Relgious Writing and Books: October 2003 Archives

On Merton and Yancey

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This note started out as a response in the comment box to this post by Mr. Moffat. I must preface everything by expressing my disagreement with the codicil to the post in which he rejects the good that Yancey has given through his writing by a quibble with his personal life. Yancey's personal life, whatever it may be, will not infect the Catholic reader, but the reader will engage on a journey as one man discovers ways back from alienation with faith. That said, Mr. Moffat brought up a number of points about Thomas Merton (who is far more likely to lead the casual reader astray, even though I have not read anything that I would say was categorically unorthodox, nor, to my knowledge, has the Vatican ever issued any "warnings" against his writings).

On Merton a couple of notes--

(1) I deeply admire Merton and his career. He was a man who sought silence, but who could not reconcile the interior noisiness that gave rise to his prolific writing with the life of silence. The attraction to eastern religion and Zen in particular probably stemmed from the desire for a "technique" to help still the interior noise. What Merton failed to realize, or at least what I seem to hear relatively little of, is that the act of writing was an act of prayer. He wrote because he was writing to God and for him there was no other choice. I tend to view his Asian experience as more an experiment with method than a flirting with ideas. I could be wrong, but he always seemed to return to a very solid Christian center. He never bought the notion of annihilation of self in a literal nothingness. Annihilation of self can be correlative to detachment, but then the self is being more reified than annihilated. That is, in detachment one gives up the false self created for security amongst people and assumes the true identity in Christ. So, as I see the fascination for Zen, I see an attempt to find a "short-cut" or at least a clear route to the center of detachment. (But I haven't read extensively in the later diaries, so I don't know that these speculations are well-grounded.)

(2) It seems that if one were to take exception to Merton, the strongest case for doing so is outlined in Paul Elie's study as well as most of the modern introduction to The Seven Storey Mountain. That would, of course, be the fact that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. However, were we to judge all by this standard, I suspect there are are good many Saints we would have to do without, starting with Augustine and going right up to Charles de Foucauld. We all make stupid mistakes in youth--Merton did so, presumably repented, and that issue was a matter for him and God, not for him to be judged by.

I bring up this lattter to return to the initial point--a single life-shaping mistake or experience neither abrogates nor reinforces with work of an individual. Yancey was raised in a church of racists and taught fundamentally racist doctrine. Mr. Moffat claims that the bitterness of that experience has transformed him into a PC Christian. I do not agree, and I must admit find the judgment thus levied uncharacteristically harsh. I saw nowhere where Yancey compromised the truth encompassed by Scripture in any case of special pleading. He refers once to Mel White and his continued friendship with Mr. White--in no way implying that what Mr. White was presently doing was at all correct. His continued friendship is an instance of love the sinner--hate the sin. So I'm afraid I will have to continue to respectfully disagree with Mr. Moffat on this issue. I stand by my recommendation of Soul Survivor as a book that is most excellent for Christians of any stripe and a nice guide to possible future reading. I also stand by my statement that I have found other works dry or uninteresting, with nothing for me, nor perhaps for many Catholics. It is the nature of Soul Survivor as a kind of religious Literary Appreciation of a number of authors and people that gives it its peculiar viability and power.

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Doctor of the Church


You all know by now that Thérèse is a doctor of the Church. As such the Church has declared that she has taught valuable doctrine concerning core church teachings. In particular, her "little way" is seen as a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Church.

However, the definition is that of a doctor of philosophy and the original meaning of Doctor. Thérèse is also a doctor in the modern sense. Through her deep understanding she corrects certain ailments in the church that come through exposure to the secular world.

from Spiritual Childhood: The Spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Msgr. Vernon Johnson

The word "love" is so often used for something merely emotional or sentimental that we hesitate to use it in connection with our religion. St. Thérèse rescues us from this false reserve and puts the word "love" again upon our lips in its true meaning.

In the midst of us cold and grown-up lovers, with our love hardened by the difficulty of life, dulled by its dreary routine, stilted by convention, and fettered by human respect, God has placed St. Thérèse to rescue us from all that is false in our concept of love and lead us back to that simple, direct, spontaneous love which, in the depths of our souls, we really long for.

As we enter the crypt of the basilica at Lisieux, we find ourselves beneath the great arch which spans the entrance to the nave. At the base of one side of the arch are written these words of scripture: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighour as thyself. On the other side are the words of St. Thérèse: "There is but one thing to be done here below: to love Jesus and to save souls for Him that He may be more loved." Thus does she make the words of Scripture live again, words which we have known from childhood, but whose meaning for that very reason has lost much of its significance.

It may be urged that a love of such simple directness as St. Thérèse's is possible only for special souls, gifted with extraordinary supernatural graces, and that therefore it is not within the compass of the ordinary person. But St. Thérèse's life was not distinguished by anything spectacular. Her way, as she used to say, was very ordinary, fashioned through the normal means of grace common to us all. The extraordinary thing in her life was her simple fidelity to those means of grace.

Thérèse is a gift to us from God. Through her, as through St. Bernadette, He once again showed us that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary sanctity through perfectly ordinary means. In short, He showed us that once again “His Grace is sufficient.”

Of ourselves we can do nothing but sin. But with God we are, each of us, a saint and a source of hope for the people we meet every day. Thérèse has pulled us out of a sense of love that grasps and seeks to fill a great emptiness and shown us a love that comes from a fullness and reaches out to others. More, because she was not extraordinarily gifted—she did not have the mind of a St. Thomas Aquinas, or the high teaching of St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus, or St. John of the Cross—she is accessible to us. Moreover, she promised to make herself accessible. Her heaven would be spent doing good on Earth. The good she does begins with our choice to follow the little way and to show to all around us the loved she showed while on Earth. We will each do this in our own way; however, our best tribute to her today would be one small action, one little sacrifice that takes us away from ourselves and puts us squarely with God and with our neighbor. Thus we can spend our Earth building the Kingdom of Heaven through God’s grace.

St. Thérèse, Doctor and Daughter of the Most Holy Catholic Church, pray for us that we all burn with the fire that you had for God and for the salvation of souls.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Relgious Writing and Books category from October 2003.

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