Life is on our side

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Life is on our side. The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through the fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain. The Resurrection is the only light, and with that light there is no error.

Thomas Merton in a letter to Czeslaw Miłosz, as quoted in The Merton Journal 22.1 (2015)

My silence is my salvation

I enjoyed reading a fascinating article on silence in the poetry of Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot (in The Merton Journal 22.1 [2015]). The author, Sonia Petisco, quotes Merton as follows:

My life is a listening, His is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this my life has to be silent. Hence my silence is my salvation.

Also, these lines from Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ spoke to me:

… pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

Petisco herself offers some interesting insights into Merton and Eliot’s work, noting, for instance, that ‘with their poetry they were implicitly hinting at the dethronement of man as the owner of Logos, so that things around us can recover their own speech and engage in a (sic!) honest dialogue beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. … awakening in us a new sacramental awareness of the mystery of Life’.

And some brilliant lines from Eliot’s ‘East Coker’:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And from Merton’s Cables to the Ace:

Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator: yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible.

Eliot again, this time some well-known words from ‘Burnt Norton’. For, addressing the limitations of language, he is all too aware that his words:

… strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.

‘History’, Merton suggests in The Tower of Babel, is ‘going inevitably forward / by the misuse of words’. The current public discourse around refugees and asylum seekers comes to mind. What both, Merton and Eliot, are aiming for, Petisco suggests, is ‘a theology based on the regenerative Word of God as the only antidote to the word of fear ruling the contemporary world’. However, that word can’t be heard because there isn’t enough silence in the world. Again, what is needed is ‘a Word which decentralizes man as the owner of Reason, restoring the lost dialogue between “I” and the otherness’. And, with silence being the key, Merton prays:

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all’.

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Disrupting the dance of ideology

Mira SchorIn order for art to get beyond or behind [repressive] conventions of representation, in order to expose the ideology these conceptions serve, artworks should employ ‘dis-identificatory practices’ that disrupt ‘the dance of ideology,’ and ‘distanciation’ that would ‘liberate the viewer from the state of being captured by illusions of art which encourage passive identification with fictional worlds’.

Mira Schor, ‘Medusa Redux’, quoting Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference

The world would be desolate

I was struck by these thoughts on perception and the enlargement of the spirit, which I came across in an article in the journal Arts: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies (vol. 28, no. 1).

The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.

Thus says Wallace Stevens in his article ‘Relations between Poetry and Painting’. He goes on to challenge us to embrace

the extension of the mind beyond the range of the mind, the projection of reality beyond reality, … the determination not to be confined, the recapture of excitement and intensity of interest, the enlargement of the spirit at every time, in every way.

Paul Klee, in ‘Creative Credo’, reminds us that:

art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.

And Robert Frost, ‘Education by Poetry: A Meditative Monologue’, insists that,

unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values.

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Democracy ceases to be an objective fact: Thomas Merton read post-Brexit

merton-photoWriting sometime in the 1950s or 60s (hence the non-gender-inclusive language), Thomas Merton had this to say about democracy:

… democracy assumes that the citizen knows what is going on, understands the difficulties of the situation, and has worked out for himself an answer that can help him to contribute, intelligently and constructively, to the common work (or ‘liturgy’) of running his society.

[…] Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them.

Indeed, he worried that, if the above is not realised, ‘democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’.

These thoughts by Merton, published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, illustrate why it is profoundly problematic to assert that democracy has been served in the recent referendum leading to a narrow majority in favour of Brexit.

When politicians and a certain sector of the media do everything they possibly can to spread fabricated ideas, thus making it extremely difficult for citizens to know what is going on or to understand the difficulties of the situation, then democracy has NOT been served; indeed, as Merton rightly saw, it ‘ceases to be objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’, which is exactly what we are witnessing at present.

For a society to move forward in healthy and life-giving ways, it is essential that this is acknowledged and that properly democratic steps are now taken as it seeks to negotiate its future.

Perhaps it is only a monk who can think of this in terms of ‘liturgy’, alluding to the original meaning of the term, but a coming together, a common work, is precisely what we now need.

The one and only test

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

Litmus test

Nick Spencer, in his book Asylum and Immigration: A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate, talks about compassion for the vulnerable being the critical litmus test of a society’s social health – a truly sobering reminder of the state of our society’s declining social health, I thought. Spencer goes on to say that

a nation should be proud rather than grudging in its acceptance of the truly vulnerable, There are few higher callings than to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless.