Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Muslim critic Magdi Allam converts, baptised by Benedict XVI
The Associated Press reports that Italy's most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service:
An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book "Long Live Israel."Local Muslim organizations responded thus to the news:
The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy — which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas — said the baptism was his own decision.There seems to be some disjuncture between the emphasis on Allam as "Italy's leading Muslim writer" and the following description of the convert as: "An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic."
According to another article, Allam himself "says he has never been a practicing Muslim." And in his own conversion story, he refers to himself as having "occasionally practiced [Islam] at a cultural level." Hardly what I would call "Italy's most prominent MUSLIM".
Were the inverse true: -- were a non-practicing Catholic married to a Muslim to embrace Islam -- would it be proper to describe him as "a prominent Catholic"?
This leads me to wonder if the press is deliberately playing up this aspect of the story, so as to foster Islamic-Christian tensions -- along the same lines as their shoddy reporting of Benedict's Regensburg address (ignoring practically everything else in his address, save that which they saw as newsworthy and potentially inflammatory).
It is possible to perceive Benedict's agreement to baptize Allam as signifying his emphasis on religious freedom (particularly for Christians residing in nations with an Islamic majority). Nonetheless I think it would be improper for Christians to treat this conversion in triumphalistic fashion, as seems to be the case on some blogs.
Some reactions from the Catholic blogging world ...
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome
On May 5, Dr. Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) announced that he had been received back into the Catholic Church (his home until age 14); his wife and family following him. The announcement was greeted with celebration among Catholics and consternation among Evangelicals, in fact prompting his resignation from the society.
Following are some links to articles and discussion around the 'net (compiled chiefly with the help of Carl Olson @ Ignatius Insight, a fellow convert who has been following this story closely).
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Elizabeth Fox Genovese 1941-2007
Elizabeth Fox Genovese died on January 2nd, at the age of 65. The blog Cosmos Liturgy Sex provides a welcome roundup of memories and tributes - In Memory of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: Secular, Liberal to Pro-life Feminist:
Elizabeth began her career as an atheist, feminist scholar but her sharp mind and open heart soon led her to the truth about abortion and eventually to her conversion to the Catholic Faith. She was an active member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a recognized expert in the history of the American South, and a critic of radical feminism.Elizabeth offered some reflections on her conversion in a Crisis 2002 magazine article, The Way of Conversion:
What I believe I can say with some confidence, but without pride, is that conversion never stops. Each day, each of us faces fresh challenges to live and act and speak in fidelity to the gospel, and none of them is easy.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Breaking Communion - Reactions to Rod Dreher's Eastward Turn
Earlier this month Rod ("CrunchyCon") Dreher announced the news -- disappointing but not entirely unexpected -- that he and his family were now communicants at an Orthodox church ("Orthodoxy and Me" October 12, 2006).
I encountered "CrunchyCon" Rod Dreher only briefly in his sojourn on St. Blog's parish -- in the combox of Amy Welborn's Open Book. I have yet to get around to reading the book for which is blog is named. As a journalist who covered the scandals in the Church and the resistance and obfuscation of the clergy, I think it is understandable how completely sickened, disillusioned and jaded one might become, having been exposed to that degree of corruption in the ranks of the clergy and heirarchy. As Dale Price reminds us, Rod's former bishop is Charles Grahmann,
currently cooling his heels as he awaits the acceptance of his tended resignation offer. That would be the same bishop who is remarkably solicitous of gropers in the confessional and proved to be a noted enabler of pedophilic monster Rudy Kos.and, later:
the sex abuse Scandal has been the most horrific of these. Starting with the hideousness of children being violated. But not stopping there. The Scandal revealed a deep rotting disease within American Catholicism that has only begun to be recognized, let alone treated.If disillusionment and repulsion to the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and the ongoing corruption of the hierarchy was one reason for leaving, it was -- however dominant -- not the only reason. Dreher goes on to declare his intellectual rejection of the claims of the Church:
I'll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome's claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn't believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls.And, in a further clarification :
I don't deny that reason played a minor role in my conversion. It was primarily emotional and psychological -- but I do deny that that minimizes matters. As I've said, a decade ago, I argued with a friend considering Orthodoxy and Catholicism that all that mattered was doctrinal truth. He said he worried about raising Christian kids in the mess that is US Catholic parish life. I dismissed those concerns, and said he should instead concentrate on the doctrinal arguments. Well, real life -- and having kids of my own -- showed me how brittle that position was, and is. Human beings are not machines. We all have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, between radical objectivity and radical subjectivity. I used to think that being a Christian was merely a matter of finding the most logical arguments, intellectually assenting to them and doing your best to live by them. It is far more complicated than that, and I found through the scandal my intellect humiliated.Many an angry word has been exchanged by readers in response to Rod's conversion. Yet, there are a few Catholic bloggers who have offered some very thoughtful and respectful reflections to Dreher's rationale and consequent decision to break communion with the Church. It is to those that I'd like to turn . . .
Saturday, May 21, 2005
Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray
Father Dowd (Waiting in Joyful Hope) posts his reflections upon reading The Picture of Dorian Gray:
It had been said that there are, in fact, three phases to moral corruption: the tempation itself, the delectation, and the consent. When repeated often enough, the actual sins become habitual, and a vice is formed. This book is a record of one man's descent into vice, his conscience gradually shutting off until even his good resolutions are tainted with evil. More than this, however, the book is an example of the "delectation". People do not generally leap from gross temptation to gross sin all at once -- there needs to be an intermediate phase, in which the sin is made to appear attractive, and its negative consequences themselves negated (at least to the mind). Lord Henry is a master at this, sucking in Dorian Gray and, quite possibly, the reader as well.
Which, it would seem to me, is part of the intent of the author. While many hold that the book is an ironic indictment of the hypocritical immorality of the English aristocracy, I think it is more. The simple fact is that Oscar Wilde (the author) lived a lifestyle that, in many ways, matched that of his characters. I can see many people reading this book and actually agreeing with Lord Henry and his ideas -- because after all, it isn't he who pays for them.
The book does portray the possibility of repentence and forgiveness from God, but even this fails, in a most brutal and bloody way. It is as though the author is telling the reader, "Don't bother believing that stuff, it can't help you." The end result, of course, is an awful portrayal of final impenitence.
The twist is that the author of the story, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was himself a penitent "deathbed convert," holding a lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church in spite of his infamous reputation of being "Apostle of Aestheticism," personal decadence and a martyr for gay rights. For further details on one of most fascinating Catholic conversions, see Jeffrey A. Tucker's Oscar Wild: Roman Catholic (Cisis 19, no. 1 April 2001), and The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde, by Anddrew McCracken, which contains further background on Dorian Grey:
As for Dorian Gray and its connection to Wilde's eventual conversion, the novel sits at the intersection of several fictional and actual spiritual paths. The fictional Dorian is partly coaxed into his amoral aestheticism and self-regard by reading a "poison book," a yellow-backed novel written by a Frenchman. The book he had in mind, Wilde later affirmed, was a novel of the French Decadence published in 1884 entitled A Rebours (in English, "Against the Grain" or "Against Nature"). A Rebours chronicles the life of a fictional aristocrat who gives himself over to the most perverse pleasures he can dream of. A Rebours was a daringly new sort of fiction and worked powerfully on Wilde's literary imagination. He wrote, "the heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain." The fictional hero of A Rebours, as Wilde well knew, ends contemptuous of everything and unable to have faith in anything except -- perhaps -- "the terrible God of Genesis and the pale martyr of Golgotha. . . ." The novel ends with his prayer, "Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe. . . ." Seven years after A Rebours was published, its author, J.-K. Huysmans, sought out a priest. In 1892 he returned to the Church and in 1900 became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. His last three works were religious novels with Catholic settings. As for the sincerity of his religious faith, a modern editor of his work attests that he "put the doctrine into effect . . . in six months of atrocious agony, heroically borne, that preceded his death from cancer."
And for an in-depth treatment of Oscar Wilde's life and thought, see The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, a spiritual biography by Joseph Pierce. From the publisher:
Vilified by his fellow Victorians for his sexuality and dandyism, these days he is hailed as a sexual liberator. Yet this is not how Wilde saw himself. His lifestyle and pretenses did not bring him happiness and fulfillment: his art did. And this is where Pearce's search for the man behind the masks is centered. Rather than lingering on the actions that brought him notoriety, Joseph Pearce explores the emotional and spiritual search.
Joseph Pierce is himself something of an expert on literary converts to the Catholic Faith and I highly recommend his books. See, among others, his excellent Wisdom & Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc and Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (Ignatius, 2000).
The Pontificator Comes Home . . .
A little over a year ago, Fr. Kimel had asked his readers for their prayers, as he made the bittersweet announcement that his son had found his way to the Catholic faith:
. . . Early last week he called my wife and I and informed us that he had decided to become a Roman Catholic. Today he will be confirmed and will make his first communion as a Catholic. And from that point you, he will no longer be able to receive communion from the hands of his father.
My eyes filled with tears of grief upon hearing this news. Over a year and a half ago I had to counsel him to explore other Christian traditions. There is no future for you and your future family in the Episcopal Church, I told him. He heeded my advice and began to explore and read and pray. He is a serious Christian young man. And so today he begins a new chapter in his walk with our Lord.
I was struck by the significant of that action, to place loyalty to Christ above family ties (what struck me as a personal application of Luke 14:26). I was greatly impressed by Father Kimel's courage and integrity in doing so, and kept him in my thoughts (and prayers, when I could bring my slothful mind to remember).
Consequently, it comes as an especially great joy -- for myself, as for many of his Catholic readers at 'St. Blog's Parish' -- to read Fr. Al Kimel's announcement to his blog that a decision is reached: he will follow his son into full communion with the Catholic Church:
Last night I tendered my resignation to the Vestry of St. Mark’s Church, effective July 1st. It is my intention to renounce my orders as an Episcopal priest and to enter, for the sake of my salvation, into full communion with the Catholic Church. I freely affirm the Catholic Church to be the one true fold of Jesus Christ. It is also my intention to avail myself of the Pastoral Provision and to apply for ordination to the Catholic priesthood.
Please keep Fr. Kimel, his wife and family in your prayers, for as many a convert can attest, the journey is only beginning, and there will be trials ahead. I pray that the saints of Heaven watch over him, and let the venerable John Henry Newman, another great Anglican convert, be his guide and inspiration.
And, if it pleases the Lord, may Fr. Kimel once again have the joy of giving communion to his son.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
J. Budziszewski - Another Refugee from Anglicanism
During the 1990s, J. Budziszewski rose to prominence as one of the leading intellectual lights among Evangelical Christians in America. A political theorist with a special interest in the natural-law tradition, he was highly sought as a speaker at conferences organized by groups such as the InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. A principal theme of his many talks to American campus groups is captured in the title of his 1999 book, How to Stay Christian in College.
For some Evangelical Protestants, then, it came as a jolt when, on Easter Sunday 2004, Budziszewski was received into the Catholic Church. After maintaining a public silence about his conversion for several months, Budziszewski agreed to tell the story to [Catholic World Report].
J. Budziszewski teaches in the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recently books are What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2004) and The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence, 2004).
"Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An interview with J. Budziszewski", courtesy of Ignatius Insight.
(Via The Seventh Age): Zenit News Service has a two-part interview with Budziszewski ("Natural Law in Our Lives, in Our Courts")
J. Budziszewski Knows That You Know What You Know, Even though you may not know it yourself. interview with Dick Staub. Christianity Today June 23, 2003.
Via Pontifications, who inquires:
I have googled him and cannot find a first name for him anywhere. He is always simply listed as "J. Budziszewski.” Is he hiding something? Is his name, like the Tetragramaton, unpronounceable? Or is his first name simply “Jay” and he is being economical?
Sunday, January 02, 2005
Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton
A little more than a year ago, Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead voice their disappointment with the inclusion of Thomas Merton in the draft of the new National Adult Catechism in an article for Catholic World News (The New National Adult Catechism Revisited CWNews, Nov. 2003). Their article contained a blatantly slanderous and damning portrayal of Thomas Merton as an unfaithful Catholic:
. . . we now turn immediately to the very first "story" in Part 1, Chapter 1, of the draft NAC, and we find that, incredibly, the supposed "exemplary Catholic" featured in this first story is none other than that lapsed monk, Thomas Merton, a one-time professed Catholic religious, who later left his monastery, and, at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality. Now it is true that Thomas Merton was a gifted writer, which in part explains why he continues to have votaries today; he wrote beautiful words about the needs of the human heart in its search for truth and grace. Some of these words are quoted here, and apparently were the pretext for featuring Merton in this chapter. The chapter is actually richer than that, though, and features at the end some wonderful quotations from St. Augustine.
Blogger and fellow member of St. Blog's Parish Bill Cork has recently defended Merton against the slander that he had "left the Church", pointing out that:
Merton was not a "lapsed monk," nor a "one-time professed Catholic religious," nor did he ever leave his monastery. He remained a faithful Catholic and a faithful member of the Trappists until he died; he is buried at Gethsemane as "Fr. Louis." He was not "actually off wandering in the East," but went to Thailand for a conference of Christian and Eastern monks, and had other dialogues with leaders of Eastern religions along the way; he died at the Thailand conference when he accidentally pulled an electric fan onto himself. This is simple history known to anyone who knows anything about Merton.
Unfortunately, Wrenn & Whitehead's critical article is now suspected as having contributed to the decision of the U.S. Bishops to replace the profile of Merton with American Catholic Elizabeth Ann Seton (the rationale being: "to provide more gender balance, because most of the other profiles [included in the catechism] are of men"). Merton's rejection has sparked protest of hundreds of Catholics, as reported by the Louisville Courier ("Hundreds want Merton back in Catholic guide" January 1, 2005) and monitered by Dan Phillips, who runs a popular website on all things Merton).
The International Merton Society has released open letter to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, questioning Donald Wuerl's claim that "we don't know all the details of the searching at the end of his life":
As for the "secondary" consideration ". . . we are aware of no reputable Merton scholars or even of careful readers of Merton who think that his interest in Eastern religions toward the end of his life, which led to his Asian journey and his untimely death, in any way compromised his commitment to the Catholic Christianity that he had embraced thirty years before. On the contrary, a reading of the major biographies by James Forest, Michael Mott and William Shannon, of The Other Side of the Mountain, the final volume of his journals, of his retreat conferences in Thomas Merton in Alaska, given immediately before leaving for Asia, and of his final talk on the day of his death, published in The Asian Journal, confirm that it was because of the deep grounding in his own Catholic, Cistercian, contemplative tradition that he was able to enter into meaningful dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions like the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with Merton that first allowed him to recognize the beauty and authentic spiritual depths of Christianity.
If that wasn't enough to persuade Wrenn & Whitehead, let's hear a refutation from Jim Forest himself [photo, left], from a lecture given at Boston College (Nov. 13, 1995):
Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists -- casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton's bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, "When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think -- Thomas Merton!"
Merton - Conventional Catholic and Otherwise
Whatever position one takes in the present debate, it must be recognized that Merton was anything but a conventional Trappist monk.
On one hand, Merton very much catered to such a portrayal as a "traditional" Catholic -- he wrote a spiritual biography heralded as one of the most influential religious works of the twentieth century (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948); he produced lengthy meditations on traditional Catholic subjects like the Eucharist (The Living Bread, 1956), the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross (The Ascent to Truth, 1951) and the monastic calling (The Silent Life, 1957).
On the other hand, the latter period of Merton's relatively brief life did everything to call his portrayal as a "traditional Catholic" into question: he ventered into political activism in the 1960's (protesting the Vietnam war, racial segregation and the nuclear arms race); displayed a genuine interest in other religions and engaged in dialogue with their practicioners (including D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lhama) in a spirit that anticipated Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, and journeyed to Japan and India to attend conferences on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
There is no denying that the later Merton had changed to some degree in his thought and attitude toward the Catholic Church. In fact, according to Merton's friend Edward Rice, he went on to say
I have become very different than what I used to be. The man who began this journal [The Sign of Jonas] is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began is also dead, and what is more, the man who was the central figure in The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over . . . The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I had never even heard of." [The Man in a Sycamore Tree, p 101].
The remark can be interpreted on a number of levels. Rice interprets it as a sign of Merton's disappointment with Trappist life, that it did not bring the peace and contentment he had envisioned when initially becoming a monk. But perhaps Merton's statement can be read as well as a sign of his personal exasperation with Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled him into the public eye and branded him as a kind of "poster boy for American Catholicism" sought after by thousands of adoring readers -- not an easy situation for a Trappist monk attempting to live a life of solitude, seeking to relenquish his ego in the quest for God.
However much we may appreciate Seven Storey Mountain, one can also recognize an underlying current of pious revulsion at the secular world, a distinct attitude which laid the groundwork for further change -- as can be seen by Merton's account of his spiritual epiphany en route to the city of Louisville in The Sign of Jonas:The Sign of Jonas:
I wondered how I would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world. I met the world and found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps the things I resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now, on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep and mute sense of compassion . . . I seemed to have lost an eye for merely exterior detail and to have discovered, instead, a deep sense of respect and love and pity for the souls that such details never fully reveal. I went through the city, realizing for the first time in my life how good are all the people in the world and how much value they have in the sight of God."
The Universal Appeal of Thomas Merton
Jim Knight and Edward Rice, two of Merton's close friends, published an online recollections of their memories of Merton -- The Real Merton -- resisting the characterization of their friend as a triumphant Catholic ("a portrait that was unrecognizable, that of a plastic saint, a monk interested mainly in pulling nonbelievers, and believers in other faiths, into the one true religion"). According to Knight and Rice:
The Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us, was a different man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions, Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith. These are things the record needs.
Edward Rice, who sponsored Merton's conversion, goes on to challenge what he calls the "Thomas Merton Cult":
"['The Thomas Merton cult'] presents Merton as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has his influence as Merton."
Granted, Rice's vision of salvation may be deemed more universalistic and non-traditional than most Catholics ("in Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn el Arab[i], Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Charles de Foucau[l]d, . . . "an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of all faiths, some with no faith at all"), and I am not altogether certain where such a "Thomas Merton Cult" is to be found (the appreciations I've read of Merton readily acknowledge his defects in character), but I believe he is nevertheless correct in challenging those who seek to claim Merton entirely as Catholic, who could only be appreciated in the context of Catholicism and denying his universal appeal by other religious, or even non-religious folk.
Merton's Interest in Other Religions - Two Closing Observations
It would be mistaken to assume that Merton's interest in other religions was a post-conversion manifestation of his disappointment with Catholicism, as alleged by Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead. I question this because Merton displayed an interest in the other religions (especially those of the East) from the time he was a college student at Columbia University.
For one thing, the young Merton was impressed by the spiritual conversion of Alduous Huxley (from materialism to mysticism recognizing "a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds . . . [as can be found] among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions"), and who was fascinated by Huxley's investigation of mysticism in the world's religions The Perennial Philosophy.
Likewise, it was at Columbia University, that Merton met a Hindu spiritual pilgrim -- Bramachari -- who first encouraged him to read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ, and thus played a part in his journey to Catholicism. Both Merton's encounters with Huxley and Bramachari are described in The Seven Storey Mountain). According to Alexander Lipski (Thomas Merton and Asia: His Quest for Utopia), around the same time he met Bramachari Merton also was reading the Hindu scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (initially in connection with his M.A. thesis on William Blake).
Again, to borrow from Bill Cork, much of this is common knowledge to anybody who has studied Merton or has read Merton's biography. I suppose the real question here is not when did Merton begin to study Eastern religions, but rather to what degree did Merton's Catholicism inform and influence his post-Christian exploration of Eastern religions? -- Write and Wrenn have their own conclusions, but so do Robert Forest, Jim Knight, Edward Rice and a number of Merton scholars worldwide.
That said, Merton's later writings on other religions -- particularly those on Buddhism -- should nevertheless be read with great care and critical judgement by the laity. Raymond Bailey (curiously, a Southern Baptist minister who became Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellannine College in the early 80s) goes into detail as to why this caution is necessary in his study Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Doubleday Image, 1975). It's a little long, but worth repeating in full:
Merton's writings on Eastern mysticism are tempered by repeated allusions to traditional Christian symbols. His diaries written in the last months he spent at the hermitage record his preferences for the Fathers for reading in the cottage and for the works of the Zen masters in the fields. However, his published works are not always instructive as to how the Zen experience can contribute to the Christian experience or how the study of Eastern religions or the practice of oriental techniques engender or complement the Christian experience. Some of his published works might well be interpeted as syncretistic and might leave the reader with the im pression that it does not matter what religious expression one's spirituality takes as long as it has broken through the facade of the illusionary self.
Should Merton be recognized in the new American Catechism?
When it comes to Merton, I find myself agreeing with Robert Royal, on why -- despite his apparent flaws -- we may regard Merton as worthy of praise:
Merton's true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion-even contemplative practices-have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm-to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality-remains a burning necessity.
Does Merton deserve placement in the USCCB's Catechism for adult American Catholics? -- I'm inclined to think that Robert Royal might say yes for the reasons stated above, even with due respect to the concerns raised by Merton's interest in Eastern religions. I would answer in the affirmative as well, although I admit here to being a little biased in the matter, since it was through reading Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day that I discovered and was led to the Catholic faith in the first place.
I would also question (if the Louisville Courier-Journal is correct) Bishop Wuerl's justification that young people "had no idea" who Merton was -- as if he were an eclectic relic of the early 20th century better swept underneath the rug, whose life and thought simply had no relevance for Catholics of today. Judging by the staying power of Merton in bookstores and conferences on Merton attended by those interested in "the silent life" of contemplation, perhaps Bishop Wuerl underestimates the prevalence Merton has in the hearts of the laity, and his influence (even today) in leading souls to the Catholic faith.
Related Readings (Online and In Print):
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Religious Conversion and "Identity Construction"
Pondering the experiences of several Muslim converts, Bill Cork has a fascinating post on the meaning and psychology of religious conversion.
I'm also reminded of the work of V. Bailey Gillespie (e.g., The Dynamics of Religious Conversion), who sees conversion as part of identity construction (and therefore we shouldn't be surprised that it is particularly a phenomenon of the young).
Now, I see nothing in the articles I've skimmed or in my experience to suggest that men actually convert more often than women--quite the opposite, in fact. But men are more likely to tell stories about it. Perhaps people in "men's work" are right. Perhaps our society is lacking in male initiation rituals. Perhaps conversion tales are ways for men to describe their "hero's journey" or "vision quest." This would still place the phenomenon within the context of transition to adulthood, specifically the formation/integration of adult identity. Shawn, if you're reading, do you have any thoughts?
Looking back over the course of my own life, I've experienced a good number of "conversions" to one thing or another: answering an alter call at a Southern Baptist youth camp and "giving my life to Christ"; flirting with existentialism and nihilism in college; embracing the ideals of left-wing radicalism, pacifism and anarchism; losing my way in the mires of reckless hedonism; re-encountering Christianity by way of reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity; confronting, and ultimately embracing, the claims of the Catholic Church, with the blessed help of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and G.K. Chesterton . . .
Hardly what I would describe as a "heroic" journey -- I tend to think of it as rather a slow plodding towards the truth, the ultimate goal being, please God, not so much a construction of my own identity as the discovery of my true self in Christ. How far along I am I cannot say, although I often feel as if I've barely begun, taking one day at a time.
How many others can relate to Thomas Merton's prayer, expressing fear and hope as real to me today as they were when I read it a decade ago:
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 that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope 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.
Friday, June 11, 2004
Celebrating The Baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain
Yesterday, June 10th, was the anniversary of the baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, an incredible couple who -- if any there were -- took the search for truth seriously. I find the story of their early years together nothing short of amazing, as accounted by Dr. Donald DeMarco:
Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882. He grew up in that city, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother. When he entered the Lycée Henri IV, he possessed no particular religious convictions. He enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France's rich and corrupt Third Republic, a time when rabid French anti-clericalism had turned the Church into an intellectual ghetto. The school's rigid empiricism had effectively excluded any respectful discussion of spiritual matters. One day, as Jacques walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girl friend, Raissa, the two made a pact that if, within a year, they could not find any meaning to life beyond the material, they would commit suicide.
That despair dissolved when they heard lectures at the Collège de France given by Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to discover the intelligibility of things through intuition. In 1905, Jacques and Raissa, now newlyweds, met a passionate Catholic named Leon Bloy ("A Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic'') who led them into the Catholic faith. 1
Gerard Serafin blogs Raissa's account of their spiritual conversion and baptism from their memoirs We Have Been Friends Together. In embracing the Catholic faith, the couple overcame many spiritual obstacles, not least of which was the material image of the Church itself:
"Although the speculative debate was ended for us, we still had many feelings of repugnance to overcome. The Church in her mystical and saintly life we found infinitely lovable. We were ready to accept her. She promised us Faith by Baptism: we were going to put her word to the test.
But in the apparent mediocrity of the Catholic world, and in the mirage which to our ill-seeing eyes seemed to bind her to the forces of reaction and oppression, she appeared to us strangely hateful. She seemed to us to be the society of the fortunate of this world, the supporter and ally of the powerful, to be bourgeois, pharisaical, remote from the people.
That Jacques and Raissa were able to look beyond their negative impressions of the Church, to consider its claims to truth and to seek reception in baptism, is a good lesson for those who find themselves in a similar position today.
In addition to the scorn and alienation of many of their friends and family, Jacques believed that upon entering the Church he would have to relenquish his pursuit of philosophy:
Our suffering and dryness grew greater every day. Finally we understood that God also was waiting, and that there would be no further light so long as we should not have obeyed the imperious voice of our consciences saying to us: you have no valid objection to the Church; she alone promises you the light of truth - prove her promises, put Baptism to the test.
We still thought that to become Christian meant to abandon philosophy forever. Well, we were ready - but it was not easy - to abandon philosophy for the truth. Jacques accepted this sacrifice. The truth we had so greatly desired had caught us in a trap. "If it has pleased God to hide His truth in a dunghill," Jacques said, "that is where we shall go to find it." I quote these cruel words to give some idea of our state of mind.
How fortunate for us, that Jacques would subsequently discover the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and continue to enrich the Church with his philosophical investigations. Catholics of many stripes have been influenced by (and lay claim to) Maritain's thought: "neoconservatives", progressives, traditionalists, Catholic Workers -- we can consider ourselves blessed. To echo Michael Novak:
". . . so many of us feel immensely indebted to this layman, perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Catholic laity in the last two centuries: this master of many wisdoms, this metaphysician, this philosopher at once humane and Christian (and able to speak in either of those languages), this ethicist and philosopher of history, this political philosopher, this saintly and childlike man.2
Saturday, May 29, 2004
An Anglican's Conversion to the Catholic Faith
Canon Edward Norman, ecclesial historian and chancellor of York Minster, has converted to the Catholic faith, declaring in the online newspaper telegraph.co.uk: "There is a big hole at the centre of Anglicanism - its authority. I don't think it's a Church; it's more of a religious society," and ""Catholicism is what I have always believed, though I did not have the wit to realise it . . . You might call it a shaft of light before the sun sets."
In 2001 Canon Norman wrote An Anglican Catechism, which the Church Times praised as "coupling innovative sexual views with traditionalist church teaching, and which Richard McBrien described as "A very Protestant view of the Christian faith" in his review for The Tablet. This year he published Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors, which the telegraph described as "one of the most ferocious assaults ever launched on the Church of England," marking, in the space of 4 years, a radical development in his thought.
Apparently Canon Norman has been wrestling with the question of authority and an infallible teaching office for some time now. The Anglican blog Pontifications picks up the rest of the story, posting some choice excerpts from his 1998 lecture "Authority in the Anglican Communion". Well worth reading.