Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At the Corner of Fourth and Walnut

It’s a famous address.  Do you recognize it?  It was that place that a young Catholic monk named Thomas Merton realized that he and the world were not strangers but part of the same family, the same body.  In the middle of a busy shopping district in downtown Louisville, Merton had a mystical insight which changed the rest of his life:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.[1]

In so many ways, the story of Thomas Merton is a classic tale of conversion – not just one conversion but many.  He was converted as a brilliant yet rebellious young man who lost his scholarship at Cambridge due to an intemperate combination of bad grades, drinking and general carousing.  Later as a graduate student at Columbia he was converted when he discovered a curious yet unrelenting attraction to Catholicism.  He was converted when he realized his “true self” was found as a Trappist monk, living out the rest of his life in the relative obscurity of a Kentucky monastery.  And finally, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, Thomas Merton was converted by the penetrating insight that he and the whole of humanity were truly one.

Yet late in his life, Thomas Merton experienced a consummate conversion when he realized his distinct vocation to unity.  His life was to be about fulfilling the prayer of Jesus recounted in John 17.  “We are already one,” Merton said.  “But we imagine that we are not.  And what we have to recover is our original unity.  What we have to be is what we are.”[2] 

During a moment in our country’s history when all of us are trying to understand the unimaginable cruelty unleashed in a sleepy town in southwest Connecticut, Merton’s insights may be particularly poignant.  For Merton, the importance of unity was not just a sublime platitude but a matter of life and death.  In a 1961 letter written to his dear friend Dorothy Day, Merton wrestled, “I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues.”[3]

The violence of Newtown is situated in a much larger arc of human division that started with Cain and Able.  While the creation narratives of Genesis make it clear that God created humanity as one family, the primordial presence of sin is always there to tear at the fabric of God’s handiwork.  Deception leads to division leads to violence.  Yet Merton reminds us that the madness of violence begins with an illusion which prompts the human tendency to divide:

Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good.  The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved.  But love sees things differently.  It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do.  That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for a peaceful and harmless human life. . . There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive.  The will for reconciliation.[4]

The road to peace is peace.  The journey of reconciliation begins with the same epiphany that stopped Merton in his tracks on the corner of Fourth and Walnut – that we are all united, we are one body, willed by God from the beginning of time for a fraternity of love.  “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said.  It is only a matter of becoming who we really are.  

Let us not give into the temptation of division in this time of trial.  We stand at a crossroad.  In a certain sense, all of us find ourselves at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  Let us choose unity and let us choose life.

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.[5]

[1]             Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
[2]             Thomas Merton, The Asian Journey, 308.
[3]             Thomas Merton, “Letter to Dorothy Day, August 23, 1961,” The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H. Shannon, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985, 140.
[4]             Thomas Merton, “Preface to the Vietnamese edition of No Man Is an Island” taken from “Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work, ed. Robert E. Daggy, NY: Crossroad, 1989, 124.
[5]             Thomas Merton, “Letter to Czeslaw Milosz, February 28, 1959,” The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, ed. Christine M. Bochen, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993, 57-58.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shall We Stop This Bleeding?

My wife and I were moved to tears on several occasions through the two and a half hour showing of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Yet it was one line that stopped me in my tracks – “Shall we stop this bleeding?”  Abraham Lincoln presided over the United States during a period of immense struggle and loss.  New research estimates that up to 850,000 American lives were lost in the Civil War, more than in any other armed conflict in U.S. history.[1]  We were literally shredding ourselves to pieces.  Lincoln’s soft-spoken principles and longsuffering patience not only brought the country out of war but sealed the fate of millions for freedom.

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  The line drew my attention to a situation in a Young Life area I had recently been called on for consultation.  A member of the local Young Life committee refused to work with Catholics in the oversight and support of the ministry.  Citing biblical references and centuries-old Catholic resources, this individual pronounced that Catholicism’s works righteousness blatantly contradicted the clear biblical witness of salvation by grace.  Accordingly, the church (and Young Life) needed to be purged of such doctrinal profanation brought about by the slippery slope of ecumenical partnership.

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  What this individual would not accept, after repeated attempts by the local Young Life staff, is that this issue has already been settled.  Justification, the crux of all the disputes of the Reformation, “the article upon which the church stands or falls,” has achieved a common understanding.  The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification pronounced an official agreement between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works”(JD, 15).

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  The wound has been mended, the sutures in place.  We are, in this most central issue, already one.  Yet one careless word or one belligerent insistence on the past can easily reopen the injury and render the church powerless to do its work of making disciples of all nations.  I am proud to be a part of the “big tent” approach of both Young Life and the Catholic Church who, despite our remaining differences, have chosen to stand side by side in the fight to rescue young people. 

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  It is up to you.    

[1]             Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimates Raises Civil War Death Toll,” The New York Times (April 2, 2012), (accessed December 12, 2012).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bridges, Not Bombs

Last week I attended the National Conference on Catholic Youth Ministry in Orlando, Florida along with thousands of other youth ministers, priests, publishers, deacons, missionaries and religious educators.  I spoke to many people, from Texas to Alaska, Seattle to DC. 

Invariably, I got two different reactions when I was introduced as a representative of Young Life.  One reaction involved a spontaneous smile, a flicker in the eyes and some variation of, “Oh, I love Young Life!”  I met Catholics who were Young Life kids, Young Life leaders, even a few former Young Life staff.  Those who had been on the “inside” of Young Life’s ministry were deeply touched by the dynamic and palpable presence of Christ in the YL community.  Without exception, each one of them carried the vision and passion of Young Life’s incarnational model of evangelization into their current Catholic ministries.

The second type of reaction was quite different.  I could see it in their eyes the moment they heard the word, “Young Life.”  They were clearly caught off guard, trying to remain pleasant while cautiously sharing their negative experiences of Young Life.  I encouraged them to be honest and a few shared with me that Young Life staff in their areas were particularly unfriendly to Catholics.  Some, particularly in the South, noted a consistent anti-Catholic tone from Young Life.  None of the Catholics working in youth ministry ever had a Young Life staff come to them and say, “Hey, I’ve got a Catholic kid I’ve been working with and I wanted to try to connect him/her with what you’re doing.”

This tells me two things:
1)     We need to open the doors of Young Life wide and invite our Catholic brothers and sisters to experience what we’ve experienced in this mission.  Not to convert them, not to show off our incredible camps, but to welcome them into the unique Young Life spirituality that is neither Protestant or Catholic, but simply and passionately Christian.  We have an enormous opportunity to bless our Catholic friends and encourage them in their ministry.
2)    We must be exceedingly intentional about building bridges with local Catholic parishes and youth ministers.  If it is true that “we are not the church,” if our ultimate goal is to set kids on fire for Christ and integrate them into a local church community where they can continue to grow in their faith, then we need to establish real relationships with Catholic churches and let them know that we are serious about collaborating with them in the great work of evangelization.  It is not enough to say, “Oh I don’t have anything against the Catholic Church.”  We must, as St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have said, “Preach the gospel to all people and if necessary, use words.”[1]

Bridges, not bombs.  Our God is calling us together to lift up the name of Jesus, to bring comfort to the afflicted and hope to the downtrodden.  Start building today.  We are one body.

[1]             As a matter of intellectual integrity, there is no scholarly evidence to suggest that Francis of Assisi ever said those words.  Another exceedingly overlooked point is that St. Francis was a man of many words and he unabashedly proclaimed the gospel, both in word and deed, at every turn.