentiary in Juarez, Mexico, Pope Francis stated:

“Mercy means learning not to be prisoners of the past. It means believing that things can change. We know that we cannot turn back but I wanted to celebrate with you the Jubilee of Mercy, because it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward.  The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say has experienced hell, can become a prophet in society.”

The bottom line is that none of us is in a position to judge. According to the pontiff, “there is no place beyond the reach of mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.” Following that vein, the inter-faith spiritual books we have donated to prison chaplains and inmates through The Thomas Merton Prison Project represent light and hope. They represent the prayers and aspirations of the donors who make our work possible. It has allowed us to bring Thomas Merton’s message of love and compassion directly into prisons where it’s needed most. Through this work, we aim to dissolve the veil that perceives the other as outside ourselves and in so doing, to unlock the Christ in our own hearts. Merton understood that armies and politicians cannot put an end to hatred and war, to violence and bitterness. Only our hearts and prayers can do that. For that we need all hands on deck ― people helping each other — praying and serving.

Amen, I say to you, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. —Matthew 25:40

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Prophetic Voices: Martin Luther – William Barclay – Robert Lax

Luther's Fortress 001On October 31st, 2016 Pope Francis will take part in a joint ceremony with the World Lutheran Federation in Lund, Sweden. This marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s attack on the Roman Church which launched the Protestant Reformation. The Pope released a statement, “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values.” Even for a man known for radical departures from traditional norms, this is a quantum leap which can only benefit us all. Martin Luther was a true prophet, his vision embarked many in the Christian community in a new direction. He saw clearly the dangers inherent in a strictly celibate priesthood and the blatant corruption involved with selling indulgences.  Luther’s Fortress by James Reston, Jr. captures the pivotal year in Luther’s life that resulted in his greatest triumph.

Luther's Cell - Wartburg 001.jpgIn 1521 Martin Luther was hiding, under sentence of death, holed up in a tower room at Wartburg Castle which he referred to as “his Patmos.” It was in this room, for the next ten months, Martin Luther began his Bible translation, bringing a discordant collection of Latin versions into a coherent German comprehensible to the average man, albeit many of whom could not read. An English priest, William Tyndale, journeyed to Germany and met with Luther. Tyndale translated Luther’s Bible into English. Copies had to be smuggled into England, over 90% of the King James Bible derives from Tyndale’s translation. Luther’s Reformation led to a mass revolt of peasants in Germany and Austria against the societal constraints that left them in perpetual misery. Thousands of the revolutionaries were slaughtered and the leader,  Thomas Müntzer beheaded. Martin Luther threw his support behind the ruling class.

Likewise Jorge Mario Bergolio swung the Roman axis on its heels when he became the first Pope Francis - Vallely 001Pope from the America’s and the first Jesuit ever so honored.  When he also, of his own choice, became the first Pontiff to take the name Francis the world was served notice that the Catholic community now had a leader fearless enough to face the Lords of Capitalism and call them by their rightful name – Shameful. In our insular American bubble television poses as culture and a ‘reality’ show host a politician. Growing up in Venezuela in the 1950’s the disparity of wealth between the haves and the poverty of the have-nots seared itself into my mind stream. What is tragic is now that disparity has become the norm in the United states. Like frogs in boiling water we have watched society morph into a Dickens tragedy without notice. Thank God, literally Thank God, Pope Francis notices. For a clear accounting of Bergolio’s route from chemical technician to priest-archbishop-cardinal and then Pontiff read Paul Vallely’s masterpeice, POPE FRANCIS: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

William Barclay - Ordination 001.jpgWhen God has told you what you ought to do, he has already told you what you can do. William Barclay lived his life based on the tenets of this quote from Walter Savage Landor. I am indebted to my good friend Reverend Alfred Twyman, Ministerial Program Coordinator for the New York State Department of Corrections, for introducing me to Barclay. Born in Wick, Scotland in 1907 by the time he died in 1978 William Barclay was one of the world’s most widely read and studied religious personalities. His New Testament Commentaries, The New Daily Study Bible, are exemplary in their combination of faith and scholasticism. Trained at the Church of Scotland’s Trinity College Barclay was solidly grounded in classical theology, versed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He understood, and fought for, the belief that we lose our spiritual umbilical cord when we toss aside the linguistic roots that led to our present beliefs. Likewise, there can be no true practice of Vajrayana Buddhism if we lose our facility with Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Robert Lax (1915-2000) is most commonly remembered as the friend and classmate of Thomas Merton who brought clarity to Merton’s life with one famous question. In a quiet moment when Merton wasn’t banging on a piano, or bongo drums or the sensibilities of his house mates Lax queried, “What do you want to do, anyway?” Merton responded, “I want to be a good Catholic.” As Merton tells us in THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN:  The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it. “What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.

This exchange captures eloquently the noble complexity of Robert Lax’s mind that found Pure Act - Robert Lax 001.jpgtrue expression in simplicity. Michael McGregor’s new biography, PURE ACT: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, is a wonderful read. More importantly it is an indispensable read for anyone who is drawn to a writer’s life, and we are blessed by the author’s personal friendship with Lax who he met on the island of Patmos, Greece made famous as the home of the Apostle John when he wrote the Book of Revelations.

McGregor tells us, “Merton was a man who needed answers, while Lax was content with questions . . . Lax told me once that whenever the two of them went to a new place, Merton would set off immediately to explore and get his bearings, while Lax would find a coffee shop and contemplate the place from there . . . Where the two met was in their thirst for understanding, their desire to do good, their intelligence, and their humor. McGregor calls, “pure act, a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”

Robert Lax outlived Merton by thirty-two years, a living exemplar of Merton’s notion of one monk in his cell praying being the sole thread preventing the dissolution of the yarn the world is spinning.

Martin Luther based his revolution on faith. For Luther faith alone held the key to salvation. For I say none of the saints, no matter how holy they were, attained salvation by their works. Salvation does not lie in our works, no matter what they are. It cannot and will not be effected without faith.

Referring to the Bible, Sir Walter Scot said, “there is but one book for the true Scot.” Wlliam Barclay was certainly a true Scot. Clive Rawlins who authored the definitive, authorized biography of William Barclay states that Barclay “was first and foremost a Bible preacher. His power derived from logically arrayed detail, delivered eloquently with reverence, a Love of God and deep respect and Love for Man his creation.” Like Martin Luther William Barclay spent his life seeking every available means to share his faith and bring the message of Jesus to life for common people.

Zeffirelli - Jesus & Centurion 001.jpgWhen the classic Franco Zeffirelli film JESUS of Nazareth (1977) was released William Barclay was asked to write a companion book replete with photos from the film. My favorite Jesus story on the subject of faith concerns the centurion who asked Jesus to cure his servant. As Barclay tells the story: “Lord,” said the centurion, “I would like to ask you a great favor. I have a servant in my house who is very dear to me, more like a son than a servant. He is very sick, dying I fear. Lord, in all humility I ask . . .” Jesus broke in, “. . . that I should come to your house? Very well, I will come.” “No, Lord,” the centurion said. “I am unworthy that you should enter under my roof. I know that if you say the word my servant will be healed. I am a man who knows all about discipline and authority. I myself have authority over 100 soldiers, and if I say to one, ‘Do this’, I know that he will do it. If I say to another, ‘Go there’, I know that he will go. I need not see, I know. So it is enough that you give your word, and it will be done.” Jesus was deeply moved. He turned to all to those present and pointed at the centurion. “Did you hear this man? I say to you all, I have not found faith like this among many in Israel” . . . He laid a friendly hand on the centurion’s shoulder. “Go home,” he said “your faith has cured your servant.”

William Barclay wrote, “It would be both possible and natural to hold that ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer, for it is quite certain that the Kingdom of God was the central message and proclamation of Jesus . . . The announcement of the Kingdom was nothing less than the purpose for which Jesus came into the world . . . The initial message of Jesus was a summons to repent . . . literally, a change of mind (metanoia) a turning round and facing the opposite direction . . . The Kingdom of God starts with the smallest beginnings. Men do not enter in crowds, they must enter as individuals . . . That is why the growth of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, into a tree symbolizes the Kingdom.” From The Lord’s Prayer by William Barclay.

Let us all go forward with our lives, day by day, and see the face of Christ in all those we meet, and pray they see the face of Christ in ours.

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Tibetan Buddhist center in Columbus, Ohio, Karma Thegsum Chöling, struck by arson. Please help the rebuilding effort.