Book Break: The Seven Storey Mountain

MertonAutobioCoverLast night I finished Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which Venerable Fulton Sheen described as “a Twentieth Century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine” and which has entered my list of favorite books, perhaps in the top ten. Unlike some religious autobiographies written under inspiration or strictly under obedience, The Seven Storey Mountain is written by a writer, a craftsman and a poet. It is beautiful—honest and heartbreaking, profound and inspiring. It also provides a window into “enlightened” American culture between the world wars, providing a strong and particularly Catholic rationale as to how we got to this point.

Merton’s answer? In a word, sin. His, mine and yours. Continue reading

Wednesday Witness: Help Me, I’m Hopeless!

In recent weeks, God is trying to change some old habits in me that get in the way of loving as He loves. It’s exciting to feel the Lord’s presence and attention when He’s nudging you to some deeper insight or change.

It’s exhilarating…for awhile.

What happens with me usually looks something like this: God is calling me to make some changes—primarily interior changes, but they affect my external behavior, as well. I am grateful for His insights and inspired to try. I begin doing things differently. It feels good to do things differently, even if no one notices.

No one notices.

I’m tempted to tell someone, just to gain a little reinforcement that I’m on the right track. On a good day, I say a little prayer and resist this temptation, knowing that this is just my insecurity looking for an attaboy. On a less good day, I tell someone and get my temporary fix of positive feedback to keep me going for a few more hours at least.

Continue reading

Wednesday Witness: Who Are You Pointing To?

The Superbowl was this past Sunday. Midway through the evening, social media exploded with critiques of the halftime show, which apparently featured two high-profile female performers in various states of undress dancing provocatively while sharing a medley of their musical hits.

I am not sorry we missed it.

I won’t rehash what I’ve read on the subject. The reason we did not watch was because a year or two ago, after repeatedly venting about the content of the halftime show and even some of the commercials, we agreed as a family to stop watching. When Superbowl Sunday rolls around, we prepare the usual snacks and treats, gather around the TV…and watch a movie.* We are not big football fans, and it occurred to us that it was a waste of time and energy to watch a game we didn’t particularly care about in order to see questionable commercial content and to be subjected to yet another pop-culture skin flick. It wasn’t easy to take that first step “out of the loop,” but honestly, we haven’t regretted it.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy football or the Superbowl. But I was struck by the volume of social media posts, articles and commentary that began with some variation of, “Thanks for exposing my child to X, Y and Z during the halftime show. They shouldn’t have to see that.”

They don’t have to see it—and as consumers and parents, we have the power and the responsibility to ensure they don’t.

Providentially, the next morning, the daily gospel was Mark 5:1-20. Bishop Robert Barron’s scripture reflection focused on the age-old practice of scapegoating: projecting our anxieties and anger onto a particular person or group of persons in order to preserve unity in our community. Bishop Barron suggested that we could interpret the numerous demons possessing the man living among the tombs as all the fears and frustrations of the people in that territory. They may not have liked the demoniac, but they knew him. They had a scapegoat. When Jesus sets him free and casts the demons into a great herd of swine, the people do not rejoice that their neighbor has been restored to his right mind. Instead, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave.

How often are we uncomfortable with seeing and claiming our part in the evils of the world? How comforting it is to see someone else as the villain—to gawk, point and howl at wickedness instead of changing something in our own lives to prevent its spread!

How many years in a row did I shake my head at the garbage on our television but resist cutting the cable?

In last Sunday’s bulletin, I referenced Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This morning I read his account of learning that war was again breaking out in Europe:

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too…” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my mind a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

I have to admit I was caught off guard when I read this—the vehemence with which Merton incriminates himself, and at the same time, the sense of relief he feels in coming to terms that he is in company with all of mankind, all to blame and all loved and redeemed by Christ.

There is an image often shared with children: When you point at someone else, the rest of your fingers point back at you. My wish for myself and all of you is that, as often us possible, we point to Jesus.

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* This year, appropriately enough, it was an annual favorite: Groundhog Day. I understand a Jeep ad based on the movie was one of the highlights of Sunday evening.

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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

Called to Another Country

“The land you are to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come…” – Deuteronomy 11:10

I am reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a broken and sinful young man who grew up between the World Wars, converted to Catholicism in his 20s, and ultimately became a Trappist monk and priest. Merton is complicated, and his later writings indicate a potentially dangerous attraction to Buddhism. But externally, at least, he never left the priesthood or his order, and his conversion story is a profound and thought-provoking read.

Merton regrets that he did not have the sense to embrace the life of grace the Lord was providing on the day he joined the Catholic Church. Following his baptism and first Holy Communion, he returned to the life he led before—as an aspiring intellectual and writer—except with a few spiritual practices added to the mix: He attended Mass on the weekends and sometimes during the week, went to Confession more than once a month, and engaged in spiritual reading on a fairly regular basis.

To my eyes, that list reads like the makings of a strong disciple. Merton saw it differently: “A man who has just come out of the hospital, having nearly died there, and having been cut to pieces on the operating table, cannot immediately begin to lead the life of the ordinary working man. And after the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.” Continue reading

Wednesday Witness: Tame My Tongue

I seem to have a faulty filter.

It is well established that I am an emotional and vocal person with a strong desire for affirmation and an apparent inability to suffer in silence. Those characteristics alone ought to be enough to sanctify my wife and children. But I have the additional quirk that my verbal filter was installed on the wrong end of my tongue. Instead of capturing the rubbish my brain produces before it exits my mouth, my filter is several seconds downstream, between my ears and heart. I hear what I’m spewing and my heart hurts, but it’s too late. My only hope is a pause in the outburst long enough for my heart to signal my brain to activate the emergency shut-off. Then I apologize, restart the system and begin again. Continue reading