The Seven Storey Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain

Forty-five years ago today, on 10 December 1968, Thomas Merton – perhaps the twentieth century’s most famous monk – died. Exactly 27 years earlier, on 10 December 1941, he had joined the Gethsemane Abbey in the United States.

Merton lends himself to comparison with Augustine. He exploited his youth with intensity, espousing atheism and nihilism, drinking excessively and womanising enthusiastically. Like Augustine, he fathered a child prior to his conversion. Even after his conversion, he struggled against his passions; he confessed to “continual, uninterrupted resentment” towards monastic life — something he did not consent to, but which manifested itself anyway. At one point, he fell deeply in love with a nurse half his age, and though he confessed his love to her and exchanged love letters, he did not break his vows, and ultimately broke off the relationship.

I have not read any of his works, but after today I’m resolved to read his first and most famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain. The book is a spiritual autobiography, which documents his conversion. Merton’s genius, it is said, is his ability to describe God’s love in terms which resonate with our peculiarly modern aspirations and foibles.

Principally what makes the Mountain worth reading is that as he looks into his past Merton loves himself and forgives himself, and loves and forgives everyone else too. This doesn’t mean that he thinks that what he did was good, just that he looks on it dispassionately and sees its proper place in his life. He has drunk of Dante’s Lethe and Eunoë, and so remembers his sins “only as an historical fact and as the occasion of grace and blessedness.” (From Universalis.)

That’s a great recommendation. In the confessional, I often advise penitents not to be discouraged when they fall, but in the spirit of St Paul, to see their sinfulness as an opportunity to receive grace and foster humility:

To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is enough for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:9ff)

Of course, in relating this advice to others, I’d do well to heed the words myself. So, in the hope that Merton’s reflections might help me in this, I have duly added The Seven Storey Mountain to my summer reading. Here’s a foretaste:

Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: “What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said: “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

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.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

The entire book is available online, though I recommend you find yourself a hard copy too!

St Barnabas: the apostle
you’d share a beer with

St Barnabas: the apostle you’d share a beer with

Today is the feast of St Barnabas, who sounds like an especially likeable fellow.

It is sometimes said that to live with a saint, one must be a saint. That’s testament to the fact that saints are typically strong-willed. I imagine it would be very hard to live with a Saint Paul, or a Saint Jerome, or a Padre Pio. But there are other saints who were by all accounts delightful company: St Thomas More, St Thérèse (after she’d grown up), St Josemaría.

I think St Barnabas belongs in the latter company. He first attracted attention among the early Christians for a remarkable act of generosity. He sold a field which belonged to him, and laid the money at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:37)

Later, it was Barnabas who welcome the newly-converted Paul to Jerusalem. The apostles were understandably wary of their erstwhile enemy. Saul was one of the Church’s most vicious persecutors. He was no mere bystander at the stoning of Stephen. The executioners had places their garments at Saul’s feet, indicating he had presided over Stephen’s judicial murder. (Acts 7:58) But now, having heard of Paul’s conversion, Barnabas intercedes, dispels the apostles’ suspicions, and facilitates Paul’s reception.

In today’s First Reading, St Luke describes him as “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.” (Acts 11:24) Through his efforts in Antioch, “a large number of people were won over to the Lord.” It sounds like Barnabas’ apostolate in Antioch was fruitful, but that didn’t stop him travelling to Tarsus and requesting Paul’s help. Barnabas was not only generous and good-natured, but also humble.

For several years, Barnabas and Paul worked as a remarkably successful duo, until a disagreement over Mark (Barnabas’ cousin) came between them:

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. Barnabas and Paul had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:37-41)

I don’t pretend to be an expert, but it’s easy to imagine that Paul was unyielding and stood on principle, while Barnabas was compassionate and forgiving — perhaps to a fault. In the words of St Jerome (who was himself the stern type!):

Paul sterner, Barnabas kinder, each holds on to his point of view. The argument shows human weakness at work. (Dialogus adversus pelagianos 2, 17.)

St John Chrysostom adopts a more supernatural outlook:

The gifts of the two men differ, and clearly this difference itself is a gift . . . if they go different ways, in order to teach and convert people, there is nothing wrong about that . . . If only all our divisions were motivated by zeal for preaching! (Homily on Acts, 34.)

In any event, Paul and Barnabas were not estranged forever. Paul always wrote of Barnabas in glowing terms, and he himself later worked with Mark. According to tradition, Barnabas was stoned in 61 by his Cyprian compatriots. Mark was present and dutifully buried him.

I think Barnabas is a good model. It sounds like he was naturally likeable, he was inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and he was quick to forgive. His real name was Joseph, but he was nicknamed Barnabas: “Son of Encouragement.” His apostolate was fruitful, and yet he is eclipsed, really, by Paul and Mark, both of whom were indebted to him.

Quite frankly, St Barnabas reminds me of our Lady — at least as I imagine her. Compassionate. Loyal. Approachable. Eager to work in the background.

St Barnabas, pray for us.

The Shipwreck of St Paul

The Shipwreck of St Paul

Today is the Feast of the Shipwreck of St Paul.

Before today, I’d never heard of this feast. (Universalis strikes again!) I think this gives Paul an edge over Peter in the feast day stakes. They share one feast day, as co-founders of the Church in Rome. Peter also has the Chair of St Peter. Paul has the feast of his conversion and now, I learn, the feast of his Maltese shipwreck!

According to the sources (that is, the Acts of the Apostles), in the year 59, after two years in a Caesarean prison, St Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to “appeal unto Caesar.” But Paul’s voyage to Rome was prolonged by a shipwreck off the coast of Malta, just off St Paul’s Bay which probably went by a different name back then! While the ship was mended, Paul worked many miracles and effectively founded the Church in Malta.

In Malta today’s feast is a major celebration. It is, after all, the birthday of the Church in Malta. Here’s a neat video of the festivities:

Until I saw this video, I never had any desire to visit Malta. But now I am determined to make a pilgrimage to Valletta and celebrate the Shipwreck of St Paul!

In the meantime, I can mark the feast more soberly by praying for the Church in Malta, and for “the Maltese diaspora.” Since WWII, there has always been at least one seminarian of Maltese extraction studying at Corpus Christi College. Presently there are, I think, two seminarians with a Maltese background. (One and a half, if you want to get technical.) Happy feast day brothers!

The thorn in Paul’s flesh

The thorn in Paul’s flesh

What was that thorn in St Paul’s flesh which we heard about at Mass yesterday?

Just to jog your memory:

I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud! About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me.

(2 Cor 12:7-8)

St Augustine suggests Paul was referring to a physical affliction — perhaps the same “bodily ailment” which Paul mentions in his Letter to the Galatians. (Gal 4:13) St John Chrysostom argues that Paul was referring to the religious persecutions he endured. St Gregory the Great speculates that the thorn may be a temptation which Paul struggled with — anything from lust to greed to an addiction. Or maybe St Paul was reflecting on his fiery temperament, which I’ve blogged about before.

No speculation on the thorn in Paul’s flesh is complete without mention of cartoonist Tim Davis’ theory. Its implausibility in no way diminishes it hilarity:

St Paul’s terms are general and ambiguous, but there are a few things we can ascertain about this thorn. Firstly, it’s not only painful to him, but humiliating. Secondly, it’s not from God. We could go as far as to say it’s evil — Paul attributes his thorn to Satan. Thirdly, and most importantly, this unwanted and humiliating evil becomes a conduit of God’s grace.

We have thorns of our own — weaknesses, vices, addictions — which we can beg God to take away. And the good Lord  probably says to us what he said to Paul. “My grace is enough for you.”

But can we respond as Paul responds? “I am quite content with my weaknesses . . . For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

Sacramental confession helps. How often shame and embarassment discourage us from confessing our sins. But it is precisely through confession that the Lord heals us of that shame and embarrassment.

When such thorns are hidden, they possess us and deprive us of peace. But when they are named, they lose their power and the Lord’s healing work flourishes.

It’s a very humble soul who can write “I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ may stay over me.” This is the stuff of saints! The stuff of spiritual childhood! (Same thing.)

St Paul, pray for us!

Fulminating for the Lord

Fulminating for the Lord

Every saint has a past. When we think of St Paul’s past, we tend to think of his career persecuting Christians, and his background role in the stoning of St Stephen.

But tomorrow’s First Reading indicates that a good three years after his conversion, Paul was still causing trouble to the Church. When Paul showed up in Jerusalem, Barnabas managed to get the apostles on side — but Paul soon blew it:

Saul now started to go round with them in Jerusalem, preaching fearlessly in the name of the Lord. But after he had spoken to the Hellenists, and argued with them, they became determined to kill him. When the brothers knew, they took him to Caesarea, and sent him off from there to Tarsus.

In other words, the apostles got him out of the way. This was for Paul’s good no doubt. But the locals were probably glad to see the back of him.

The churches throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peace, building themselves up, living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t the content of Paul’s preaching which was causing trouble — he was preaching the same gospel as the apostles. It was the style of Paul’s preaching. It’s not hard to imagine: bold, abrasive, fulminating. Probably a bit like this guy:

I picked this video of Michael Voris not only because of its Australian references, but because for better or worse, it is Voris at his boldest, most abrasive, and most fulminating. And Voris is about as popular with his bishops as Paul was with his (in the pericope under consideration).

It’s almost self-evident, I think, that Voris’ opinions are not my own. If they were, this would be a very different blog. (And, let’s be honest, I’d have more readers!) But I don’t intend to “bash Voris” in this post. As a matter of fact, Voris spoke in Melbourne recently, and a friend who heard him wrote this:

People will argue that he “preaches to the converted”, and “What real effect is he having?” and “He lacks charity.” But as a result of attending the talk, I will:

1. Make a point of getting to confession ASAP.

2. Work harder, because as he well pointed out with the use of scripture, salvation only comes through suffering and sacrifice.

3. Stop patronising people who try to argue their way out of being faithful Catholics. Instead, I’ll tell them how it is and leave the rest up to them and God. Life’s too short.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a fan of the second resolution there. It smacks of semi-Pelagianism. Salvation comes through Christ, and we can’t earn it. Still, the e-mail demonstrates that Voris’ preaching (or teaching if you prefer) is a fruitful apostolate. It converts some hearts and minds — even as it infuriates and alienates others. Now I’m thinking of someone like Max Lindenman, who frankly struggles with Archbishop Chaput, and has no time for Michael Voris:

Chaput was calling on the laity to correct what he saw as the negligence of the clergy . . . He serves up red meat, but nothing too raw or bloody. A populist he may be; a demagogue he is not.

To grasp the difference, compare Chaput’s relatively modest request to the full-throated cry that emerged this past Lent from Real Catholic TV host Michael Voris. Incensed at a letter circulated by members of Earth Day Network, asking Catholic pastors to devote Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday’s homily to environmental protection, Voris denounced global warming as “a scam,” whose “intent is to limit population growth through abortion, contraception and sterilization.” For recommending the faithful give up plastic bags and incandescent light bulbs, Voris continued, the bishops who make up the USCCB “are going to have to pay for their negligence, in this life or the next.”

It may seem to some that, by praising Chaput in comparison to Voris, I am insulting His Grace with the soft bigotry of low expectations. On the contrary, I give Chaput credit for talking to Voris’ audience, if not quite in their language, then certainly in language more elevated than Voris’ but less equivocal than they’ve come to expect from bishops. Nothing could be more important today. The style of pastoral letters and Bishops’ Conference pronouncements is grave, ponderous, jargon-happy, and full of disclaimers. Is it charitable? Yes. Clear? Insofar as any statements on complex issues can be, yes. Unfortunately, to all but a few patient readers, it has a narcotic effect equal to Demerol’s.

This might have flown in the days of vellum, but no longer. If the Church is not a democracy, the communications business is. Carrying a point takes more than good intentions, formal accreditation, and elbow grease; it also takes flash. That Voris is not talking only to himself suggests that a sizable number of Catholics crave a flashier, slicker, more friction-free juncture of Church teaching and conservative politics than may in fact be possible. As Ed Kilgore points out in New Republic, evangelical Christians have televangelist James Robison to damn government as “a blasphemous substitute for God when it comes to picking ‘winners and losers.’” Catholics have Michael Voris to damn earth’s stewards into hell.

What’s my point? Well, it’s a complex issue, so there’s more than one. Here’s a few:

  • It’s disingenuous to say that abrasive fulminating is unchristian and counter-productive. If you rate St Paul (and I do), then Michael Voris is in good company.
  • It’s disingenuous to say that abrasive fulminating is the only way to preach the gospel. Even the apostles of the Lord baulked at Paul on occasion, and opted for more prudent methods.
  • It’s disingenuous to insist on an either-or approach. Archbishop Chaput shows that a both-and approach is effective. So did St Paul.