13 December 2014


Today is my final day of being in my 40s.  Tomorrow, I turn 50.  I will join Molly Shannon in saying, “I’m fifty years old!”  Although, I must confess that, unlike her character Sally O’Malley, I haven’t yet developed a love of kicking, stretching, and again, kicking.

Truth be told, I don’t feel like I’m fifty years old, whatever that means.  Aside from the occasional back ache, I almost feel like I did when I was in my 20s.  (Okay, my early 30s!)

10 December 2014

Mertonian rights

On this date in 1968, the world lost one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.  From his monastery in Kentucky, he was a prolific writer.  He commented, of course, on so-called “spiritual” topics, but he also had great insights into art, culture, social issues, and politics.  In his final years, he made major strides into interfaith dialogue, especially with Buddhism and Zen.  In fact, he was at a conference in Thailand pursuing those aims when, going back to his room, he was electrocuted by a faulty fan.

Merton had a keen understanding of something we seem to have regressed on:  torture.  The report on CIA torture that was finally released is testimony to that.  How sadly appropriate this comes as we observe Human Rights Day.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he speaks of torture as a struggle of the individual against a bankrupt process.  (Forgive the gender-exclusive language!)

“He who is tortured is reduced to a condition in which nature speaks instead of freedom, instead of conscience. Pain speaks, not the person. Torture is the instrument of those who fear personality, fear responsibility, and wish to convince themselves again and again that personality does not really exist. That freedom is weaker than natural necessity. That the person can be silenced by the demands of nature.

“In the calculated use of torture there is also a special evil. The person is pitted against the process in such a way that the process infallibly wins. From the inmost sanctuary of the individual person there is extracted, by means of torture, not the voice of the person, but the voice of the process. The tortured one does not merely echo the process, but he finally utters, from his own inmost self, the ‘confession of faith’ which bears witness to the reality of the process, and to the abdication of his own spiritual freedom.”

We often think of torture as violating one’s rights, one’s human dignity—and it certainly is that.  But even more, it is an assault on the human spirit.  We Americans can begin to address that evil, in part, by bringing the responsible parties to justice—not by simply releasing a report.

22 November 2014

soon to be a Volunteer again

We gave our notice to the folks where we’ve been serving as interim co-pastors.  In a couple of months, Banu and I will be moving to Tennessee, which I left in 1991.

I look forward to re-acquainting myself with Nashville, which continues to grow, not only in population, but more importantly, in diversity.  It’s also been a while since we lived in a metro area.  We left Philadelphia in 1997. 

But I really will miss New York.  It’s a beautiful state—and I will miss the winter weather!

18 October 2014

without and within

St. Luke, whose feast day is today, wrote the gospel dearly loved by many.  It has many parables of Jesus—ones that only he includes—among them probably the best-known, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal (or Lost) Son. 

He also preserves some sublime sayings of Jesus.  One of my favorites deals with some Pharisees asking about the kingdom of God.  “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!”  For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you’” (17:20-21).  The word translated as “among” is the Greek word, entos.  It can also mean “within.” 

Too often, we look for certain events that signify the kingdom, the reign of God.  It is among us; it is within us.  Even though it might not seem like it at times, especially in times of trouble and grief, that Spirit, that love, pervades the universe.  We draw the courage we need to live.

29 September 2014

drone terror

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, based on journal entries up until 1965, Thomas Merton said this about terrorism: "The very essence of terrorism is that it is lawless and absolute power." Watch John Oliver's bit on our government's use of drones (especially toward the end), and see how prescient he was:


20 September 2014

fifty years of markings

In a post three years ago, I acknowledged the fifty-year anniversary of Dag Hammarskjöld’s death, who was the current UN Secretary General.  This year is the fiftieth anniversary of his posthumously published book, Markings.

It was actually brought to my attention by the comments of Sister Anne Wambach, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA.  This was at a service marking the fifty-year anniversary of monastic profession of some of their own.  She noted that Markings “was a kind of spiritual diary, a collection of reflections over a lifetime.”

When reading the book, one can’t help but notice his introverted, and introspective, nature.  He grapples with his unusual position as a deeply spiritual and deeply committed public official.  (It’s too bad that that would be considered “unusual”!)

Hammarskjöld comments on a number of things, but I especially appreciate his quirky entries:

“The ride on the Witches’ Sabbath to the Dark Tower where we meet only ourselves, ourselves, ourselves.” (51)

“Is your disgust at your emptiness to be the only life with which you fill it?” (70) 

Let’s find life on that road to the Dark Tower.