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

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Illusory Door: Life & Death, East & West

Journey of Life & Death 001.jpgMama, take this badge off of me I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is coming down I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.   Bob Dylan

Life’s journey will end in death we all know it, we all deny it, and few truly face it.

There has never been a more poignant view into the abyss than Sam Peckinpah offered in his 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In the memorable scene Sheriff Garrett (James Coburn) accompanied by Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) ride into an adobe homestead looking for Billy. In the ensuing gunfight Slim Pickens is mortally wounded, he staggers slowly toward the setting sun as Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door begins playing. Katy Jurado follows as Pickens sits holding his bleeding stomach by the side of a slow moving river. No words are exchanged as Pickens and Jurado look at each other, knowing it will be the last time.

No death in history has been more analyzed and commented upon than Jesus’ death on the The Day the Revolution Began 001.jpgcross. In his new book noted Anglican theologian N.T. Wright approaches the subject anew with the question, “What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart?” The issue he suggests is, “That when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as result of which the world is a different place . . . Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.” Well said.

Wright continues, “At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the ‘image’, is the ultimate embodiment (or incarnation) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but that is not the focus).”

Wright’s examination of the many aspects of Jesus’ death is laudable. His conclusion that “Humans are made not for ‘heaven’, but for the new heavens and a new earth” is well stated.

We don’t need ‘Eschatology‘ which maps out an ultimate future (death, judgement, heaven and hell). Or ‘Atonement‘ which offers the death of Jesus as forgiveness or pardoning of our own sins through the death of Jesus. Really, as if clever philosophical phrases and arguments will guide us through our own death. The Gospel of Thomas has the proper response to these queries, don’t ask them. Focus rather on what Jesus taught. He offered us a way to navigate death successfully, we need only follow.

Reading The Day the Revolution Began I felt as if I was witnessing an effort to summarize the wide fabric of America’s culture by counting the stitches on the flag. The limits of theology are plain. The old axiom used to be if you want to convey the true experience of space flight you need to put a poet into orbit. Hence the mystic, combined with a grasp of theology the difference is palpable. To grasp the limits to Wright’s work read and compare with  SOPHIA, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton.

Illusory Kalu Rinpoche 001.jpgYou live in illusion and in the appearance of things. There is a reality. You are the reality. If you wake up to that reality, you will know that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That’s all. –  Kalu Rinpoche

No culture has delved as deeply into death, in all its dimensions, than Vajrayana Buddhism. Karma Rangjung Kunkhyab (Kalu Rinpoche) was one of the first master yogis entrusted by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, to bring Vajrayana teachings to the west. karmapa-kalu-rinpoche-001Having entered his three year retreat for lama training at age fifteen and then spending twelve years in solitary retreat in the Himalayan mountains of Kham, Eastern Tibet, Kalu Rinpoche was an authentic master in the Kagyu tradition that dates its origin to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Rinpoche (shown here with the Karmapa in 1973) introduced the traditional three year retreat method of Jamgon Kontrul in France and then New York and Canada. Kalu Rinpoche was one of the Tibetans Thomas Merton met with shortly before his death in 1968. Their conversation is discussed in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.

kagy-monlam-87-copyright-drolma-birneyIn 1983  Kalu Rinpoche, as head of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, presided over the first Kagyu Monlam (Aspiration Prayers) celebration in Bodhgaya, India. This event,  which lasted two weeks was attended by two hundred monks, nuns and lay people. The fifth monlam in 1987 lasted three weeks (shown here from left to right: Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche). Many of the attendees were dedicated American lay students who also received three year retreat empowerments from Kalu Rinpoche. Lay practitioners are the the skeletal strength and backbone of any monastic system, these yogins are the ties which prevent the rails from coming apart. All structured religious systems combine appearance with illusion. The more hierarchical the more illusion, simple really, no choice. A yogi has no need of title or label.

Niguma 001.jpgActually Kalu Rinpoche’s esoteric roots were sunk in the eleventh century when a Tibetan adept named Khyungpo Naljor (Yogi of the Garuda Clan), dissatisfied with the level of experience his intensive learning had brought him, traveled to India  seeking answers. Find Niguma he was told. Niguma was a legendary rainbow bodied dakini and Naropa’s sister. Having received the teachings he sought Khyungpo Naljor was admonished to limit their transmission to one person for each of seven succeeding generations. Returning to Tibet he settled in the Shang  region and became the “Guru of Shang”, hence the Shangpa Kagyu. His lineage was revived by Jamgon Kongtrul in the late nineteenth century. Kalu Rinpoche received the teachings in the 1940’s and popularized them in the west. A distinguishing feature of advanced Tibetan Buddhist practitioners is the ability  to manifest a ‘rainbow body’, that is to dematerialize their physical form as shown in the picture of Kalu Rinpoche above. Illusory Body teachings are one of the Six Dharmas of Niguma. More on all of this can be found in Sarah Hardings excellent study, NIGUMA: Lady of Illusion. The current Kalu Rinpoche (yangsi) said about this book: Niguma is Niguma. A book is a book. If you read with discernment, however, and put what is written in practice, you just might meet Niguma face to face.Rainbow Body & Resurrection 001.jpg

The Catholic Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and studied Zen Buddhism for many years, became interested in the phenomena of rainbow bodies. He requested one of his students, Father Francis V. Tiso, formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to investigate the relationship between the Buddhist tradition and Christianity, Rainbow Body and Resurrection explains Father Tiso’s findings. This is one of the most interesting efforts ever to explore spiritual phenomena and science without shortchanging either camp. Well done, and thanks to Brother Stendl-Rast and Father Tiso.

Tolstoy - Kingdom of God 001.jpg

When our flights of theology and rainbow dynamics have left us winded and wondering, what does this all do to improve the lot of suffering humanity, we can look to the answer provided by the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. He wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You after meditating on the life of Jesus and the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to live up to the challenges Jesus laid down. The book was published in Germany after being banned in Russia. Tolstoy laid down the guidelines by which Gandhi and Martin Luther King revolutionized society. Tolstoy developed the radical concept of putting the words of Jesus into direct action. We allow tyranny only when we don’t confront it. Gandhi said The Kingdom of God is Within You was one of the three most important influences in his life.

Albert Schweitzer was a noted ProtestantAlbert Schweitzer - Strasbourg 001.jpg theologian, classical concert organist, pastor of St. Nicholas church and principal of St. Thomas College in Strasbourg, then in Germany. He was completing work on the book which would revolutionize contemporary views on Jesus, The Quest of the Historical Jesus and a critical analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach that led to the composer’s influence we feel today. Yet, he felt unfulfilled, he was describing faith not living it.

Let us see how Schweitzer himself describes his evolution. One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return. While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself to serving humanity. I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” What the character of my future activities would be was not yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one thing was certain, that it must be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere.

One morning in the autumn of 1904 I found on my writing table in the seminary one of the green-covered magazines in which the Paris Missionary Society reported on its activities every month. Without paying much attention, I leafed through the magazine. As I was about to turn to my studies, I noticed an article with the headline “The Needs of the Congo Mission”. The author complained that the mission did not have enough people to carry on its work in the Gabon, the northern province of the Congo colony. The writer expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work. The article concluded: “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s call, “Lord, I am coming, those are the people the church needs.” I finished my article and quietly began my work. My search was over.

In a stunning act of faith and devotion Albert Scweitzer resigned his various positions and began a seven year course of study which resulted in his receiving a medical degree. His medical dissertation fittingly enough was, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.

Scweitzer’s decision to embark on a medical career with the stated purpose of venturing to Equatorial Africa was met with outrage and derision by his friends and family. Again, in Albert and Helene Schweitzer 001.jpgSchweitzer’s own words: I had assumed that familiarity with the sayings of Jesus would give a much better comprehension of what to popular logic is not rational. Several times, indeed, my appeal to the obedience that Jesus’ command of love requires under certain circumstances earned me an accusation of conceit. How I suffered to see so many people assuming the right to tear open the doors and shutters of my inner self!

Albert Schweitzer was not alone. As is so often the case he was accompanied on his journey by an extraordinary woman, Helene Bresslau. (Photos from Schweitzer; A Biography) She was the one person who understood and supported his decision. Her family in Berlin was Jewish but converted to Christianity and moved to Strasbourg to avoid persecution. When Schweitzer made his decision to attend medical school she quit her job at an orphanage and studied nursing. They married in 1912 and on Good Friday in 1913 set out for Lambaréné, Gabon.

Following the Enlightened Mind path of Niguma and the Sacred Heart teachings of Jesus we can embark forward in the 21st Century marrying the complimentary visions of Buddhism and Christianity to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. You can’t do Christ from the couch!

The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson


Jesus Yoga & Tilopa’s Mahamudra


Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . .  for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.










Mind itself is self-liberated dharmakaya. Within which arises self-liberated mahamudra. This key to self-liberated experience I possess.





Great masters leave their mark on this world through their teachings and ultimately the lineage of followers who carry on their work. We are greatly blessed in this historical epoch to have access to two of humanity’s great spiritual yogins. Jesus personified compassion. His example and stories have fashioned a mind set that places ‘a love of neighbor as oneself’ at the cornerstone of behavior.

Tilopa was born in India one thousand years after Jesus. From Tilopa we have the quintessential teachings on mind known as Mahamudra. Tibetan Buddhism is predicated on the principal of Mahamudra. In Sanskrit Maha means ‘great’ and Mudra means ‘seal’.  When Tilopa’s lineage was passed on to Naropa and carried into Tibet by Marpa, Mahamudra became phyag-gya-chen-po. Not content with merely translating the literal meaning the Tibetan yogins went one step further and built into their dialogue a vocabulary that infused each particular word with additional significance. Phyag-gya means not only seal but ‘vast’.  Phyag also means ‘hand’ as well ‘cleaning tool’, i.e. a broom or sponge. Therefore, Mahamudra is a meditational system which purifies our mind of impurities. Our mind is left capable of of recognizing it’s own true nature: at once both vast and empty- Dharmakaya. This ‘recognition’ is ‘self-arisen’ therefore ‘self-liberating’ and the experience is complete, ‘sealed.’



Tilopa’s most famous expression has been I, Tilopa, have no human guru. My guru is mighty Vajradhara.  As Tai Situ Rinpoche (whose calligraphy is shown above) explains: Let us be careful not to misinterpret this declaration. It was made neither through pride nor through ingratitude to the many, often illustrious, teachers who had helped him in the earlier part of his life. It is certain that he appreciated all those scholars, mahasiddhas’ and dakinis’ help a great deal and that he continued to respect them. By this stage in his life, he had attained perfect realization and full mastery of vajra-like samadhi: he was totally inspired by Buddha Vajradhara (Bearer of the Thunderbolt) and possessed his power of absolute certainty — the extraordinary personal transmissions. It would have been a matter of course for his Indian disciples to inquire after his gurus and the traditions he represented. It was natural for him to reply as above, to impress upon them the power and freshness of his own direct realization and his first-hand link with enlightenment.dakpo-tashi-namgyal-001


Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1511-1587) was responsible for codifying the techniques we refer to today as Mahamudra. His exhaustive and thorough treatise The Perfect Description of Moonlight that Illuminates the Stages of Ultimate Mahamudra was the first Tibetan text on meditation translated into English (at the behest of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje).

Anyone stuck inside a human body should not consider going through life without the ultimate owner’s manual Clarifying the Natural State.  Concise and clearly written this is a practical, how-to on meditation (sort-of-like the old books on keeping your VW van alive). Consider Three key points: Remain fresh in unconcerned naturalness. Remain artless and uncontrived without judging. Remain unbound and uninvolved with striving.  For this there are Five Analogies: Elevate your experience and remain wide-open like the sky. Expand your mindfulness and remain pervasive like the earth. Steady your attention and remain unshakable like a mountain. Brighten your awareness and remain shining like a flame. Clear your thought-free wakefulness and remain lucid like a crystal.


In the middle of the twentieth century, shortly after the horrors of the second world war, Autobiography of a Yogi 001three events took place that rewrote our concept of Jesus, the man and his message. First the discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945 of ancient Christian texts buried some 400 years after the death of Jesus. Included among the codices found was a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas (the above quote is taken from that text). One year later (1946) Paramahansa Yogananda released Autobiography of a Yogi. On October 4, 1948 Harcourt, Merton-Seven Storey Mtn 001Brace published Thomas Merton’s seminal autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Seventy years on both of these books have been among the top selling spiritual books. Yogananda and Merton charted parallel paths, one beginning in the West and turning Eastward, the other born in India brought yoga to America and has been instrumental in forging a fresh view on the meaning of Christ.

Thomas Merton was single-handedly responsible for an upsurge in Catholic vocations after SSM was released. His ability to communicate on issues of faith, conscience and inner flaws made him an icon for a generation. He became the public conscience for opposition to nuclear proliferation even when the Catholic Church tried to silence him. Even more importantly he was a one-man band  for inter-faith dialogue. Again the church tried silencing him, even threatening excommunication when he began a now famous exchange of letters with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki. Shortly before his death in 1968 Merton met, and impressed Tibetan lamas who had only recently found refuge in India. The Dalai Lama said Merton was the one who “introduced him to the real meaning of the word Christian.” He also cited Thomas Merton as one of the three most influential influences on his own life.

Christopher Pramuk points out in the best-ever study of Merton’s work, SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton the key element Merton focused on: the unity inherent in disparity. “What Zen realization shares with biblical-mystical faith is precisely the disarming experience of ‘a breakthrough . . . a recovery of unity which is not the suppression of opposites but a simplicity beyond opposites’.”

Thomas Merton calls us still to invest new energy and faith in our search for the Hidden Christ within — Christ has planted in the world the seeds of something altogether new, but they do not grow by themselves. . . For the world to be changed, man himself must begin to change it, he must take the initiative, he must step forth and make a new kind of history.

As Merton looked Eastward to expand his relationship with Christian Wisdom Paramahansa Yogananda emblazoned the ancient Indian science of yoga across the face of America, literally from sea to sea. Indian spiritual tradition both praises the human guru and holds their teaching and example as a beacon toward which the student strives and attains. Such is the inherent power in the Indian subcontinent’s message that the mystical path must result in the dedicated practitioners attaining the enlightenment they will then inspire in the next generation. It must be so or the lineage perishes.

The Apostle Thomas carried the teachings of Jesus to India, he lived there, he died there. The Gospel of Thomas has awakened a long dormant element in the Christian tradition. For two thousand years Western Christianity presented Jesus as a being fromyoga-of-jesus-001 whom we could seek pardon and protection but not someone we could ever hope to approach face-to-face as equals.  Now we know that was not the message Jesus gave to his own followers: Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. . .  I am the light of the world which is before all things. From me all things come forth, and to me all things extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there, lift up the stone, and you will find me. . . Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the mysteries shall be revealed to them.” Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas continues: Jesus took Thomas and withdrew, and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said, “If I tell you even one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up”. The traditional Gospels state clearly that Jesus gave his close students teachings on a deeper level than presented in the New Testament. This is to be expected, a Master who could heal with extraordinary power, speak deep truths simply and clearly through parable and even indeed walk through his own death experience consciously and produce clear evidence of that experience transmitted some of his own power to others. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has ample evidence of the disciples newfound powers. The Holy Face veil in Manopello, Italy (The Face of God) is total physical proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus left us a trail and then buried the tracks for two thousand years, until now. It is up to those who believe to seize upon this moment and manifest the Consciousness of Christ through belief, prayer and mediation

Paramahansa Yogananda’s message is inseparable from his own relationship with Jesus. Yogananda wrote in THE SECOND COMING OF CHRISTTruth is no theory, no speculative system of philosophy, no intellectual insight. Truth is an exact correspondence with reality. For man, truth is unshakeable knowledge of his real nature, his Self as soul. Jesus, by every act and word of his life, proved that he knew the truth of his being–his source in God. Wholly identified with the omnipresent Christ Consciousness, he could say with finality, “Everyone that is of the truth will hear my voice”. . . The decipherment of this secret code is an art that man cannot communicate; here the Lord alone is the teacher.  Of course, Yogananda is not downplaying the role his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, played in his life. He is merely echoing Tilopa’s teaching, on the final mountain top we attain our own transfiguration and came face to face with reality in it’s most elemental form — a burning bush, Vajradhara or Moses and Elijah.

Which brings us full circle to the present practitioners of Christianity and Buddhism.

book-of-joy-001No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield. Lasting happiness cannot be found in pursuit of any goal or achievement. It does not reside in fortune or fame. It reside only in the human mind and heart, and it is here we hope you will find it. Tenzin Gyatso/Desmond Tutu

Happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not. Desmond Tutu

Our human nature has been distorted. We are actually quite remarkable creatures. In our religions I am created in the image of God. I am a God carrier.rabble-rouser-for-peace-001 It’s fantastic. I have to be growing in godlikeness, in caring for the other. I know that each time I have acted compassionately, I have experienced a joy in me that I find in nothing else. Desmond Tutu, Rabble Rouser for Peace, a barefoot schoolboy from a deprived black township who became an international symbol of the democratic spirit and religious faith. The Bible is dynamite . . . nothing could be more radical. . . Prayer and social action is not an either-or proposition. Rather, prayer inevitably drove me off my knees into action.

The Dalai Lama visited Belfast in northern Ireland after the Troubles. He was invited to attend a private meeting where victims and perpetrators of violence were present. The atmosphere was very tense, as the suffering was practically palpable in the air. As the meeting began, a former Protestant militant spoke of how, when he was growing up, he was told by other loyalists that what they did in opposition to the Catholics was justified because Jesus was a Protestant and not a Catholic. Knowing that Jesus was, of course, a Jew the Dalai Lama laughed so hard that he completely changed the atmosphere. Able to laugh at the absurdity of our prejudices and our hatreds, everyone was able to communicate more honestly and compassionately with each other. THE BOOK OF JOY


“I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.” Thomas Merton

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.


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


MUHAMMAD ALI & MALCOLM X: America’s Islamic Heart

Muhammad Ali & Malcol X - (Bingham) 001O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.  — Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī

In Miami, February 1964, Cassius Clay was preparing to face Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. For all his braggadocio, Cassius Marcellus Clay was scared. Liston was an overwhelming favorite, the most punishing puncher in boxing history, a devastating foe. Oddsmakers had trouble finding takers for bets against Liston. Malcolm X believed in Clay totally and sincerely, and communicated that faith to the underdog. “This fight is the truth . . . Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the Champion?”

Malcolm X was undergoing his own crisis of faith. Since being named the assistant of the Detroit Temple No. 1 in 1953, Malcolm X had become the Nation of Islam’s public face. He had faithfully promoted the teachings and cause of Elijah Muhammad in the face of his own increasing doubts for several years. By 1964, before the fight, he had already been suspended by Elijah Muhammad for his outspoken behavior and support of civil rights activism. The Nation of Islam also condemned boxing and disapproved of Malcolm’s support of Cassius Clay.

Cassius had first been exposed to Elijah Muhammad’s teaching in Chicago during a Golden Gloves tournament in 1958. He met Malcolm X in Detroit in 1962. Malcolm recalled, “Some contagious quality about him made him one of the very few people I ever invited into my home.” Clay went out of his way to attend as many of Malcolm’s teachings as possible. Later, they would spend hours discussing the Koran according to Ali’s close friend, Howard Bingham, who took the remarkable photo of Malcolm and Ali at the top of the page.

Before the Liston fight, J. Edgar Hoover leaked the Nation of Islam-Cassius Clay connection. Malcolm’s presence in the Clay training center in Miami sparked outrage from sports writers and the fight promoters who promptly cancelled the bout. “My religion’s more important to me than any fight,” Clay responded, and he refused to denounce Islam. Malcolm X left for New York and didn’t return until fight night when he was at ringside.

In January 1946, Malcolm Little was arrested in Boston trying to retrieve a stolen watch he had left for repair. By February, he was serving time in one of the most infamous and filthiest prisons in the world, Boston’s Charleston. Within a month he began a self study program in the prison library. In 1948, his brother Philbert wrote him that the entire Little family had converted to Islam, and Malcolm followed. His first falling out with the Nation of Islam came from disapproval of a campaign he led in prison for the rights of Muslim inmates. The NOI was not about rights campaigns.

Merton & Sufism 001Malcolm Little’s prison progression from shifty thief to a disciplined, serious student of Islam shows the powerful pressure ideas exert upon a mind within the steel and concrete reality of prison walls. Illuminate a mind and change a life. That message, which manifested in Malcolm’s life, is pronounced in present-day programs such as Pure Vision Foundation’s Thomas Merton Prison Project. By providing free spiritual books to inmates across a wide range of faiths, the project provides a source of inspiration to inmates and allows society to help people create change from within, a change which can only benefit the whole of humanity.

These are the ideals that Malcolm LIttle — who became Malcom X — lived for and that contemplatives such as Thomas Merton realized. Merton called Shaikh Ahmad al’Alawi, pictured on the cover of Merton & Sufism, “one of the greatest religious figures of this century, a perfect example of the Sufi tradition in all its fullness and energy.”

Two of society’s great evils forged Muhammad Ali from Cassius Clay. Racism came first then Vietnam. In August 1955, when Clay was thirteen, Emmett Till a fourteen-year-old from Chicago was visiting his mother’s family in Mississippi. Till made the dreadful mistake of flirting with a white sales lady. Three days later, her husband and his friends dragged Emmett from his uncle’s shack and took him to a bridge over the Tallahatchee River. There they beat him with an iron pipe, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head before tying a 75-pound cotton gin to his neck with barbed wire and throwing him in the river. The all-white jury deliberated for little over an hour before finding the killers innocent. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop it wouldn’t have taken that long,” one juror quipped.

Down to the Crossroads 001Nor was it possible for black people to vote in the south. In 1966, James Meredith set out to walk alone from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi to begin a voter registration campaign. On the second day of his walk, he was shot point blank with a shotgun by a man who strolled away easily as the police watched. As usual, the first man at Meredith’s hospital bedside was Dick Gregory who vowed to continue the walk alone if need be. Rather, the March Against Fear became a cause célèbre attracting blacks and whites, rousing Martin Luther King and blazing Stokely Carmichael to national prominence.

Walking has always proved a powerful motivator for change both in real life and in fiction. In 1930 Mohandas Gandhi led a 24-day march to the sea to protest the British government’s monopoly on the production of salt. In the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, inequalities and violence are confronted by women from around the world, who march toward Jerusalem demanding the creation of a world peace capital.

I might even march on foot through Venezuela, Israel, and the Sudan, all those countries, and tell people to stop fighting and agree on a peace that’s fair to everyone. Some people say that might be dangerous, but you have to take risks in life.  — Muhammad Ali

In 1967, in the face of a roaring tiger, with nothing but faith in his God and a vision of righteousness as defense, Muhammad Ali faced the American government and stated, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” At that moment, Muhammad Ali single-handedly began the great turnaround in public opinion on the Vietnam imbroglio — a sorry bit of history that has its lurid birth in the days after World War II when Great Britain was determined to hold on to India at any cost, which meant supporting France’s colonial claim on Vietnam.

At the time, Truman backed the British. French soldiers in Vietnam who surrendered to the Japanese at the beginning of the war, now stood alongside their captors and aimed their collective weapons at the Vietnamese who simply wanted a free country. Muhammad Ali, with a mind at once spiritual and clear, saw evil and resisted. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, losing his livelihood. Even the Nation of Islam shunned him.

Malcolm X was on his own pilgrimage to Mecca, a hajj to the heart of Islam. After preaching segregation and racial hate for twenty years, Malcolm was on the path of faithfulness.

In the Islamic tradition as well as in the Book of Genesis, the journey to Mecca was one of profound importance. At the dawn of western faith, Abraham drove his lover Hagar and his first born son, Ishmael into the desert at the behest of his wife Sarah. Near Mecca, their water ran out. Ishmael was close to death when an angel appeared and began scratching the ground near him. Water began flowing from the ground — the well of Zamzam (abundant water) became the mainstay of the Mecca community. Abraham stayed in contact with Hagar and Ishmael, and on his third visit he was commanded by God to build a Sacred House. Along with Ishmael he dug in a spot commanded by sakina (a divine presence) and uncovered a foundation built by Adam after his exile with Eve from Eden. Using the sacred power of sound and breath and a Black Stone given them by the angel Gabriel, Abraham and Ishmael constructed the Kaaba – Sacred House. This is still the most sacred site in Islam, toward which Muslims around the world pray five times a day.

April, 1964 — Saudi Prince Muhammad Faisal, decreed that Malcolm was a guest of the state, and one of the most extraordinary transformations in spiritual history was underway. Malcolm Little, ‘Detroit Red’, burglar and numbers runner, arrived in Saudi Arabia as Malcolm X, the fiery ex-spokesman of a renegade Muslim sect. Now, Malcolm was immersing himself in the sacred waters of Islam–total submission to the Will of Allah. He would return to America as El-hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, a prophet of peace and reconciliation. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

          For thirty years I sought God, until I realized that god was the seeker and I the one sought. — Al-Bastami

The Soul of a Butterfly 001I was forced to make a choice when Elijah Muhammad insisted that I break with Malcolm. I was on a tour of Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. I saw Malcolm in Ghana where he stopped on his way back to America. He’d just finished a holy journey to Mecca that devout Muslims are required to make once in their lives, and he was wearing the traditional Muslim white robes, further signifying his break with Elijah Muhammad. He walked with a cane that looked like a prophet’s stick and he wore a beard. I thought he’d gone too far. When he came to greet me I turned away, making our break public. Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary–ahead of all of us. — Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali has completed the pilgrimage of Malik El-Shabbaz. His speech slurred and his motor skills weakened by Parkinson’s Syndrome, Ali today teaches us all the meaning of courage and dignity. As a United Nations Messenger of Peace, he was a “relentless advocate for people in need and a significant humanitarian actor in the developing world, supporting relief and development initiatives and hand-delivering food and medical supplies to hospitals, street children and orphanages in Africa and Asia.”

Ali injected God into the arena. Whenever you saw Ali at the end of a fight, before he said anything else he would give all his praise to God. He injected Religion. He injected Faith. He injected Belief. And that turned my grandmother on and my great-grandmother on. Even though he was a Muslim, he turned on the Baptist church and church people like nobody turned them on before. And I’ll tell you something else.The Tent of Abraham 001 If people from outer space come to Earth and we had to give them one representative of our species to show them our physical powers, our spirituality, our decency, our warmth, our kindness and most of all our capacity to love–it would be Ali.  Dick Gregory

Let us honor Muhammad Ali and El-hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, formerly known as Malcom X, by remembering our common heritage as Children of Abraham and treating the strangers among us, the poor and unwelcome, as the lost members of the one family to which we all belong.


The Mystics of Islam 001

Remembrance of God is security for the heart              from Illustrated Secret Egypt

Remembrance of God is security for the heart
—  from P. Brunton’s Illustrated Secret Egypt


Article written by Lawrence Birney, coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation.

????????????????“A thrill ride in the vein of The Da Vinci Code but with a much larger vision for all of us. The alchemy is part historic fiction, part spiritual adventure, and a variety of interfaith metaphysics that metamorphosize into a golden vision of world peace . . . a page turner.”   —Paul Hertel, Whole Living

PURE VISION isavailable in print and as an eBook on Amazon U.S, Amazon UK, Amazon CANADA, Amazon GERMANY, Amazon ITALY, Amazon FRANCE, Amazon SPAIN, Amazon JAPAN, Amazon INDIA, Amazon BRAZIL, Amazon MEXICO, Amazon AUSTRALIA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

Kennedy & Merton: Raids on the Unspeakable

Jfk & Unspeakable 001Great beings often walk among us without notice. Occasionally, their brief lives flash through our world, casting an arc of intense light into the darkest shadows. John F. Kennedy and Thomas Merton were such men.

The great tasks of magnanimous men — to establish with truth, justice, charity, and liberty, new methods of relationships in human society — the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God. We publicly praise such men and earnestly invite them to persevere in their work with ever greater zeal. It is an imperative of duty; it is a requirement of love.Pope John XXIII

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963) one outstanding question appears even more relevant than ever: Was John Kennedy the victim of a plot hatched within one of America’s government agencies? And if so, what are the further implications? James Douglass provides some answers in JFK and the UNSPEAKABLE: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

Along with a detective’s eye for the trail of evidence and a journalist’s passion for a gripping tale, Douglass walks us through Kennedy’s progression from Cold Warrior to Peace Visionary. He brings a unique and powerful focus to his work by combining Kennedy’s pilgrimage with that of Thomas Merton. James Douglass is well suited for this indomitable task. In 1962-64, he was studying theology in Rome and lobbying at the Second Vatican Conference where he met Norman Cousins, who played the role of a secret messenger between Kennedy and Khrushchev. JFK and the Unspeakable is an indispensable book as we reflect on Kennedy’s legacy.

          John F. Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he any apostle of nonviolence. However, as we are all called to do, he was turning. TESHUVAH, ‘turning’, the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey toward peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history toward a new, more powerful peaceful possibility in his and our lives. He was therefore in deadly conflict with THE UNSPEAKABLE, a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination–in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe. . . JFK’s assassination is rooted in our denial of our nation’s crimes in World War II that began the Cold War and the nuclear arms race . . . By avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of our state done for our security, we who failed to confront The Unspeakable opened the door to JFK’s assassination and its cover-up. — JFK and the Unspeakable

History has provided us with overwhelming evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was an unwitting pawn in a larger conspiracy. We are ever more aware of the remarkable tally of persons with knowledge of the events in Dallas who died within several years of the assassination. Mark Lane’s LAST WORD: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK and Richard Belzer’s HIT LIST: An In-Depth Investigation of the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination lay out many disturbing details.

Immediately after President Kennedy’s assasination, three eyewitnesses saw two men — neither of which resembled Lee Harvey Oswald — kill Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. It turned out that none of those witnesses were called before the Warren Commission. In addition, before the assassination, George de Mohrenchildt, who was a known associate of the CIA, procured a job for Oswald in Dallas after Oswald returned from Russia as a presumed traitor. Mohrenchildt was found dead in 1977 from a gunshot the day before he was scheduled to testify before Congress about events involving the Kennedy assassination. During the same period in 1977, six FBI officials with connections to the case died; three from heart attacks, one from an accidental fall, and one from a ‘long illness’. The sixth, William C. Sullivan, former head of Domestic Intelligence for the FBI, was shot by a high-powered rifle close to his New Hampshire home. Sullivan was scheduled to give his testimony to Congress the following week.

Another mysterious death was that of Dorothy Kilgallen, a syndicated news reporter and regular on the TV show, What’s My Line. She was the only reporter who interviewed Jack Ruby after he killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Kilgallen was obsessed with proving there had been a coverup in the Kennedy case and was writing a book on the assassination. In 1965, after telling friends she was close to revealing the truth, Kilgallen was found dead in her Manhattan apartment from a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol. Conveniently, her notes were never found. She had even given back-up notes to her friend, Florence Smith, who died one day after Kilgallen. Once again, those notes also disappeared. The list goes on and on.

          We have no evidence as to who in the military-industrial complex may have given the order to assassinate President Kennedy. That the order was carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency is obvious. The CIA’s fingerprints are all over the crime and the events leading to it. — JFK and the Unspeakable

The Bay of Pigs fiasco led a disgusted John Kennedy to fire Allen Dulles as head of the CIA. Ironically, Lyndon Johnson later appointed Dulles to head the Warren Commission investigation into Kennedy’s murder. From Our Lady of Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton followed the events. He wrote in his journal on November 30, 1963: The South has apparently accepted Kennedy’s death with great satisfaction and absolutely no charity. On the contrary, some have openly regretted that Bobby was not killed . . . The question of murder, the motives, etc. is still extremely unsatisfactory, and though everyone believes the ‘evidence’ discovered by the Dallas police, perhaps it is not as solid as it sounds. . . . The whole thing is grim, mysterious and much graver than people seem to believe, though God knows everyone was shocked. Our feds wanted a solution at any price and have taken the first one they could get. — Dancing in the Waters of Life

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Merton began sending out copies of “The Cold War Letters” to friends as a means to side step Catholic censors with his views. “In actual fact it would seem that during the Cold War, if not during World War II, this country has become frankly a warfare state built on affluence, a power structure in which the interests of big business, the obsessions of the military, and the phobias of political extremists both dominate and dictate our national policy. It also seems that the people of the country are by and large reduced to passivity, confusion, resentment, frustration, thoughtlessness and ignorance, so that they blindly follow any line that is unraveled for them by the mass media . . . President Kennedy is a shrewd and sometimes adventurous leader. He means well and has the highest motives, and he is without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd.” Merton also wrote his friend W. H. Ferry,What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity, and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe, Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.” 

John F. Kennedy, by many accounts, broke through into that extraordinary space where leaders exhibit greatness. In 1962, Kennedy became involved in the negotiations between the United Steelworkers Union and the United States Steel Company. Determined to fight inflation by keeping the price of steel down, Kennedy brokered a deal whereby the union accepted modest raises with the understanding that U.S. Steel would not raise prices. Immediately upon completion of the deal, Roger Blough, chaiman of the company, announced a price increase of 3.5 percent. John Kennedy was furious and ordered his brother, Robert Kennedy, to begin an immediate anti-trust investigation by the Justice Department. JFK issued a statement: “Some time ago I asked each American to consider what he could do for his country, and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours, we had their answer.”

During his time in office, Kennedy was confronted with the same disparity between corporate wealth and public interest that we see today. Indeed, in the last fifty years, we have received the same response from America’s corporate community as Kennedy did — one of continuous disdain for the nation’s welfare and common good. If only our current president, Barak Obama, had some of Kennedy’s spine we may not be confronting such stupendous lack of justice. Obama’s tepid reaction to the greatest financial fraud in the history of the world has been not only disgraceful but mind-boggling. His promises for a more transparent government and fairness to the middle class have turned out for naught. In addition, he clearly used the support of unions to get elected and then disregarded that support, as did the Democratic Party at-large, by taxing union health care plans to pay for Obamacare.

          Compare our monastery and the General Electric plant in Louisville. Which one is the more serious and more ‘religious’ institution? One might be tempted to say ‘the monastery’ out of sheer habit. But, in fact, the religious seriousness of the monastery is like sandlot baseball compared with the big-league seriousness of General Electric. It may in fact occur to many, including the monks, to doubt the monastery and what it represents. Who doubts G.E.? —  Thomas Merton

Raids on the Unspeakable 001In the winter of 1964-65 Merton made expeditions into the woods around the hermitage to take pictures of the stark but intricate crisscrossing patterns of the branches and twigs against the the sky on a dull day. On another dull day he wondered if he hadn’t wasted far too much film on a jagged stump twisted on its side, which he photographed from every angle, fascinated with the thorn like forms that seemed to jut out with arrested violence from the central core. One such ‘thorn’ pattern appears on the cover of the book of essays he was putting together at the hermitage, Raids on the Unspeakable. It provides a subtle link between seen image and literary subject. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott.

Deeply affected by Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, Merton conceived one of his most powerful works — A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann appears in RAIDS ON THE UNSPEAKABLE. One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane . . . We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. . . . We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right’ mind. The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless . . . Torture is nothing new, is it? We ought to be able to rationalize a little brainwashing and genocide . . . Even Christians can shake off their sentimental prejudices about charity, and become sane like Eichmann . . . On the other hand, you will find the pacifists and the ban-the-bomb people are, quite seriously, just as we read in TIME, a little crazy.Thomas Merton

As Merton indicates, we cannot leave it to our national leaders — the “sane ones”  — to lead us out of the ever spiraling cycle of violence the world finds itself in. They, in fact, are crazy. It is up to the “odd balls” and those not willing to accept the so-called sanity of experts to stand as one and say No More.

Hanns and Rudolf 001
Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption. — Baal Shem Tov.
How could this happen? Who did it? And why? These are eternal questions pivotal to Merton’s thoughts on Adolf Eichmamn. In April of 1939, a prison official at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was given the task of establishing a new camp in Oświęcim, Poland. Rudolf Höss made Auschwitz into the most efficient and notorious killing field in history. By 1944, over one million persons were killed, mostly by toxic gas fumes.Thomas Harding tells the story with memorable clarity in HANNS AND RUDOLF: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught The Kommandant of Auschwitz.

War and the profits to be made from it were recurring themes for Thomas Merton. He wrote Ethel Kennedy, Bobby’s wife, in 1961,”There is no getting around the fact that the making and testing of nuclear weapons is profitable and indeed in some sense vital to many people in this country. Hence these people, however sincere may be their motives, tend to be prejudiced in favor of everything that endangers the peace of the world. They may not want war but they live by defense industries and they want weapons. And to want weapons as badly as they do is, I am afraid, tantamount to wanting war. That is how wars are made . . .  I therefore hope and trust that every precaution will be taken to prolong the ban on nuclear testing as long as possible.” 

JFK's Last Hundred Days 001

We may never know if John Kennedy, a Catholic, read this letter. Thurston Clarke addresses the issue in his wonderful new book, JFK”s LAST HUNDRED DAYS: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of A Great President.Glenn Seaborg, who headed the Atomic Energy Commission and met with Kennedy often that summer [1963], thought he felt more passionately about it than any other measure sponsored by his administration, and called his determination to halt atmospheric testing and the spread of nuclear weapons ‘like a religion’ to him.

The nuclear threat John Kennedy and Thomas Merton so feared remains with us today. Eric Schlosser’s new book Command and Control offers a blunt assessment of the dangers involved. His chilling recount of the military’s nuclear program revolves around an incident that began on September 18, 1980 when an Air Force technician dropped a socket wrench inside a Titan Missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas. This, however, is only the tip of an Abbot and Costello parade of near misses involving nuclear weapons that the military has been concealing for sixty years. These “sane” individuals can no longer be trusted with mankind’s survival. Another Fukushima catastrophe awaits if we don’t stop them.

We now know that JFK was reaching out to Khrushchev and Castro and intended to begin withdrawing from Vietnam after the 1964 election. Instead, the American weapons manufacturers and the generals who buy their products embarked on a fifty year orgasm of failed ventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Countless lives and trillions of dollars later, they continue pumping our U.S citizens into a frenzy with relentless second amendment charades. If wars abroad should slack off, well, we can have an endless one here at home against each other. Still, the neocons show no shame or remorse for their assault on Christian morality and human dignity. They continue to profit from war and weapon sales. Their indecencies will not stop until we publish their names and faces and not allow them to hide in the board rooms and executives suites of the world’s arms merchants.

Merton & Friends 001Friendship and faith were the twin elements in Merton’s life. For a fuller appreciation, read MERTON & FRIENDS: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice by James Harford. Merton attended Columbia University in New York City in the late 1930’s. His friend Robert Lax went on to be a world renowned poet and lived most of his life on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea where the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation. Edward Rice was an author and photographer who edited the Catholic magazine Jubilee  from 1953 to 1967. The name stems from Jubilate Deo (Praise God). With regular contributions from Lax and Merton Jubilee must have been a wonderful read. It explains why Rice’s biography of Merton, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, was so well written. The title comes from an unpublished novel of Merton’s he wrote in their hippie period in Olean, New York. Jubilee struggled throughout its existence with money. As much as it strangled Merton, the Church sought to stifle the fresh voices rising from the magazine.

Jubilee: A Magazine of the Church and Her People deeply affected its many readers. Lax and Merton made contributions to the publication throughout its existence. Padre Pio, Thích Nhất Hạnh and Maria Montessori were first introduced in its pages. One Albanian nun, later to be known as Mother Teresa, made Jubilee’s office her first stop when she came to America. That the New York diocese discouraged wealthy Catholics from supporting a fresh inspiring voice was a sign of a larger problem. Frank discussions of lapsed Catholics, birth control, and Asian religions angered Church officials.

          Catholics who remember what a powerful impact JUBILEE magazine had on those itching for change in the pre-Vatican II 1950s — lay and religious alike — are tempted to believe it was no less than a twentieth century intervention by the Holy Spirit. — James Harford

Fifty years on, its hard to believe that in 1960 the Father General of the Trappist order forbade Merton to write D.T. Suzuki, a Zen Master, citing communicato cum infidele, communication with the infidel. Merton, of course, continued and his correspondence became legion, then legendary. In 1961, he wrote Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “I wish I knew more about doing teshuva. It is the only thing that seems to make sense  these days. And in the political dark, I light a small, frail light about peace and hold it up in the whirlwinds.” 

James Carroll, author of CONSTANTINE”S SWORD: The Church and The Jews stated, “Merton, as much as anyone, put us on this road to change, and he remains our steady companion in this unfinished journey. I did not know this in 1961, of course, but Merton was already well along this road, even before I knew that it lay ahead of us. While I was reading his 1948 masterpiece, a monument to a world that had not changed in 700 years, he was using the word, teshuva — already a sign of change he had undergone and a sign that he saw change was necessary, while I was still enthralled with American virtue and American power. I stood moved to tears in the presence of John Kennedy at his Inauguration vowing with him to go anywhere, fight any foe . . . Thomas Merton, at that point, had already written to Ernesto Cardenal — the date is November 20, 1961 — ‘Pray for us. We are starting an American peace movement. It will be very difficult. We are, alas, very late.”  Merton & Judaism

Merton-Soul Searching 001“Merton’s fierce social consciousness and conscience will not let us move from the Jesus tradition of nonviolence . . . Merton disturbs us and has been disturbing us since he began writing in a number of arenas. One arena is his social criticism, his unrelenting commitment to the nonviolence of Jesus. . . . within the Christian tradition, we have made our agreement or compromises with what we call reality. Merton didn’t go there . . . he stayed very much on the side of this prophetic witness of Jesus and the early gospel tradition . . . if we do a reading of his writings on nonviolence, on war, on poverty, on racism, on injustice, his writings are as relevant and contemporary today as when he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s. His writings have an uncanny relevance, a disquieting, uncomfortable relevance.” Kathleen Deignan from the film SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton.

Sophia 001The 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 — Thomas Merton.

The seeds of contemplation Merton planted in the spiritual heart of the world must be continuously nourished. “Merton’s mystical theology mines the space between the revealed word and silence.” — SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton

Merton did walk with joy. he walked explosively, bang bang bang. as though fireworks, small and they too, joyful, went off every time his heel hit the ground . . . that was true when he was in college, and it was true when he was just out of college, and it was true the last time I saw him bang bang bang banging down the long hallway of the monastery. he walked with joy, bounced with joy,: knew where he was going.  Robert Lax

On December 10, 1968, twenty-seven years to the day he entered Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky, Thomas Merton died, electrocuted by a fan after taking a shower. He was in Bagkok, Thailand for a conference sponsored by the Benedictine organization Aid for Implementing Monasticism. Before his death he met with many Buddhist luminaries including the Dalai Lama, Ka;u Rinpoche by Merton 001Chogyam Trungpa, and Chatral Rinpoche. He said of Kalu Rinpoche, “He is a small, thin man with a strange concavity at the temples as if his skull had been pressed in by huge thumbs. Soft-spoken like all of them, he keeps fingering his rosary, and patiently answered my many questions on the hermit retreat . . . At first he was evasive about it and talked of Mahayana in general until he was apparently satisfied and said I had the “true Mahayana spirit.” Then he went on in more detail.” Merton & Buddhism

Thomas Merton by Edward Rice 001This photo, from The Man in the Sycamore Tree by Edward Rice shows Merton “at the height of his powers. He was deep in his Buddhist studies, and the monastery had become a background for his work rather than the subject  Less than three years later he was dead.”

Merton concluded his talk (Marxism and Monastic Perspectives) the morning of his death with these remarks. “It is the view that if you once penetrate by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of your ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, that nobody can affect, that no political change of circumstances can do anything to . . . The essential thing for this, in the Buddhist tradition, is the formation of spiritual masters who can bring it out in the hearts of people who are as yet unformed. Wherever you have somebody capable of giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to do this thing, attempting to love and serve God and reach union with him, you are bound to have some kind of monasticism. . . It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. . . I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something. Thank you so very much. . . 

Several hours later, Thomas Merton was found dead on a terrazzo floor with an electric fan still running on his chest. The priest who pushed it away received a small shock. Reflecting upon Merton’s passing, it is impossible not to recall the final line of The Seven Storey Mountain:

           That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.

The Silent Life 001     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’.  —  Dalai Lama

The Blessed Mother and Dimitry Dudko’s Gulag Path to Christ

Pain is not the path to Christ, yet The Path to Christ is paved with pain. After serving in the Red Army during the second World War, Dimitry Dudko entered the seminary in Moscow. In 1948, he was arrested and sent to the Gulag camps for writing poems that were deemed to be critical of Stalin. After his release in 1956, he returned to the seminary and graduated in 1960.

The Last Man in Russia 001The Last Man in Russia is not a biography of Father Dudko. Oliver Bullough attempts something even more meaningful and ambitious. His story is a travelogue and critique of the failures of Soviet Russia. With the world’s attention turning toward Russia in the wake of Edward Snowden and the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, Bullough’s timing is perfect. If you want to look into Putin’s eyes read this book.

Russia is a country in free fall. In the West, we associate Russia with criminal gangs, computer crime and ultra-rich oligarchs. Actually, according to Bullough, the key debilitating element is alcohol abuse. From 1965 to 1995, the death rate in Russia from alcoholism tripled. The ongoing collapse of Russian society has a long history. In the tenth century, King Vladimir declared, “drinking is the joy of the Russians. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

Dimitry DudkoDimitry Dudko was born in 1922 to a peasant family in Bryansk. His father was imprisoned for refusing to join a collective farm following the October Revolution. As a Christian revolutionary priest, his reputation spread in late 1973 when he gave a series of outspoken sermons at St. Nicholas Church in Moscow. He candidly addressed issues of faith and sin. He welcomed questions — submitted anonymously but answered publicly — that often addressed issues such as abortion, alcohol abuse, and despair. His response to the dilemma his country faced was a simple one. “As the communists use the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite’, we must say ‘Believers of the world, unite.’  We must create the Kingdom of God here on earth,” he said. “If you do not defend others, then you are not defending yourself, and you are leaving the field open for attack.

Father Vladimir Sedov is one of those interviewed by Oliver Bullough as he traveled around Russia in search of Father Dimitry’s legacy. “It is hard to fight a totalitarian system. People who were scared, who needed support, they went to him. They were poets, artists. They had heard of this priest that you could freely talk to. A lot of people sensed what I sensed, that Father Dimitry was the most life-loving and optimistic man we ever met, and he was a man who had lived the hardest life.” 

As for the authorities, they wanted to make certain that this optimism did not spread. Father Dimitry was sent away from Moscow, silenced and betrayed. In 1980, the KGB broke him, then paraded him on television to recant his activities. He later said, “I consider my confession to have been treacherous, if not before God and the church, then toward those friends with whom I was walking along the same path and doing the same work.” He died in 2004, crushed under the totalitarian heel of the Russian government. The real loser was the soul of Russia. Father Dimitry’s soul remained intact.

We’re afraid of strictness. We’re afraid of life’s difficulties. We consider an easy life the height of blessedness. But let’s be critical of ourselves. We’ve already been indulgent with ourselves . . . In order to renew all things, we’ve got to become ascetics. Indulgence threatens us with destruction . . . You call upon us to adjust to the 20th century and to make religion into a comfortable mockery. But we shouldn’t tailor religion to our caprices. We should follow its demands. — Father Dimitry Dudko

Mary of Fatima - 001It is no surprise that the Virgin Mary places the greatest emphasis on Russia’s role in the world. On July 13, 1917, she told three children in Fatima, Portugal, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the first Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace. If not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. As we know, the Blessed Mother’s hopes for Russia have not been realized. Just ask the people of Syria or the Copts — the First Christians — in Egypt. We clearly see that Russia needs our prayers.

Teresa of Avila, (March 28, 1515 – October 4, 1582), revered from the first and for several centuries, has become a favorite of feminists, a model of assertion and triumph in the face of the most enduring male  hierarchy in Western history (T. Nevin). Teresa established the foundation which became Western Christian mysticism. Using the analogy of a garden, she declared four methods of prayer.

Teresa of Avila 001Now let’s see how this garden should be watered, so that we understand what we have to do and how much work it requires, whether the end result is worth the effort, and how long it’s going to take. It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways: you can draw the water from a well, which as we know is very labor intensive; or by using a waterwheel and buckets, worked by a crank (I’ve sometimes drawn it in this way, which is less work than the first, and brings up more water); or you can get it from a stream or spring, which does a much better job of soaking the ground, because the soil retains more moisture and needs watering less often–and that’s less work for the gardener; or from a heavy rain, when the Lord is watering it Himself with no help from us. And this last method is far and away better than all the others . . . Beginners in prayer, she goes on, are the ones who have to pray with their heads–their hearts aren’t ready yet . . . The beauty of the prayer of quiet–the second stage of prayer–is that it comes unannounced . .  . Let’s talk about the third water now, which irrigates this garden–now the Lord wants to help the gardener so badly he almost becomes the gardener, and does practically everything . . . the fourth level of payer, ecstasy comes without warning, so swiftly and powerfully that the soul ‘sees and feels this cloud or mighty eagle lifting it up and bearing it away on its wings’.
From Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul  by Cathleen Medwick. Bear in mind Teresa was writing about mysticism in Spain at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. She lived her motto: Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.

Last Days of Saint Therese 001We often associate St.Thérèse de Lisieux (January 2, 1873 – September 30, 1897) with the treacle paved path to sainthood. Perhaps this is due to her nom de guerre, Little Flower, which sounds dainty, delicate, gentle and balanced. To understand the toughness of her spirit, it is enough to examine her motivating force. She wrote, “Most of all do I imitate the behavior of Magdalene, for her amazing–or rather I should say her loving–audacity, which delighted the Heart of Jesus, has cast its spell upon mine.”

Thérèse followed in Teresa’s footsteps, becoming only the second female Doctor of the Church, a testimony to her overarching intellect and discipline. The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897 by Thomas R. Nevin examines Thérèse’s final writings. Much of the appeal that Thérèse has won over several generations lies at this subterranean level of the mythic, even though it is not centrally a part of Christian tradition. She is, along with Joan of Arc the Patron Saint of France. The Cathedral of Lisieux is second only to Lourdes in the number of pilgrims it draws.

In early December 1941, while teaching at St. Bonaventure, Thomas Merton was torn between working at Friendship House in Harlem or going to Kentucky and becoming a Trappist. In the woody grove, at the shrine of St. Thérèse, the dark was intense, and there was a silence, cold as the chilling rain. ‘Please help me.’ He clasped his hands in anguish. ‘What am I going to do? I can’t go on like this. Look at the state I am in. Show me the way. Show me what to do.’ Suddenly in the strange silence a sound came, clear, not imaginary. It was a bell. The great bell in the big gray tower of Gethsemani was ringing. Thomas Merton by Cornelia and Irving Sussman.

????????????????My introduction to the power of praying to St. Thérèse came in the fall of 1999. My wife, Angelina, and I had just begun writing our novel PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, the story of a worldwide women’s march to create a world peace capital coupled with a search for the mythic land of Shambhala. During my lunch break, I ventured to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan not knowing that St. Thérèse’s relics (bones) were on display in a small ornate casket. Having only the barest thread of a storyline to begin work on our novel, I prayed, “Thérèse please give me a hook, something to build our story around.” On my way back to work, I received the answer. The spear thrust into the side of Christ by the Centurion Longinus was also carried into battle by Constantine and Charlemagne and was eventually possessed by Hitler. The spear’s story and it’s reputation as a sacred talisman would provide an important key to our book.

When I returned to our apartment that evening and conveyed the idea to Angelina, she shared my excitement. We now had a central element around which to craft a tale.The occult’s appeal to powerful men is universal although the spiritual face of mysticism is feminine. We could use this tension in our novel. We could explore how  imperative it is that the voice of women rise to the fore and drown out the drone of weaponry and monetary gain.

One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life occurred during Easter Week of 1969, spliced halfway between my mother’s death and the Woodstock Festival. With a college group, I visited Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery outside St. Petersburg, where close to 500,000 people who died during the German siege of Leningrad (as it was known then) during WW II were buried in mass graves. In the summer, the cemetery was a huge rose garden. On the day of our visit, the rose bushes were all protected by wooden boxes which were covered with about two feet of snow. It was so cold! Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Alexander Nevsky was playing over loudspeakers. At that moment, the immensity of Russia’s tradition of sacrifice, depth and cultural-spiritual excellence was totally embedded into my mind. Russia — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, Dmitri Egorov, The Way of a Pilgrim and Peter the Great.

It is with that appreciation in mind that I call on all persons no matter what your faith or lack thereof. Heed the call of the Divine Mother and begin the journey homeward where spirit resides. Pray for Russia, as you would a fallen sister in despair, for her fate parallels the world’s.

Thomas Merton – Three Veiled Views

Thomas Merton burst on the world stage with the October 4th publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. SSM continues to this day as the best-selling Catholic book of all time.

Thomas Merton led many of us forward on major inroads of our spiritual paths. I had not heard of Merton on the tenth day of December in 1968 when my mother was buried. That was the day Merton died of an electric shock in Bangkok.

My introduction to Merton began two years later when I purchased Gandhi on Non-Violence and read the incredible Introduction: Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant and wondered who is this guy?

Who indeed.

Mark Shaw, author of Beneath the Mask of Holiness, said that all copies of SSM should include a disclaimer  that the book is less than truthful. That is due to the heavy censoring hand of the Catholic Church which labored long to limit the world view of Merton as well as his reader’s impression of him.

Hence the Three Veiled Views-

We need not start with SSM, but its inclusion in any study of Merton is essential.

Merton’s view of Merton is of course what drew us all into his immaculate web of wit, insight and uncanny intellectual pursuit. To peruse Merton’s journals, letters and essays is to sit in the great parlors of Europe and New York: Boris Pasternak, Dorothy Day, Camus, Sartre, the Berrigan brothers, Rainier Maria Rilke, Philoxenus, Czeslaw Milosz, Koestler, Thich Nhat Hahn and the ever entertaining Saint John of the Cross. The man dropped enough brain bread crumbs to lead all of humanity home.

My all time favorite is of course The Man in the Sycamore Tree by Merton’s college chum and life long friend, Edward Rice. (See Luke 19:4) Simply put, this may be the most endearing biography ever written. Rice’s love of Merton, his amazing photos and chronicles of Merton’s life, writings and drawings leap off the page as Merton himself did to a world collage of letter writing associates and readers.

This book should immortalize “. . . an Englishman who became a Communist, then a Catholic, later a Trappist monk, and finally a Buddhist, at which point his life having been fulfilled, he died.”                 (From the book jacket)

The Dalai Lama credited Merton with awakening his eyes to Christian spirituality. Eldridge Cleaver said, after reading SSM in prison, “Despite my rejection of Merton’s theistic world view, I could not keep him out of the room. He shouldered his way through the door . . . Most impressive to me was Merton’s description of New York’s black ghetto–Harlem.”

“I felt an incredible privilege to be instructed by this great master of mysticism who for so many years had been my master through his books. But when I would meet him for spiritual guidance, he would ask me about Nicaragua, Somoza, the poets of Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan countryside, poets from other parts of Latin America, other dictators. He would tell me about his poet friends . . . about his life in the outside world . . . And at the end of the session he’d ask me if I had any spiritual problems, and generally I didn’t so I’d say so. And if I did have any, he would resolve them in two or three sentences. After I left, I’d have the impression that I’d wasted precious time that should have been devoted to spiritual guidance. Gradually, I began to understand that he was giving me spiritual guidance. Because at first I thought I had to renounce everything when I entered the Trappist order . . . And Merton made me see that I didn’t have to renounce anything. He saw no conflict between the contemplative life and the life of action.” ERNESTO CARDENAL from Thomas Merton: Poet, Prophet, Priest by Jennifer Fisher Bryant.

Now we have the third view. Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free. Merton analysts have long puzzled over the question of Merton’s relationship with a nurse he met near the end of his life as he struggled with physical issues and wondered if was he ready to embrace Buddhism and leave Gethsemani when he traveled to Asia for a monastic conference. 

I would have probably not been interested in this book if Mark Shaw had not co-authored The Perfect Yankee with Don Larsen, the story of one of baseball’s seminal events, the perfect game in game five of the 1956 World Series.  (Reggie’s three pitch, three homers being another). To me this gave Shaw objectivity and a world view suited with Merton’s own. A wonderful footnote: On July 18, 1999 Yogi Berra’s 14 year self-imposed exile from Yankee Stadium ended with a ceremony honoring him at the Stadium. Don  Larsen threw out the opening pitch to Yogi Berra. Stunningly David Cone threw a perfect game for the Yankees. The story is movingly told in Driving Mr. Yogi.

Does Merton’s relationship with Margie Smith matter? Very much so, would that he was able to pursue his spirit and his love. Monastic celibacy is a dead end that traps the Church today as it did Merton and the Tibetan lamas he met in India before his death. I have studied for over twenty years with some of the very same men and seen the same effects in their struggles. Life without human comfort leads to sadness.

Michael Mott, author of THE SEVEN MOUNTAINS OF THOMAS MERTON, said: A time came when Merton began to open more to the world. For me a key symbolic work of this opening is his prose poem ‘Hagia Sophia.’ Sophia is divine wisdom but in the form of a young Jewish woman. Curiously enough, in the original journal record of that vision at 4th and Walnut in Louisville, he’s really looking at the girls in Louisville. Then, when he goes to Lexington to see his friend, the painter Victor Hammer, Merton finds what to him is the portrait of the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams and maybe seeing in the streets of Louisville. Incidentally, she looks almost exactly the same as his nurse in 1966. It’s really haunting, quite remarkable. No wonder he sat up and took notice when the nurse came into the room. . . . . So is he just moving out into the world of women? In a sense, yes. It’s women who bring Merton out into the world. —  From the film SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton.

Was he preparing to leave Christ for Buddha? I doubt it and it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.For Merton, Christ consciousness found expression in Sophia/Mary, and Margie Smith undoubtedly personified her Wisdom.

Merton’s legacy lives on through The Thomas Merton Prison Project which donates interfaith spiritual books to prison inmates and chaplains.