Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

28 Apr

When I left the Easter Saturday Mass at St. Monica’s yesterday morning, the alleluias were ringing in my ears. It had been an exhilarating way to round out the Octave, with lots enthusiastic singing and pervasive joy – alleluia indeed!

Of special note was Fr. Jacob Meyer’s resonant intoning of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, Praise the Paschal Victim”) – in Latin. Since my own Latin is considerably rusty, I scrambled with a hymnal to find an English translation so I could follow along, and I couldn’t help taking note of the Sequence’s author at the bottom of the page: “ascr. to Wipo of Burgundy, d. 1048.”

Yes, that’s right, Wipo. Not exactly a household name (and neither are its variant renderings, “Wippo” and “Wigbert”), and I admit I did a big double take the first time I spied it. Nonetheless, you’ll find it in every hymnal’s fine print, although it’s usually hedged a bit with that appended “ascribed to” disclaimer – something that accompanies a lot of ancient attributions. However, the ascription is strong enough that it was repeated three times in the St. Monica hymnal’s index in conjunction with three different settings of the work.

Born around the year 1000, Wipo was ordained a priest, and then he served as a chaplain for the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Wipo also wrote poetry and apothegms, and he authored several works of history and biography that are respected for their stylistic panache and relative objectivity. But, as far as ecclesial matters are concerned, Wipo is just a tentative footnote in our modern hymnals. Neither a pope nor a bishop; not a saint nor a Doctor of the Church; just Wipo – or Wippo, or Wigbert – who may have penned a great Paschal poem that was eventually incorporated into our Sacramentary and Eastertide observances.

In other words, a liturgical one-hit wonder.

And, yet, what a wonder it is. “One of the finest of the transitional Sequences,” according to Sr. J. Isaac Jogues Rousseau, SSND. We all heard Wipo’s masterpiece on Easter Sunday, when it’s obligatory every year, and maybe you’ve been hearing it (or singing it yourself) throughout the week at daily Mass. Like other Sequences, it precedes the proclamation of the day’s Gospel, and it’s an extra, especially jubilant recapitulation of the festival’s core themes – in this case, the Paschal feast’s good news of redemption through Jesus Christ, our resurrected savior.

About halfway through, it declares, “O Mary, come and say what you saw at break of day” – the ideal lead-in to yesterday’s Gospel wherein Mary Magdalene reports to the skeptical Apostles her encounter with the risen Christ. The Eleven likewise balk at a similar testimony from the two Emmaus disciples, and so Jesus finally confronts them in person – no denying the Resurrection at that point! After upbraiding the Apostles for their unbelief, Jesus repeats to them what he’d told Mary: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16.15).

That’s the same commission we heard at the end of the Sequence: “Share the good news, sing joyfully: his death is victory!” Wipo’s Easter poem jubilantly sums up the essence of what we’ve been celebrating throughout the Octave – what we’re living, in fact, as contemporary witnesses to our own transforming encounters with the risen Lord.

And, following Wipo’s lead, those encounters are worth rhapsodizing about, in word and deed. May we do so with flair and delight throughout the sequence of all our days, and may a Wipo-like obscurity attend our efforts that humility be preserved. For even if, with God’s grace, we end up accomplishing great things in temporal terms, it’ll be in our interests if “ascr. to” appends to our names, both now and forever. “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one,” writes Thomas Merton, “but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”

Amen. Al-le-lu-ia.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

24 Mar

“It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.”
~
Thomas Merton, OCSO

One of the challenges of getting to daily Mass is the illusion it creates of superior personal piety. Those of us who’ve adopted the practice, though, are under no such illusions. We don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy; we go to daily Mass because we know we’re not.

Saturday mornings, for me at least, readily demonstrate this reality.

For decades now, I’ve done my best to work daily Mass into my schedule. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Jim, my sponsor, in the months leading up to my reception into the Church. Retired now, Jim served as a public high school teacher in Chicago for many years, which was exacting, exhausting work. He also ran an Uptown soup kitchen twice a week – he still does! – serving hundreds of guests and involving the coordination of scores of volunteers.

Yet, somehow or other, he still gets to church nearly every day. It has been the lifeblood of his spirituality, a foundational discipline that had both fed and formed him. I could see firsthand how the practice was central to who Jim was and what he did: nourishing him as he taught and cared for his students; strengthening him as he managed the controlled chaos of soup kitchen week in and week out; buoying him in the ordinary battles of faith.

Jim would’ve laughed if you’d called him a saint, but his hunger for sanctity was nonetheless palpable. He not only shepherded me into Catholicism, but also became himself a de facto template for how to take it seriously, and central to that was daily Mass. I wanted to be like him, and so I followed his lead. Plus, it just made sense. If it was true, as I’d read in the Council documents, that the Mass was “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11), then why wouldn’t I want to participate in it as often as possible? Sunday Mass was obligatory, I knew, but daily Mass, while optional, was optimal.

Every morning, then, even before I could receive the Eucharist, I’d trudge up Kenmore Avenue to St. Thomas of Canterbury for early Mass. It was like liturgical remediation for this lifelong Evangelical, a daily immersion in the wonder of the Eucharistic drama that I’d been on the edges of for so long. And it increased my hunger for the sacramental communion that awaited me at the Easter Vigil – an augmenting of the long Lenten fast I was experiencing before I could finally feast on the Lord on Holy Saturday.

Yet, it was a different story on all those preceding Saturdays. Herein lies my tale.

Heavily Catholic communities like Chicago are golden for those who frequent daily liturgies. Parishes dot the map everywhere, and each has its own sacramental schedule. Most will have Masses in the morning seven days a week – some at 7:00, some at 8:00 or 8:30, and school parishes will even have them at 9:00 or 10. Then there are the downtown churches (and Catholic hospital chapels) which will frequently feature midday Masses to accommodate the lunchtime crowd. Some parishes will also offer early evening liturgies to catch folks on their way home from work – or to accommodate those whose early morning schedules make it impossible for them to get to daily Mass otherwise.

Hence, getting to weekday Mass is less a matter of schedule coordination than it is a matter of the will. That’s especially the case now that I live in South Bend, which, like Chicago, is very Catholic. But in addition to all the variables I listed above, we also have the University of Notre Dame in our backyard, and there are daily Masses all over campus, morning, noon, and night. It’s an embarrassment of Latin-rite riches such that, if I’m determined to get to Mass Monday through Friday, there’ll undoubtedly be one that fits into my agenda. I just have to get myself there.

But Saturdays?

Saturday Mass is complicated by the fact that it is liturgically encroached upon by Sunday. That is, the Catholic sabbath, liturgically speaking, begins Saturday evening, so there’s no such thing as a true Saturday evening weekday Mass. Plus, priests and pastors have obligations in preparation for the Sunday celebrations – not the least of which is the preparation of a Sunday homily – and it seems fitting to leave a bit of a liturgical breather between Saturday morning and Sunday vigil Masses. Thus, even Saturday midday Masses are generally cut from weekday schedules.

That leaves Saturday mornings alone for daily Mass habitués, and, in Chicago at least, that was complicated by our frequent Friday night reveries following soup kitchen, often into the wee hours of the morning. So it was that, despite my best intentions, I tended to skip Saturday morning Mass when I lived in the city, which disrupted my daily Mass routine in imitation of Jim. That disruption was perpetuated after I married Nancy and God started blessing us with babies. By the time the end of the week rolled around, getting up early for Saturday morning Mass was a taller order than ever, and over time I simply gave up on the idea.

Recently, however, I’ve made a liberating discovery. It’s been a boost to my spiritual equanimity, and I want to share it with you: The 8:15 a.m. Saturday Mass at St. Anthony’s.

You see, while I don’t have babies around the house any more, my aging frame nonetheless groans mightily when I attempt to rise at the crack of dawn on the weekend. Try as I might (and I’ve tried), I just can’t seem to make it regularly to the Saturday 7:00 at my own parish, or even any of the 8:00 opportunities around town. Maybe that’s sloth, pure and simple, but there’s something about St. Anthony’s 8:15 that helps me get past my inherent indolence.

Perhaps it’s the psychological assurance of that fifteen minutes past the top of the hour – a trick my brain plays on my will to push me beyond my lethargy. “Let’s see,” I’ll tell myself if I roll out of bed at 7:30 a.m. “I can still shower and dress and get there before the Gospel.” That sounds shamefully crass, I know, but it’s enough to get me moving, and I almost always get there in time for the opening rites.

What’s more, I’m not the only one. It seems like the Saturday 8:15 is a magnet for all manner of daily communicants, and not all of them are St. Anthony’s parishioners. Routinely, I spy numerous faces I recognize from other daily Mass hotspots around town – folks who’ve I’ve come to know by sight (if not by name) because we regularly cross paths at St. Patrick’s or the med center during the week. I’ve no idea if their reasons for being there on Saturday morning are similar to mine, but it’s comforting to see them all the same. They’re like my comrades on the spiritual battlefield, and meeting them at St. Anthony’s is like a weekly reunion of yawning saints in the making.

Which is, of course, the point. Daily Mass, like any spiritual discipline, isn’t an end in itself. “The ultimate end of all techniques,” writes Thomas Merton, “is charity and union with God.” If my efforts to get to Mass every day (including Saturdays) should begin to overshadow my commitments to family or interfere with my work – or if, what’s worse, I begin to pharisaically imagine myself somehow holy because of those efforts – then, by all means, I’d best set them aside. Nonetheless, as Merton writes, we all have to employ spiritual discipline of some kind, and it must “have a certain element of severity about it.” He goes on:

If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain definite times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

For me, participating in Mass every day is that one spiritual discipline I’m resolved to follow whenever possible, and the Saturday 8:15 has become its keystone. Even if you’re not ready to take up a daily Mass discipline yourself, why not join me at St. Anthony’s next weekend and check it out for yourself – maybe adopt it as part of your Lenten discipline. If you’re not in the South Bend area, see if you can find something comparable in your own area. Trust me, you’ll be among friends who won’t think twice about your yawns, and you’ll definitely encounter our Eucharistic Lord no matter what.

Who knows? You just might become a regular.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The End is in Sight: The Four Last Things

20 Mar

“Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will, for the second death shall do them no ill.”
~ St. Francis of Assisi

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Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago

7 Jan

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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