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Posts Tagged ‘thomas merton’

The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word for choice. A heretic, according to the Christians who considered themselves Catholic and Orthodox, was someone who didn’t accept the whole body of Christian faith and doctrine, who didn’t take the system as a whole; they chose bits they liked, according to their own lights, rejected what they didn’t like, made up bits to fill in the gaps. They were somewhere between the “cafeteria Catholic” who agrees with the magisterium on the rights of workers but not on the sinfulness of homosexuality and the New Age self-help guru who invents a system that will make him money and win him followers, especially attractive, available female followers.

Not that one has to agree with this characterization of much of the early Christian movement. Definitions, as well as histories, are written by the victors.

What has caught my attention over the past couple of days, however, is the necessity for a kind of picking and choosing in one’s spiritual life that is not heresy, just accepting human limitations. It’s the same sort of picking and choosing that a poet does in order to write a sestina, which requires a pattern of six words shifting in position across six stanzas of six lines each. The poet has to choose six words on which the changes of the poem will be rung. It’s a highly complex form of a game all humans, until recently, have known how to play, the game at the root of all games: Limitation for the Sake of Freedom.

I have come back to the Church, specifically the Episcopal Church, and to Christianity generally, after some ten years of experimenting with alternatives. I would be lying if I said that I have not learned a great deal from exploring Tibetan Buddhism, ceremonial magic, Wicca, Druidry, and various kinds of Neopaganism. I have, and I’m starting to see how much of what I’ve learned can illuminate the tradition I grew up with and have come home to. But on a practical level, I can’t really be a Wiccan-Buddhist-Anglican-Druid-Magician (with a full-time day job), any more than you can write a sestina with ten key words instead of six. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and besides, I’d be evading the rules of the game.

The game of limitation says that a sonnet has fourteen lines, a sestina six key words, a musical scale eight notes, four bases on the diamond, no touching the ball with your hands. If you don’t accept the seemingly arbitrary limitations, you aren’t playing the game. And the object of the game is to see what you can do within the limitations. Think of Shakespeare, Mozart, and your own personal heroes in the arts or sport or science and what they did with freely accepted limitations like blank verse, sonnet form, and the Western musical scale. On the other hand, anyone with a minimum competence can pick up those rules and play with them, write poems, compose songs, practice shooting hoops.

I can view being an Episcopalian, an Anglican Christian in the U.S.A., as a happenstance derived from my place and time of birth and the events of my childhood, or I can view it as a freely accepted creative limitation. Within that structure, I can dabble in all manner of theory and practice across the spectrum of Christian tradition–labyrinths or Ignatian meditation, centering prayer and the Rosary, the Rhineland mystics, the desert fathers and mothers, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton–or I can accept another creative limitation. I can accept that I don’t have time, energy, or brain cells to learn everything there is to know about every Christian tradition and practice, and I can stick to those that have resonated with me consistently for decades: The Showings of Julian of Norwich. The Rule of St. Benedict. The medieval mystics of England, Julian’s contemporaries, such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Saying the Daily Office. Keeping a journal as a form of meditation. Writing in general, fiction, poetry, journal, or public blogging, as a form of meditation, digestion, lectio divina.

I shall string up my net across the court, pick up my racket, and wait for God to serve the ball.

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On this day in 1968, Thomas Merton, monk and writer, died while attending a conference of Buddhist and Christian monastics in Bangkok.  He was apparently electrocuted by contact with a standing floor fan, possibly while still wet from a shower.  Having read many of Merton’s letters and all seven volumes of his published letters, I know him as a kindred spirit: a self-obsessed navel-gazer who read and wrote and agonized over God.  I’m convinced that if he were alive today, he would have a blog, a Livejournal, a MySpace page, and probably a webcam in his hermitage.  I’m posting this prayer he wrote in his memory.

My Lord God

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following

your will does not mean

that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope that I have that desire

in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything

apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this

you will lead me by the right road

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always

though I may seem to be lost

and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear,

for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me

to face my perils alone.

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From author Brendan Myers, “How to fight bad books“, specifically bad books about the ancient Celts, their druids, and their religions.

From Havi Brooks, habits educator (and her partner Selma the duck), a wonderful series of blog posts on blogging.  (I’ve linked to the most recent post as of today, which contains links to the earlier entries.)  Her motto is, “Blogging is therapy you don’t have to pay for.”

From Donald Grayston, a deeply moving article about his pilgrimage in the footsteps of Thomas Merton in Asia and his encounter with Chadral Rinpoche, the hermit lama whom Merton considered taking as a teacher.  (Thanks to Bernie Simon for the link.)

Photo courtesy of photohome.com

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After reading a good chunk of Kathleen Norris’s new book on acedia, the temptation of spiritual sloth, I pulled out an old favorite of mine: the first volume of Thomas Merton’s published journals, Run to the Mountain.  Merton mined his journals for many of his best books, but he also provided through his literary trust that the complete journals could be edited and published, in whole or in part, twenty-five years after his death.

I’m not sure if I’ll get through this first volume; it’s the fattest of the seven, and yet it covers only the two years immediately prior to Merton’s entering the monastery, as he apparently destroyed a lot of his earlier journals.  But I also find myself wanting to re-read Norris’s earlier books, and perhaps dip into my dear Julian of Norwich and her contemporaries again.

This doesn’t mean I’m going Back to the Church.  I feel about the Episcopal Church, and about the global Anglican Communion, as one might about a spouse one used to love, but had to divorce, because there was no stopping them destroying themselves.  Quite apart from whether Christianity is a workable path for me (and I’ve come to the opinion that some things about its theology are not reality-based), I can’t stand to watch as the baby, the soap, the washcloth, and the tub are all together thrown out with the bathwater.

I’m not a Christian any longer, but I am an Anglican.  I said that some fifteen years ago when I first began to explore Neopaganism as a path for me.  I am an Anglican; I was imprinted at a formative age by the Book of Common Prayer 1928 and the Hymnal 1940, and I think any American Episcopalian old enough to have grown up with those two sources will know what I mean.  I absorbed from the Prayer Book and the Hymnal a love of language, an appreciation for music written before 1800, the ability to form and punctuate relative clauses correctly, and a conviction that good religion will inspire good music and good literature.

That implies, of course, the conviction that bad literature and bad music must come out of bad religion–out of poor theology, inadequate understanding, false mysticism.  The abundant bad literature and bad music of the Neopagan movement stood in my way for a long time, to be honest.  Anyone who has ever complained about Yet Another Wiccan 101 Book, or Yet Another Pagan Chant in A minor, knows whereof I speak.  I was raised in the religion of John Donne and George Herbert, of Thomas Tallis and Herbert Howells.  Three chords in A minor is just not good enough.

But the religion of Donne and Herbert, of Tallis and Howells, is also a religion of tolerance, not just tolerance for other people’s opinions and interpretations, but of tolerance for ambiguity, for historicity, for multiple meanings.  It is a religion that offers God poetry, not propositions.  It is, historically, a religion that has put far more emphasis on orthopraxy than on orthodoxy: the position that matters less what one individual believes than that the community can all worship together from the same Prayerbook.

There are bishops in Africa who refuse to come to the altar for Communion in fellowship with those who believe that God is not displeased by the ordination of a homosexual man who admits to being homosexual and is not celibate and does not try to hide it.  There are bishops in Africa, and in the United States, too, who read the Bible in a literal, indeed fundamentalist way that would baffle Donne and Herbert no end.  There are parishes in my local Episcopal diocese that are headed by “closeted” gay priests whose sexuality is an open secret, but who refuse to accept a visit from a female priest or bishop, or even to pray for the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori, by name.  They pray for the Pope instead.  And this makes me want to scream with rage and weep with intolerable grief.  I separated myself from it for my own sanity.

When I look around for that spirit of tolerance, that comfort with ambiguity, that love of poetry, music, and good language, that appetite for metaphor, which I grew up with and consider genuinely Anglican, I don’t find it in my local church.  I find it in Revival Druidry.  This should come as no surprise, since the men who gave the name “Druidry” to their search for a tolerant, nature-based spirituality were members of the divided, contentious Anglican Church of the eighteenth century.  They did not necessarily believe that they had renounced Christianity in embracing Druidism.  And some of that Anglican spirit lingers in Druidry to this day.

A friend of mine once said, half in jest, that perhaps television programs could reincarnate.  She suggested that the original Star Trek spirit was to be found more in the movie GalaxyQuest than in any of the spin-off series that aired on television.  I was inclined to agree, and if I may borrow an irreverent analogy, perhaps the Anglican Church that I knew and loved, which seems gone forever when I read the news about it, will reincarnate in the Druid Revival and celebrate once again the presence of the Divine in the things of this world.

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