Sunday, January 24, 2010

Works of mercy

For many Protestants, the single criterion for salvation is making a “decision for Christ” -- an intellectual affirmation that Christ is Lord. It has very little to do with how we live and everything to do with how we think. But Jesus, as we meet him in the New Testament, says very little about the criteria for salvation at the Last Judgment. Mainly the Gospel has to do with how we live here and now and how we relate to each other. Jesus sums up the law and the prophets in just a few words: to love God with all one's heart, mind and soul, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Just one sentence.

Yet there is a short text in St. Matthew's Gospel in which Christ speaks in a surprising way about the Last Judgment. It turns out that one isn't saved by getting a passing grade in theology.

Jesus describes all who have ever lived being gathered together and divided "like sheep from goats."

To those on one side, Christ says, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25)

Then there are the others. It turns out that those who didn't love their neighbor-in-need failed to love God, no matter many Bible verses they could recite.

Main point? The works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc.) connect us to the God of Mercy.

There are many works of art that give visual expression to this crucial aspect of the Gospel. Among those I find most impressive is a very local work of art made in 1504 by an artist who is known only as "the Master of Alkmaar." Originally his seven-panel work hung in the Holy Spirit House of Hospitality in Alkmaar. Later it was moved to the town's cathedral. In the last century, it became part of the Rijksmuseum collection in Amsterdam. Currently, while the Rijksmuseum is undergoing reconstruction, it hangs in Rotterdam at the Boijmans Museum, where Nancy and I visited it yesterday.

In five of the seven panels, Christ -- without a halo -- is present but unrecognized. In this first panel, he looks directly toward the viewer. Only in the panel of the burial of the dead, sitting on a rainbow, is Christ revealed as Pantocrator, Lord of the Cosmos.

I've gathered a series of photos of the seven panels, plus other paintings I've photographed at other times, into a Flickr folder labeled "Works of Mercy":


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Monday, January 18, 2010

a day of hard labor

This was a day of hard physical labor. As a result, Nancy's office is back downstairs, the guest room is back upstairs (two beds!), and a file cabinet that was buried in the bike room has been put back in the office, making it much more accessible (and the bike room much roomier). As it happens, the family business -- in reality chiefly Nancy's business -- has a new web site designed a few days ago by Caitlan:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

City of Belief

a review published in the February 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine

City of Belief
by Nicole d'Entremont
publisher: CreateSpace / ISBN 978-1442138506
250 pages, $16

reviewed by Jim Forest

In 1965, Nicole d’Entremont, a not-quite college graduate, was one of the young volunteers working at the New York Catholic Worker -- St. Joseph’s House -- on Chrystie Street, a short walk from the Bowery in lower Manhattan. These days the area is fashionable and the rent high, but in 1965, a two-room, cold-water flat could be rented, along with its cockroaches, for as little as $25 a month.

For New Yorkers at the time, the Bowery conjured up images of homeless, alcoholic men panhandling in the day and sleeping in doorways at night. When an ambulance was summoned to aid one of the unwashed men who had collapsed on the street, it could easily take half an hour before it arrived. Dying men in that neighborhood were not a priority.

In a mainly unwelcoming world, one of the few places street people could find a meal and a measure of care was St. Joseph’s House. It was probably the only place in town that provided decent food and a welcome with no strings attached, no sermons to hear, no biblical readings to endure, and no program to submit to.

The year 1965 was also when things were rapidly going from bad to worse in Vietnam -- bombs falling like rain, thatched huts in peasant villages set on fire with Zippo lighters, bewildered U.S. army conscripts as much victims as executioners. Among the war’s casualties was one of the newer members of the Catholic Worker community -- Roger LaPorte, 22 years old. Before dawn on Nov. 9, while standing between the U.S. Embassy to the United Nations and the U.N. headquarters, he poured gasoline on himself and struck a match, exploding instantly into flame. Rushed to Bellevue Hospital, his body 95 percent burned, LaPorte lived more than a day, managing to say that this was a religious act (that is to say, not an act of despair) and that he was “against war, against all wars.” He lived long enough for a priest to hear his confession.

D’Entremont was one of those at the Catholic Worker who was closest to LaPorte. She and a friend had been with him the evening before his self-immolation, unaware of what he was thinking about doing. She was vaguely aware of something LaPorte couldn’t -- or dared not -- put into words, but that hung unspoken in the air. Now 45 years have passed, nearly half a century of trying to understand what she lived through -- and not only herself but LaPorte, Dorothy Day, and the others who were part of the community, young and old, novices and veterans, articulate and inarticulate.

The result is City of Belief, a remarkable novel in which d’Entremont herself is simply one of the people through whom the reader experiences life at the Catholic Worker in 1965. Some names are unchanged (Dorothy Day is one), others altered. D’Entremont has become Del, LaPorte has become Jonathan, St. Joseph’s House has become St. Jude’s, the community journal The Catholic Worker has become The Agitator.

City of Belief is also a portrait of a time when, for an amazing number of people, the goal of life was much more than making a living, being comfortable, and having security. It is startling to recall the sacrifices many made at the time in their struggle to end the war and create a more compassionate society.

While City of Belief has elements of autobiography, it is mainly a work of art. D’Entremont records events not only as she saw them but through the eyes of others, seeing herself with amazing clarity and detachment. Her book also describes in a compelling way her struggle with faith and doubt.

LaPorte’s self-immolation happened at 5:20 in the morning. Twelve hours later, the lights of New York and most of the Eastern Seaboard went out. For nearly twelve hours, New York became a moonlit paradise. The crime rate plummeted; the good-deed rate soared. New Yorkers had no idea how talented they were in finding ways to help each other. It was a night of love in all its varieties. Nine months later, there was a tidal wave of births.

Was there a connection between what happened after sunset and before sunrise? City of Belief suggests the answer is yes.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw's recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter issue of The Merton Seasonal.


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Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: "Other people's bad books get published," he noted in his journal. "Why can't my bad book get published?" Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton's life who is unaware of Mark Shaw's headline news? Soon after Merton's death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton's journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only "watered down" terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, "the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices." (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic "poster boy." (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of "a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton's abbot when he wrote the book], Merton's literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton's true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not 'that bad' a sinner." (21)

Thus the book's title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees "holiness" as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer "a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him." (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it's not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw's book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book's last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case "the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani." [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton's life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin," as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England," Merton wrote, "into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a "slow and majestic progress of ... myths and symbols." It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton's basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton's renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn't, in my opinion, Merton's finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton's did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn't make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

"God writes straight with crooked lines," says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial "M," as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw's book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.

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