Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Real Journey of Life

"The only way to change the world is to change the thoughts and desires of those who live in it."

These words by Thomas Merton, so characteristically direct, honest and insightful, have, it seems to me, both spiritual and political dimensions.

The real journey in life, Merton wrote, is interior, and the "world" for him is the outward expression of our inner lives.

Having just completed directing two retreats on Merton and contemplative silence, I hope I have done a little to affect, if not change, the thoughts of those attending. Most of my retreatants in south Florida and in central Florida responded well to the Psalmist's message, "Be still and know...." They could see that quieting down and listening to the "still, small voice" of God is essential for them and for those they encounter.

How can we expect our lives to be peaceful when we don't cultivate inner peace?
How can we expect peace in the world if we are overly busy, restless, anxious...? The questions are easy to pose. Realizing solutions is never easy, yet the coming to power of the Obama administration gives many of us hope that, at last, we have a thoughtful, patient and intelligent man leading a gifted group of people through some of the most turbulent problems imaginable.

If Obama succeeds in reaching those who resent him at home because of his race and in reaching those beyond our shores in the Islamic world, and if they really listen, as he is capable of listening, I believe much good will be done to reduce the ancient tensions that provoke violence.

That, at least, is a noble hope and wish for this season of peace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Milton and Merton

In 2008, two writers who have greatly influenced me and millions of other readers have significant anniversaries: John Milton was born 400 years ago, and Thomas Merton died 40 years ago.

I have spent much of my adult life thinking and writing about these two writers, Merton mainly in the past decade, Milton during my years as a university professor. There is no connection between them except their obvious concern with Christian theology. For me, each raises important questions about the ultimate issues of faith and about what G. M. Hopkins called the "incomprehensible certainty" of God.

No one who reads "Paradise Lost" or Milton's other major works comes away unimpressed. The sheer energy and determination of the man is as apparent as his often forbidding erudition. With each reading of his work, I come away disagreeing with, or disliking, much of it yet admiring the poet's ability to triumph over adversity despite great personal and political setbacks. I refer to his blindness, mainly, and the defeat of the Puritan Revolution, out of which came his greatest creation, the defiant Satan of his epic.

Milton was born in December, 1608; Thomas Merton died in December, 1968. The extensive writings of Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, peace activist and spiritual master, remain lively and relevant in our time, and I keep discovering new facets of his work. Like Milton, Merton is an optimist in spite of everything, and so is an inspiration to people like me.

Intellectual curiosity, emotional openness, and wide reading combine in Merton with a mystic's heart to produce great writing. He expresses himself in memorable prose (and poetry) about silence, solitude, and the inner life, making the ancient monastic tradition of contemplative prayer meaningful for readers today.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What is happiness?

Is happiness possible? This is one of the most obvious of the many questions about happiness that writers raised long before Thomas Jefferson's declaration of a God-given right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This famous phrase, whatever it means, signifies earthly happiness, not the joy promised in the afterlife.

What happiness meant in the 18th century world of Jefferson, what it meant for the Greeks and for earlier thinkers, and what it has meant in more recent centuries is the subject of Darrin McMahon's valuable book, HAPPINESS: A HISTORY, which has given me much to think about.

A basic question is whether happiness is a matter of luck, as the English word's origins suggest, or if it is something we have the power to create. It is certainly more than a feeling or a passing pleasure--or winning the lottery. As an enduring condition, it is rare; but it has something to do with a sense of being content with who and where we are.

Happiness to me seems inseparable from love. Thomas Merton, as usual, put it well: "A happiness that is sought for ourselves can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy." True happiness is found in unselfish love, he says, a love that increases in proportion as it is shared.

That is probably the most we can hope for in finding earthly happiness.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Why is it so hard to say 'thank you'? Is it shyness, as in the case of my students, who complete one of my courses and rarely say anything? Is it self-absorption or simply a lack of training in courtesy?

The reason could be some or all of the above; it could also be, as in the case of a few friends who don't acknowledge their indebtedness to me, a reluctance to relinquish their independence. For to say 'thank you' in a meaningful way is to acknowlege one's dependence on the generosity of another.

When I feel hurt by being taken for granted by people who fail to show gratitude, I am reminded of the Gospel story of the ten lepers. All were healed, yet only one went back to Jesus to say 'thank you.' That story has always resonated with me, for whatever reason. I have always wondered about those other nine since it seems so natural to give thanks, especially for such a gift!

And I have always been aware of the need to say 'thank you' to relatives and friends--and especially to God. The older I get, the more I see that much of what I call prayer is essentially an expression of my gratitude to God or the universe for the singular, unrepeatable wonder of each day.

I look at the blue Florida sky, notice the flowering plants, listen to the birdsong, talk to friends, meet people, read books, enjoy my home, appreciate my wife, talk to my cat--and in being aware of all of this, especially at the end of the day, when I sense the richness of the little experiences that have constituted the day, I am filled with gratitude. Ordinary affirmations are prayerful expressions of gratitude that help overcome the annoying or negative aspects of life, as when pains and problems tend to dominate our lives.

I don't know if God is personally responsible for each of these points of happiness, but God is the overall source of all that is good. And, as the Psalmist says, "in the midst of everything, God is with us."

That prayer is essentially gratitude is an idea beautifully expressed by David Steindl-Rast. This Benedictine monk and writer, born in Austria, is one of my spiritual mentors. "Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer" and his book on listening are among my favorite friends. He shows us how simple prayer really is.

I am grateful for Brother David's wisdom as my journey continues.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A healing message from Obama

I had planned in this blog to avoid comments on the contentious political scene, but the speech on race by Barack Obama this week (March 18) is too important and moving to ignore.

Like the candidate himself, the speech is thoughtful and inspirational. It is the speech of a healer who, addressing both black and white audiences, says that anger over injustice is understandable, "grounded in legitimate concerns." To deny this reality, says Obama, is to block the path to understanding. We can "embrace the burdens of the past without becoming victims of the past," he writes.

There is a clear Christian lesson behind Obama's carefully crafted words: we can still love those who say hateful things. We must not hate our enemies but love them, even in their terrible imperfections. Love, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, is the effort to understand.

I am grateful that we have, for the first time in this generation, a political leader who has written, in his own voice, with his own words, and from his own soul, a magisterial document that transcends the politics of the moment.

However this election turns out, we have in Barack Obama a unique healer and bridge-builder who has already made the country stronger by the power of his words.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Listening as Prayer, Prayer as Listening

I have been asked by my church to give a talk on Listening as Prayer on Feb. 2. The invitation actually came both to me and my wife, Lynn, who is a world-champion listener. But since she is otherwise occupied that day, I have to go it alone.

As I have planned the talk, I have looked at what I have written about prayer and silence and find that some of it relates, especially the idea of being fully in the present moment. Everything we do, for the most part, can be a form of prayer if the intention is to enter fully into the task, being mindful of the present reality and not of our plans and worries.

This is especially true of listening to another person. To give up our own preoccupations for a while and give ourselves over fully to hearing what another has to say is a form of love. And it is certainly a form of prayer.

Listening is not something that most of us do well. I have learned over the years to put good attention on my students and friends, but I know that I am also aware of the need to say something helpful when they stop talking, and so part of me is anticipating the expected response instead of being fully open to what the other person has to say and trusting that I will know how to respond.

So many people I meet make speeches rather than conversation, pouring out all their issues and leaving no time for me. I see that they are wound up and anxious and don't have the gift of patience. They remind me of the talking heads on TV who have rehearsed their talking points; what they need are listening points. Their button is on "send," not on "receive." I pray that they will slow down the rush of their thoughts long enough to take in what someone else says. How else can a real conversation occur?

Lynn reminds me that we listen best to those we know. When we take the time to know who someone is, we listen better. This applies to people as well as to God. How seldom we think of prayer as anything more than asking for favors, with the focus on ourselves. We need, rather, to be quiet and listen to the "still small voice of God" that Elijah heard in the Bible. To do so, we have to empty ourselves of ourselves.

As Meister Eckhart wrote, "The most sublime achievement of this life is to remain still and let God speak and act in you."

God often speaks to us in his own language, which is silence. This is what contemplative prayer is all about: listening to God. Often this takes the form of our listening to one of our fellow creatures. To put ourselves aside and give ourselves to this task is a great spiritual challenge.

As I reflect more on this topic, I hope I will become more understanding of those I meet who have no idea of what real listening is all about. I know that my listening to them does a lot of good to them in their distress, and that perhaps is all I can hope for.

Fear, Trust and Evil

As I return after a longer-than-expected hiatus, I am thinking about my newly revised course, The Faces of Evil, at Rollins College. This was one of my most popular courses at UCF when I taught there in the English Department and continues to be one of my own favorites since it stimulates important questions and raises issues of the greatest consequence about human behavior.

One way to approach the vast topic of evil is to look at hate--and the way fear so often leads to anger, which leads to hatred and even violence. There are many reasons why people hate and even enjoy hating; it seems almost good sometimes to feel hatred toward one who has wronged you. This is a topic I enjoy exploring in "Othello" and other works. It is one way to make the mystery of human evil at least somewhat understandable and to see how the potential for "evil," however that is defined, is present in each of us.

When I think of fear itself, apart from hatred, I notice how many people I meet are full of fear. The whole world is governed by fear. We fear each other and even ourselves. Young children worry about the future, about failure, just as teenagers and adults do. Parents worry constantly, it seems. This means they spend too much time imagining a future that always seems more horrible than the reality of the present as it unfolds, day by day.

It is hard for me to have a real conversation with many people because they are too tense to listen. This will be the subject of another piece on this blog. How rare it is to meet someone who is genuinely centered and calm and open to hearing what I have to say. Most people seem, rather, preoccupied with themselves or rather with their fears and worries. It is useless for me to say to them, "Trust" because I know how quickly my own fears trigger anxiety over seemingly inconsequential things. All I can do is turn such feelings over to God and pray, as in Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?" It also helps to breathe deeply and move in a new direction.