A Place for All

“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”

I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.

An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging  tenaciously to their language and religion.

On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.

That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.

On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.

Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.

Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.

Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).

What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.

Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:

Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.

And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
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The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.

Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).

Mom’s Wisdom

Especially when I was an adolescent sulking about one thing or another Mom used to say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it.” My 65+ years has confirmed, yet again, her profound wisdom.

Today I happened upon something that reminded me of Mom’s counsel. It came from someone I’d never heard of, a 14th century Flemish mystic named John Ruusbroec. What immediately grabbed my approval and appreciation is that he wrote in the Dutch vernacular, the language of the common people of the Low Countries rather than Latin, the “official” language of the Church and academic texts.

Like my Mom’s down-to-earth sensibilities, Ruusbroec had the ability to say profound things with words ordinary folks could understand. Here’s his zinger which stopped me in my tracks, “You are as holy as you want to be.” Whoa! That certainly places responsibility where it belongs.

But here’s the glitch… my 65+ years assures me that, left to my own devises, I am incapable of becoming the “good person” my perfectionism wants me to be. I am slowly accepting that I will never be the virtuous person of my dreams. If Lent showed me anything this year, it was that I am incapable of being my own savior. Rather, I am quite powerless when left to my own devices.

But isn’t that in direct contradiction to Mom’s wisdom and what Ruusbroec counseled? In my robust willfulness I would have thought so. But if the passion, death and resurrection means anything it means following the example of Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.”

There is something — Someone! — greater than me. There’s a counter-cultural challenge if I’ve ever heard one. Salvation comes in letting go to the One who has the power, and the will, to save us.  Ouch!

Yes, life is pretty much what we make of it. I am as “holy” as I want to be. But my power, my ability to make any of this happen is grounded in my willful choice to let go! This is a slow process, a very slow process. It takes a very long time, actually more than a lifetime!

I’m concluding that our goal is not to “be” holy. Rather, we become holy — and not by ourselves or on our own.  The best any of us can do is to die trying.  That is probably the most important lesson Mom ever tried to teach me.

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I came upon the quote by John Ruusbroec in Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality by Carl McColman, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame IN, 2015, p 124.  Thanks to Carl McColman as well for inspiring my reflection, especially pp 118-119.

Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
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The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

Speaking of Elephants

Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.

That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished.  The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”

Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books.  But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us?  Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?

Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?

How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?

This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”

I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.

I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin?  How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?

The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.

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The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Cistercian Publications.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136.   Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.

Lead As You Care to be Led

Jeffrey A. Krames is clearly a go-to sort of guy on the topic of leadership. As vice president and publisher of a McGraw-Hill’s business division, Krames edited and published more than 275 books. Perhaps he’s known best as the author of the 2005 leadership classic, Jack Welch and the 4 E’s of Leadership. He knows excellence when he sees it and the qualities that undergird a leader’s effectiveness.

Jeffrey Krames is Jewish — all the more significant that he would add to a very long list of books available about Jorge Mario Bergoglio by authoring Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis. In his Prologue he explains that “this is not just another leadership book. It is a deeply personal one.”

Krames makes it quite clear that his book is not confessional; his interest is other than Catholic faith or theology. Precisely as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, Krames celebrates Francis as a leader “who places enormous value on respect, dignity and humanity in every shape, color and form.”

Thankfully, the book is addressed to ordinary folks who may have no professional training in business, management or administration but still find ourselves called to a variety of leadership roles. Isn’t that all of us?

Here are the twelve lessons of leadership Karmes derives from observing Pope Francis:

  • Humility — “I’ll stay down here.” after being elected Pope and expected to mount a dias to receive the electing cardinals.
  • Immersion in the group your lead — “Smell like your flock.”
  • Honest assessment of people — “Who am I to judge?”
  • Reinvention — the church needs to “surge forth to the peripheries.”
  • Inclusivity — “Walk through the dark night” with your constituency.
  • Shunning insularity — “Self-sufficiency is evident in every false prophet.”
  • Pragmatism — “Live on the frontier.”
  • Care in decision-making — “I am always wary of the first decision.”
  • Decentralization — “I see the church as a field hospital.”
  • Being where you are needed, acting as it is needed — “Go there, live there, and understand the problem.”
  • Confronting adversity head-on — “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests have committed.”
  • Reaching beyond your constituency — “A Church the ‘goes forth’ is a Church whose doors are open.”

Whether a small business owner, a teacher, a manager, CEO, parent, spouse or neighbor the wisdom Krames distills from Francis’ compelling style is certainly something we all would do well to cultivate.
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I have not yet had the opportunity to read Krames’ book and am wholly indebted to an excellent review by Trappist Mark Scott, abbot of New Melleray Abbey published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Vol 50.3 (2015) pp. 383-385.

No Longer Any Need of Comment

Coincidentally, two things arose today pointing me in the same direction. When things like this converge I’ve learned to pay attention. I don’t have it figured out — at least cognitively. What I have is an intuitive sense that simply suggests wisdom resides somewhere in it all. Both came from Trappist monks — can this be mere coincidence? Does this not suggest more than happenstance.

From In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf:

The monk has received a certain experience of God and a taste of God that go far beyond the formulas that try to circumvent them. He also possesses, through prayer, a sense of the universal communion in Christ that exceeds the visible borders of the Churches such as they have become fixed after the wounds of the great schisms. He feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

Again, I do not have any of this figured out. Something tells me I don’t need to, nor should I try.

The second thing to arise was a poem by Thomas Merton. Again, I am not prepared to offer commentary. Simply the poem:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

There is nothing more I care to say. I simply offer these words to you, trusting Wisdom will speak whatever needs to be said to your heart.
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The quote by Andre Louf is from p. 128 of In the School of Contemplation, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2015.

The poem by Thomas Merton was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Meditation: First and Second Halves of Life, Part I for August 20, 2015 offered by The Center for Action and Contemplation.

Life Moves On

Folks say you can walk across, even jump across, the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park a couple hundred miles north of here. In fact, you’d have a few places to choose from — seems the actual headwaters of the river is a matter of serious civic pride and a cause for some dispute. There are at least three rival claims to the source of the Mississippi. Who’s to know?

Back in grad school in St. Louis — where there was absolutely no dispute about the size or source of the Great River — we tinkered with a silly but intriguing riddle: Can you step in the same river twice? Think about it… the current is constantly moving; the water you step in first is not the water you step in the second time. Even the fish and undergrowth are constantly awash, shifting, changing. Or, when those disputed waters in Itasca are frozen solid in a Minnesota winter, are they still the origins of the Mississippi?

Such mind-benders have intrigued mystics and confounded students for thousands of years. But they are important. Like a metaphysical crossword puzzle they tease us into looking at how something can be the same when everything about it changes. Does anything ever remain the same? What is the “same”? What, if anything, remains?

Forget about rivers! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? We want to believe so but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Even the cellular make-up of our physical bodies is said to turn-over entirely numerous times during our lifetime? Who or what is the “me” amid all this flux and change?

Back in St Louis during the early 1980s I learned that Heraclitus, a resident of Ephesus during the 6th century BC, was the source of this riddle about stepping into a river twice. I remember him being portrayed as pretty much of a fall-guy or foyle for later philosophers — mentioned only to introduce the question which future thinkers would then be given the distinction for resolving.

In self-defense you need to know that I don’t think of Heraclitus very often. In fact, years go by! However, he made a surprise appearance recently in something I was reading about Thomas Merton. What Merton wrote stopped me in my tracks — something you cannot do with a river, by the way! I really liked it!

I like it so much that I’m willing to risk family once again telling me, “Read your blog… don’t know what the hell you were talking about.”  Aware of the risk, here’s what Merton wrote that hit me up-side the head:

This is the tragedy which most concerns Heraclitus — and which should concern us more than it did him: the fact that a majority of [people] think they see, and do not. They believe they listen, but they do not hear. They are “absent when present” because in the act of seeing and hearing they substitute the clichés of familiar prejudice for the new and unexpected truth that is being offered to them. They complacently imagine they are receiving a new light, but in the very moment of apprehension they renew their obsession with the old darkness, which is so familiar that it, and it alone, appears to them to be the light.

We live only a few miles from the Mississippi. Jeb the Dog takes me for a daily walk along a creek that empties into that river.  This afternoon, as Jeb leaps into the creek to tease and torment Mother Mallard with her five ducklings, I will remember Heraclitus.  His riddle, his question, this nudge toward deeper conversion, transformation, change will remain with me for a while.

Wherever you are, whatever river invites you this summer, be like Jeb the Dog — leap boldly into its free-flowing current.  Savor what it means to be fluid, alive, changing. Stay with the flow!

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The Merton quote is from his 1960 article in the September issue of Jubilee, “Herakleitus the Obscure”, paragraphs 264-65.  My source is from In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2015., pp. 67-68.