Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 44 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

16 thoughts on “Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton”

  1. Hi Mike, dear brother-in-law, Loved your essay Like any movement towards change one has to begin with one’s self. I am somewhat of a minimalist and am not one to make a big deal about Christmas (unlike my parents as you know). At work people would invariably ask me “Are you ready for Christmas” which of course meant in big part gift buying. I stopped doing Christmas cards years ago and use that time to write actual notes to friends and family. Imagine a real letter in the mail. I do purchase small things for get-together because it is a if thing to do with loved ones. At gatherings where children are involved I look almost in sadness at the excess some parents and grandparents go to with gift giving. And it seems so “expected”. I think a time set aside for some storytelling would be wonderful – sharing our lives with no interruption. My neighbors have “Advent” nights once a week where we meet socially and catch up on each other. At Nancy’s house we do caroling, at Maureen’s we bring donations for local homeless shelter, at Carol’s we usually listen to a meaningful spiritual story. When I hosted I did a 15 minute music interlude of special folk or spiritual songs. I loved sharing this personal part of me and most people enjoyed it. 😀 A few times I have made donations to various groups which I try to customize to my siblings’ interest. Or I will send a book or movie that means something special to our family like “Bells of St. Mary’s – corny but such fun to think of them watching with their family. I guess for me Christmas is a good “down time” which allows me to do simple things like read a book or listen to music, or meet a friend for coffee. Also gives me a chance to smile a lot thinking of people opening up my small but personalized gifts. I do enjoy the lights etc. as long as somebody else is doing it. 😀

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    1. Molly, dear sister-in-law, thanks for sharing this beautiful reflection. Who could forget those joyous Christmas celebrations at your home in Livonia? I remember being amazed and edified by it all. (Btw, Maggie is successfully replicating those experiences for her children.) I love your ideas about storytelling, reading, relaxing, and smiling. I’m also very grateful for your reading the blog. I hope you’ll have a wonderful 2018.

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  2. Am nowhere near where I should be but at 82 am still working on it. (Btw I graduated from Nazareth near Bardstown in 1954.) Several years ago I started giving away family heirlooms to my 4 children, Grands, & greats & some to Nazareth for auction. A lot of stuff in addition. A burglar could come on my home & find very little worth stealing. Have not bought new clothes in years & regularly take food to those who have little. Have huge amt. of yarn from years of knitting . Am using it to make shawls, scarfs & mittens for the near homeless. Each week something leaves the house for good. Presents come from kitchen or thrift store. Read a lot but no longer BUY books. You are probably doing most of this or more. I do meditate. Have a joyous Kwanzza.

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      1. Mike, recalling your comment from months ago, above, while reading and re-reading the insights of Steven Stosny Ph.D. in Treating Attachment Abuse. On page 84, Stosny notes this:
        “Virtually every court-ordered group for violent child and spouse abusers I had led has had an ordained minister mandated into treatment… a diminished sense of self confuses the virtue of humility with the symptom of low self-esteem”
        (by “symptom of low self-esteem”, Stosny is referring to abuse of people with whom the abuser has formed attachments)

        Stosny grew up in a violent home and has made it his life’s work to try and improve domestic violence situations. Stosny’s work is amazing and has implications not only for family relationships but also in schools, the workplace and much more… probably Karenga also (although I don’t know the man) Are you familiar with Stosny’s work?

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  3. Mike, I’ve been asked to be the presider for our 3rd Sunday of Advent for our intentional community. A special couple of our group hosts us at their home for Prayer, then eat and fellowship. In the past we have made bags with goodies for the poor children whose parents are members of LUPE (A group that is the successor to the farm worker group established by Cesar Chavez). Our regular attenders are each involved in some outreach to the periphery. We usually get some people who attend for this special prayer and some who only come for the fellowship and food that follows.
    I am going to introduce the service with a reflection on the God of surprises who calls and sends, starting with Moses, then 2nd Isaiah, and finally John the Baptizer. I draw quite a bit from Wes Howard Brook’s, BECOMING CHILDREN OF GOD. Just one quote: “These Pharisaic representatives, given John’s answers, get to the heart of the matter in verse 25. …Put in modern terms: If John cannot claim any traditional (legal) basis for his cultic activity, why is he engaging in this “civil disobedience”?” And a bit further on: John “…is carrying out, establishing for the first time the contrast between John’s thrice-repeated “baptize in water” and the Chosen One’s baptism in “holy Spirit.”
    Don Senior’s post on the Diocese of Chicago’s web site has his characteristic deep knowledge of the text together with his humble, clear and practical exegesis.

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  4. Dec 17 Your search is not only your search. It is everyone’s search. This spiritual search has no end. The ego seeks to arrive at some final answer or fulfillment, but the true Path asks us to surrender into a bottomless Mystery, an infinite depth, a cloud of unknowing. In the end, what we need can only be given to us when our grasping ceases, and we surrender completely into the arms of that Greater Wisdom and Love.

    We are all poor, destitute. We suffer from a deep poverty of Spirit. Yet Spirit, God by any name, is always present all around us and within us. This paradox is the spiritual task our life on Earth was given to us to resolve. You are pursuing this task in many beautiful ways, Mike. I look on you as a teacher and beloved companion on this ultimate quest to make spiritual truth manifest on Earth.

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  5. In other words – Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. We are here to serve that great purpose. And you are doing so exceedingly well, Mike.

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  6. There is no getting around the facts that Jesus was born poor, that he ministered to the poor, that he asked his disciples to adopt poverty, that he was crucified because of his solidarity with the poor, something the Roman Empire saw as sedition. In his parable of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) Jesus calls on the nations – not just individuals, but nations – to join him in helping the poor. He praises those who help the poor even if they don’t even know them. The men and women who help the poor will join him in Paradise. It’s as simple as that.

    It is a simple fact that the poor are completely absent from modern day political discourse. There is endless talk about helping the middle class, especially from the Democrats who, though better than Republicans, still kowtow to the oligarchs who fund them. Let’s not forget it was Bill Clinton who ended welfare as we know it.

    Let’s commit ourselves to making 2018 the Year of the Poor (This would be much like Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, beginning his ministry by declaring a Year of the Lord’s Favor – a Jubilee Year.) Half the U.S. population lives in or near that poverty level. 41 million Americans are food insecure.

    According to dosomething.org, “Nearly 1/2 of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day. 1 billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.”

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    1. Thanks so much, Cave, for these reminders. All of us should have on the tips of our fingers the sad statistics you provide here. I’m continually surprised by dear relatives who lionize capitalism and deny the realities these figures describe.

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  7. Dec 26 There is one overriding basic problem that confronts a human living on Earth today: How do I contribute to creating utopia for all Beings on Earth? The answer involves creating Love in myself and others. The key to creating Utopia is Love. Solve the problem of Love, and Utopia will result.

    The solution to my individual problems in life is to dedicate myself to realizing Utopia for All through Unconditional Spiritual Love. This is the ultimate goal and aim of any awakening human being. This is the supreme meaning of being human – to manifest Heaven on Earth. Thy Kingdom (of Divine Love) come, Thy Will (Love) be done, On Earth s it is in Heaven. Amen.

    This is the greatest commandment: to Love God (Who is Love) with all your Heart, and Love your neighbor (Who is every Being without exception) as your very Self.

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