Liturgy for Lent: Saints and Sanctified Time

Oscar RomeroI’m sharing this post from Episcopalian priest Mike Angell’s blog, one of my new favorites. Wishing all those who celebrate Holy Week and Easter a blessed time of reflection and renewal.

Mike Angell

Mike: Today is one of the most important Feast days for my own faith. March 24th is the celebration of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Episcopal Church, marking the day of his martyrdom in 1980. I’ve marched through the streets of San Salvador with friends from the Anglican Church of El Salvador many times to remember the archbishop who stood with the poor. Romero has not yet been officially recognized by the Catholic Church, that is coming later this year, but the Episcopal Church added him to our calendar in 2009. I’ve been thinking a great deal about Feasts, Fasts, and the marking of time. Ellis and I are in Mexico, and on Friday we were at Chichen Itza for the Vernal Equinox. We saw the sun’s shadow make the body of a snake down the side of a temple, designed to help the Mayans mark this time of…

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Lent, Lenz, Spring

Crocus biflorus photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Crocus biflorus
photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Christians are now observing the season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, reflection and contemplation. But the church season’s development in the Northern hemisphere also draws on the powerful pulls of body and earth, of humankind’s connection to the natural world, which, like our bodies, is a creation and temple of God.

The word itself, “Lent,” derives from the Germanic root “lang,” meaning “long,” which also forms the basis of the present-day German “Lenz” (“Spring”). According to the 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Lent” (and, one assumes, the German “Lenz”) takes its meaning from the lengthening of days in the spring.

Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith before their baptism at Easter, and I imagine that over the centuries many pre-Christian traditions and practices associated with the seasonal transition became part of religious tradition as well. In earlier societies, this seasonal transition was a time to use up winter stores before they went bad (hence, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a time for one last big winter feast).  A time to fast because those winter stores, even those that keep, are running low.

A good time to clear out larders and cupboards, making room for the coming abundance of spring. A good time to clear out and examine old habits, tossing out those which haven’t served us well, making room for the abundance of life promised by Christ’s incarnation in human form and loving sacrifice. Spring’s rebirth reminds us that spiritual rebirth is possible, too, something that isn’t always easy to believe in the season of cold and “winter’s discontent.”

The earthly season reminds us that scarcity (those dwindling stores of winter food) can coexist with hope, symbolized by the lengthening of days. (Ancients did not have to deal with the less welcome intrusion of Daylight Savings Time!)

The Germans actually have two words for spring, and both are used in one of my favorite pieces of music, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunken Man in Spring”), the fifth movement from Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von die Erde (The Song of the Earth). Especially lovely is Mahler’s setting of the line “Der Lenz ist da!” (“Spring is here!”).

I located a performance on YouTube, sung by tenor Fritz Wunderlich. The English translation follows the German text, and you can see that this celebration of spring is as far removed as possible from the somber beginnings of Lent! I’m certainly not advocating celebrating spring’s arrival by getting drunk, but this is a wonderful piece of music, and you can also take the “drunkenness” metaphorically, as the exuberance of becoming bedazzled by the beauty of nature and the miraculous nature of the season:

Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum denn Müh’ und Plag’!?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl’ und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!

Was hör’ ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag’ ihn, ob schon Frühling sei,
Mir ist als wie im Traum.

Der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!
Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!

Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer’ ihn bis zum Grund
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf’ ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an!?
Laßt mich betrunken sein!

If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!

And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

What do I hear on waking? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if it’s spring already;
to me it’s as if I’m in a dream.

The bird chirps Yes!
The spring is here, it came overnight!
From deep wonderment I listen;
the bird sings and laughs!

I fill my cup anew
and drink it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines
in the black firmament!

And if I can not sing,
then I fall asleep again.
What to me is spring?
Let me be drunk!

Let all Creation Praise

While searching for a link to explain the Blessing of Animals a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a delightful site: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/home. Let All Creation Praise is an ecumenical Christian group—that is, one that welcomes all denominations—which is focused on raising awareness of environmental issues and the role of Creation in worship. As “praise” goes hand in hand with “thanksgiving,” it seems an appropriate topic for the week before Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the U.S. When I was working full time, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. We live too far from family to mess with travel, so it was basically a very long weekend with to do nothing but eat and rest up (and read!). Like bears preparing to hibernate.

The idea that Creation praises God is not some new “radical” notion in Christianity or Judaism. The Hebrew Psalms contain several examples:

forestPsalm 65:13 “The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” (King James version) Here we see a sensitivity to nature and to the earth, that even something as lowly as dirt and grass is a fellow creature to be honored and respected; that the earth itself is capable of expressing joy. Both Psalm 96 and a verse in the history recounted in Chronicles talk about trees “singing for joy.” Likewise, the book of the prophet Isaiah speaks of trees “clapping their hands” (Isaiah 55:12 )–one of my favorite passages.

st francisSaint Francis is, of course, the most famous exemplar of Christian love for creation. His Canticle of the Sun expresses the notion that all facets of creation are the brothers of humankind. Legend has it that he preached to the birds and saved (and “reformed”) a wolf whom villagers were about to kill.

William Blake‘s poetry is steeped in both religious spirituality and the natural world. A century later, Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote poetry that expresses deep love and reverence for all creation within a religious context, most notably in “God’s Grandeur.”

In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, quite possibly the most influential Christian of modern times, wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the joy and refreshment he found in the natural world. More recently, farmer-poet Wendell Berry‘s novels, essays, and poetry show a Christian worldview where nature and the fruits of the earth are central to the spiritual and moral life.

To return to the group that prompted these musings, on its website “Let All Creation Praise” states: “We seek to serve the whole church by providing resources for Christian worship that promotes love of and care for God’s creation.” The organization “offers resources for congregations to celebrate God’s love for creation, to worship God with creation so as to reconcile and restore our human relationship with the rest of nature, and to foster love and care for God’s whole creation. We also provide resources to celebrate a “season of creation” or “creation time” in the church year.” In a world where human greed threatens to overtax the climate and natural resources of our fragile globe, it is heartening to see this kind of endeavor. Reverence for the earth should not be seen as competition for the reverence of God, but as its natural consequence.

Nature, Beautiful yet Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw: Musings on Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt

My last post, comparing two delightful tales of earthworms (Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt and Diary of an Earthworm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss), gave rise to some more serious thoughts.

hair in my dirtAs much as I love Larson’s mordantly funny satire (and the wonderful introduction by E.O. Wilson), I have to admit that like Larson’s fair maiden, Harriet, I have a strong streak of sentimentality where the natural world is concerned.

I was struck especially hard by Larson’s take on birdsong as “mostly an array of insults, warnings, and come-ons” and his/Father Worm’s dismissal of Harriet’s appreciation of the artistry in Nature when she comes upon a field of wildflowers: ” ‘Oh, Mother Nature! What a sex maniac you are!’ may have been a better choice of words, for Harriet was actually gazing upon a reproductive battlefield.”

I know that Nature is red in tooth and claw—eat or be eaten; robin vs. earthworm; magnificent hawk vs. cute little bunny—but do Beauty and Utilitarianism in Nature really have to be mutually exclusive? After all, sex and beauty are strongly linked, whether we are talking about humans, flowers, or animals. The fact that flowers are beautiful (a proposition that surely few would disagree with) does not mean they cannot also serve their own purposes—or those of humankind.

In like manner, Larson/Father Worm derides Harriet’s description of dragonflies as “winged ballerinas,” pointing out that “winged assassins” is closer to the truth. (One assassin I have to applaud, since they eat mosquitoes!) Nevertheless, dragonflies are graceful. Likewise, birdsong serves a variety of bird purposes, but much of it is beautiful to human ears.

Whether these animals derive happiness or enjoyment from their activities is something that we humans ultimately cannot know. But humans who have spent much time around domesticated animals, at least, have a pretty good sense that many animals are capable of enjoyment just as much as humans. Dogs, for example, seem to derive much pleasure from  exercising their bodies—running, playing fetch, and the like. When they greet us after an absence, it seems to be as much an expression of pleasure in our company as expectation of being walked or fed. And there seems to be strong evidence that some higher mammals, such as dolphins, engage in pure play. So who is to say that birds don’t experience some kind of satisfaction from expressing themselves in song or taking flight through the air?

I struggle with the spiritual dimension of this, and am reminded that when Job complained to God, God finally answered him by listing the wonders of creation, including beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth that humans of Biblical times doubtless found threatening. For me, the moral of that is: “Job, it’s not all about you. The universe is bigger than that.” (Sort of like the ending of Casablanca.)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

True, understanding Nature is important. But love for Nature must come first, else there’s no incentive for understanding. Love for Nature, fostered by experience, but also art and story, including stories that anthropomorphize. For all his caution against painting Nature in our own image, Larson’s book is successful precisely because it also includes its share of humorous anthropomorphism (Mother Worm’s beehive hairdo and glasses; Father Worm’s pipe).

I would further argue that the Harriets of this world want to be educated, and that in this era of global warming humanity’s best hope lies in such Harriets, their love for Nature fostered alike by the science of E.O. Wilson, the humor of Gary Larson, and the “kindler, gentler” image of Nature presented by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss in Diary of an Earthworm.

Thomas Merton Conference

Merton_Logo_procAfter last week’s post on Thomas Merton’s poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” I was contacted by the organizers of a Merton conference, “Coming home and going forth: Merton as mirror and model,” to be held June 19-22 on the grounds of Saint Bonaventure University, in Olean, NY, where Merton briefly taught before entering the Trappist monastery outside Louisville, Kentucky.

The paragraphs below are taken from the conference’s official press release. Sarah DiPofi of the Travers Collins public relations firm was kind enough to bring the conference to my attention.

The life of beloved Catholic contemplative, poet, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton will be the focus of the summer 2014 conference “Coming home and going forth: Merton as mirror and model.”

The three-day event at St. Bonaventure University will celebrate the relationship between St. Bonaventure University and Merton in anticipation of Merton’s 100th birthday in 2015. Speakers include America magazine columnist Fr. Dan Horan, O.F.M. For schedule and registration information, visit http://www.sbu.edu/merton.

While Merton’s time in Western New York was brief, his experiences at St. Bonaventure, from the time that his friend Robert Lax brought him to Olean to his days in Devereux Hall, were influential in his life’s journey.

Merton’s autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain,” regarded as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, reflects on his time at St. Bonaventure University.

Through keynote speakers, worship experiences and tours, the conference will explore the relationships Merton had with the people and places of St. Bonaventure.

In addition to Father Horan, renowned Merton scholars on the schedule include William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies (Nazareth College) Christine Bochen and professor of religious studies and vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University Michael Higgins.

Merton photoSt. Bonaventure University President, Sr. Margaret Carney, O.S.F., S.T.D., said the conference will appeal to both those who have studied the life and perspectives of Merton and those on a spiritual journey of any kind: “Merton’s time at Bonaventure can be both a mirror and a model for those of us who strive to find a spiritual home in our own lives.”

Conference coordinator Julianne Wallace says the conference theme harkens to Merton’s calling to religious life: “Merton’s spiritual home was the Abbey of Gethsemani, the bells of which called him to pursue monastic life. We echo that call with this conference invitation to gather current and future Merton enthusiasts to continue to learn from and build upon the tremendous spiritual and intellectual gifts he gave the world.” Wallace is the director of faith formation, worship and ministry at St. Bonaventure.

Visit www.sbu.edu/merton for the schedule of events, speaker biographies, and conference registration information. Follow the conference preparations and latest news on Twitter using #MertonMirrorandModel.

The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them. The University is establishing pathways to internships, graduate schools and careers in the context of our renowned liberal arts tradition. Our students are becoming extraordinary.

I hope some of you will be able to attend. It sounds like a fascinating event!

 

Celebrate Earth Day with Thomas Merton

Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote many poems over the too-brief span of his fifty-three years, but my favorites are those dealing with nature. A few months ago, I blogged about “Night Flowering Cactus,” which I think is his masterpiece in the genre, and today, in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to look at a more spring-like gem, “O Sweet Irrational Worship.” Here is the beginning:

“Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.”

The entire poem can be found here.

The poem begins very simply, reflecting perhaps Merton’s interest in the radical stripping away of the extraneous, which he found in Zen Buddhism as well as in certain mystical paths of Western Christianity such as that of Saint John of the Cross (known for his meditations on “the dark night of the soul”).

In the line “By ceasing to question the sun,” I believe Merton is describing a path to mystical contemplation in which we let go of the rational, analytical part of our mind and simply experience the present: the sun, the wind, the bobwhite (not a generic “bird” but a specific creature). If you go still long enough and just let yourself experience these elements of nature, you may perhaps enter into a mystical union with them as Merton did in the encounter he depicts in this poem: becoming  the light, the bird, the wind.

In the next line, Merton moves beyond this to a more universal identification with the natural world. His “leaves sing” as if he were a tree, and then he moves on to a yet greater epiphany: “I am earth, earth. All these lighted things grow from my heart.” By identifying so completely with the natural world to the extent that he experiences a kind of mystical oneness with it, Merton then perceives the interconnectedness of it all, of all the “lighted” things: things that share in the universal condition of being lit by the sun, things that also share in the universal light of the love and creativity of God.

And then more than this, a connection that shares not merely the same experiences, but one that has gone beyond this to take on a sense of responsibility, of a deep inward tie so that for a mystical moment, all creation seems to grow from his heart. And in fact, perhaps it does, just as in Roman Catholic theology the blood and body of Christ transmute into the wine and bread that Christians take in the mystery of Eucharist.

I fancy that more conservative Christians would frown on the poem as veering towards pantheism, nature-worship, but that is to ignore the deep, worshipful response that nature inspires in so many people, across so many eons and cultures. As I mentioned last week, it was C.S. Lewis, certainly no “liberal” (and certainly no “conservative,” either, but a “mere” Christian), who wrote of the deep joy that nature inspired in him, and of how it pointed the way to his certainty that a transcendent element exists.

Reverence for the earth is urgently needed, now more than ever, when we humans are on the verge of destroying the beautiful world that people of religion believe was made by God, not merely, I would argue, for its utilitarian value, but for its beauty, its joy, and for the opportunity to share fellowship with other living creatures that are so different from ourselves such as Merton’s bobwhite and pine tree.

After celebrating this tree, “a tall, spare pine / [that] Stands like the initial of my first / Name when I had one,” and two ecstatic stanzas that are each followed by the “I am earth, earth” refrain, the poem concludes as simply as it began:

“Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds,
His foolish worship.”

In this final image, the bobwhite, Merton, and the earth itself are inextricably linked, so that Merton’s heart becomes the earth, an emptying of a self that now has no name. The poet’s heart is the humble, lowly matter of grass and weeds, the setting and habitat for the bobwhite, who is now linked with Merton the monk in an act of thanksgiving for life, the act of “foolish” worship, worship of the One in whom both poet and bird live, move, and have their being.

photo by Matt Tillett

photo by Matt Tillett

Birdsong and the Transcendent

I wasn’t planning to post this week, but walking back from Maundy Thursday service at church this evening, I was struck by  the abundance of birdsong. It was dusk, so that was not surprising, but the birdsong added an extra touch of beauty and contemplation to the day. Birdsong was present during the service, too: during communion I could hear birds twittering in the bushes on the other side of the stained-glass windows, and a flock of wild geese called as the priest recited the Eucharistic liturgy, adding a lovely counterpoint as if all creation were participating in the service.

from tgreyfox's photostream

from tgreyfox’s photostream

I noticed birdsong last Sunday as well, on my way home from church. On both occasions it brought to mind the opening of my new all-time favorite film, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which begins with a quiet, contemplative scene in a park on the outskirts of Rome. A woman sits on a bench, we hear birdsong, then an a cappella women’s chorus. And then the scene shifts abruptly to a loud nightclub—an intentionally grating contrast.

The film, which I saw (twice) a few months ago, moved me very powerfully, and I suppose one measure of that is how often I think of it during especially contemplative moments. But it also made me more attentive to the occasions for mindful contemplation of the world, of the present, of the moment, of nature and of other people, so that the current, so to speak, flows both ways.

The point of all this is my realization that, for me at least, birdsong is a gateway to the transcendent, a symbol of the earthly joy that C.S. Lewis speaks of as a pointer to the reality of a transcendent nature and being. Without birdsong and birds—and the trees and plants that support them—the world would be a very poor place indeed. I thank the Creator for the gift of birds!

Happy Spring.

 

Thomas Merton’s “Night-Flowering Cactus”

Photos by German botanist, BotBin, from the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons

Photos by German botanist, BotBin, from the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons

This post was partly inspired by one of my favorite blogs, StuffJeffReads, where Jeff focuses on poetry just as much as prose, often examining individual poems. Following last week’s post on Thomas Merton, I decided to focus on my favorite from his vast output of poetry, “Night-Flowering Cactus” (published in Merton’s poetry collection Emblems of a Season of Fury, c1963).

“Night-Flowering Cactus” is one of the most perfect blends of Christian spirituality and reverence for nature that I have ever encountered. Written in first person from the plant’s point of view, here is a truncated version:

I know my time, which is obscure, silent and brief
For I am present without warning one night only….

When I come I lift my sudden Eucharist
Out of the earth’s unfathomable joy
Clean and total I obey the world’s body
I am intricate and whole, not art but wrought passion
Excellent deep pleasure of essential waters
Holiness of form and mineral mirth:

I am the extreme purity of virginal thirst….

…. He who sees my purity
Dares not speak of it.
When I open once for all my impeccable bell
No one questions my silence:
The all-knowing bird of night flies out of my mouth.

Have you seen it? Then though my mirth has quickly ended
You live forever in its echo:
You will never be the same again.

Night flowering Cactus 2--256px-Echinopsis_eyriesii_HabitusFlowers_BotGardBln0806aThe cactus’s prayer is its flower, which accords with Merton’s understanding that “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Quote from banner on http://merton.org; I’m not sure of the original source.)

Merton’s vocation as a Trappist monk, part of a silent order whose members are hidden away from the world, was the path that allowed him the scope to discover his true self. Like the Trappist monk, the night-flowering cactus blossoms in silence and obscurity, opening its deep white flower in the middle of the night. Like the night-flowering cactus, monks rise in the middle of the night to say prayers.

In liturgical churches—Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox, Lutheran, and the like—the Eucharist, the celebration of Mass, marks the meeting place of heaven and earth, the ultimate symbol of The Holy. In the Roman Catholic tradition to which Merton belonged, when Christians partake of bread and wine, these earthly elements become “transubstantiated,” that is mystically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. While the Eucharist is not typically celebrated at night, there are certain special exceptions, such as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Holy Saturday (the night before Easter), and the first stanza of the poem makes it clear that the night-flowering cactus blooms rarely: “I am present without warning one night only.” In searching for pictures on Wikimedia Commons, I discovered that it is also called in English the “Easter Lily Cactus.” (The botanical name is Echinopsis eyriesii.)

The literal meaning of “Eucharist” from the Greek is “thanksgiving,” and in this sense as well Merton’s Cactus offers its flower as thanks, gratitude, and praise. Anyone who has ever watched a seedling come up from the earth, gradually unfolding itself until it lifts its two leaves to the sky, will recognize the similarity to the actions of the celebrating priest who beginning from a bowed position of prayerful adoration then takes up the Host or Bread (white, like the Cactus’s blossom) and raises it to the heavens.

This stanza of the poem is the most moving to me, expressing Merton’s sense of the holiness of the earth, the “unfathomable joy” that nature in general and the soil in particular possess, the soil which makes possible all life through its “mineral mirth.” Like all nature, the Cactus is “not art but wrought passion”; like all plants, it is wrought from the “deep pleasure of essential waters” into “holiness of form and mineral mirth.” The flower’s essence is to rejoice, to model for us what holiness on earth might look like.

The last stanzas return to the theme of silence, and yet there is a tension between the plant’s silence and the poet’s silent witness, for ultimately the act of poetry has paradoxically managed to express that of which one “dares not speak.” A fitting conundrum, emblematic of Merton’s life.

emblems of a season of fury

 

Happy Birthday, Thomas Merton

My favorite writer on spirituality, Thomas Merton was born January 31, 1915 “under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain,” as he put it at the beginning of The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography that detailed his life’s journey up to age 27 when he entered a Trappist monastery. An autobiography that plunged him into fame just as he retired from the world to one of the more austere Roman Catholic orders and had taken a vow of silence.

I first encountered Merton’s writings when I was 27 and in graduate school. Every year just before Christmas, the campus bookstore had a big book sale, and faculty and graduate students got first dibs the night before it opened to undergrads and the general public. In those pre-Amazon days, it was quite the event. We graduate students eagerly looked forward to the invitations that would appear in our mailboxes, entitling us to gorge on books at a reduced price.

I don’t remember what exactly drew me to Merton’s autobiography. Perhaps I was vaguely aware of the name, and in any case I had a long-standing fascination with monasticism. In college I heard Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs for the first time and was immediately taken with both the music and the words, monastic marginalia adapted by poet W.H. Auden. Barber’s setting of the last poem, “Ah, to be all alone, in a little cell, with nobody near me,” is particularly haunting, and his setting of an unknown monk’s ode to his cat, “Panga, white Panga, how happy we are, alone together, scholar and cat,” absolutely delightful, with an accompaniment that manages to be wholly musical while sounding quite like a cat pattering on the piano keys.

In any event, I was totally captivated by The Seven Storey Mountain and quickly moved on to devour Merton’s other writings. In particular, I was struck by his essay “Learning to Live,” which articulated many of my own concerns and answered them with his call to complete authenticity in every area of one’s life. (It was published in the collection Love and Living, one of the many posthumous collections of essays and other writings edited by his longtime literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, and Brother Patrick Hart, who served as Merton’s last secretary.)

Like Tolkien, Merton was a Roman Catholic in a Protestant culture, something which must have given each an outsider’s perspective. Like Tolkien, too, Merton’s work reveals great reverence and respect for the natural world, which figures most prominently in his poetry. Merton’s passion for social justice and personal integrity became my guiding principles (not that I can claim to live up to such a model), and his diaries and other autobiographical writings show the struggles all of us experience as human beings trying and failing to lead good lives. They also show specific difficulties of the monastic life such as the struggles Merton experienced in balancing obedience to his superiors with the sometimes conflicting demands of his conscience when he felt obliged to speak out against racism and war. At a time when most religious persons regarded those outside their faith with suspicion or worse, Merton corresponded with Buddhists, Jews, Protestants, and Muslims, eagerly exchanging ideas and taking away much from their traditions that he felt could enrich his own religious practice.

Merton was also, first and foremost, a writer, and I can imagine no better patron saint.

Church Bells

A few weeks ago, I set out for my daily walk, my destination the local library. My husband and I were both suffering from colds, so we’d slept in, and it was 11:30 by the time I left the house, carrying a backpack of soon-to-be-overdue books.

Church tower of Cathedral St. Anastasia, Zadar, Croatia. Photo by Bohringer Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons.

Church tower of Cathedral St. Anastasia, Zadar, Croatia. Photo by Bohringer Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons.

It was an unseasonally warm Sunday, just above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a beautiful late-autumn day with the sun shining brightly through the trees, transforming the remaining leaves into stained-glass windows colored in flame. Rounding a corner, I faced into the sun, and as it shone out, the bells from a nearby church began to peal.

I’d heard the bells before. I tend to take my walks around midday, and had often heard the church carillon ring out familiar hymns. It was always a pleasant accompaniment. But this was quite different, no tunes, just a wild, joyous cry, bells from high to low, deep-voiced through treble, pouring out in a jubilee that reminded me of my recording of the Coronation Scene in Boris Godunov. The bells and the sun created a moment of pure wonder and beauty.

On my way home from the library, on the very same block, I heard the bells again. But this time it was the familiar Big Ben chime, followed by a singularly appropriate hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth” (one of my favorites). From the sublime moment earlier in the walk to the comforting and familiar as I wended my way home, I felt grateful, blessed by the bells.

Here’s the coronation scene from Boris, the version with the best bells of those I could find on youtube (couldn’t find the scene from the recording I own, which features Boris Christoff in the title role, but the bells on the recording below are also quite spectacular):

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