Negotiating one’s response to God’s call with those one loves

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  —

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time —  September 20, 2020

Read today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (1:20-24,27) and search within his statement of the benefit on either side of living or dying in Christ.  You just may acknowledge that what Paul gives us is his own internal negotiation on whether his response to God’s call to him has been lived out with integrity.  On the one hand he says, “dying is only so much gain.”  On the other he says, assuming his imprisonment would end soon, “My being with you once again should make you even prouder of me in Christ.”

Yes, this is insight into Paul’s mind and soul.  It reminds us that we all negotiate our response to God’s call.  We question, “Is this my true and best response?”

Over the years I have accepted as accurate the story that Thomas Merton wanted to be a hermit but he was prevented for years by his Abbot, Dom James Fox.  I believed that Merton considered Dom James’ actions to be a personal affront, even a skeptical questioning of the integrity of his vision for his best response to God’s call.

I picked up a book that centers on Merton’s choice.  It contains special focus on the relationship between the two men.  It is true that Merton, prior to his move to the hermitage in 1965, had experienced for at least 12 years what he saw as this call to the desert.  The book, “Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon” deals with the period 1952-1955.  Its centerpiece is the correspondence between Merton (Fr. Louis) and those who were most directly involved in this part of his life’s journey, particularly Dom James Fox..

The reason the author, Donald Grayston, chose this title is that his view on Merton’s journey is one of recognizing the craggy, sometimes murky, sometimes “doing-nothing-about-it” aspects of this time in his life –  the would-be hermit.  It was a time for Merton that was marked by a collision of mismatched episodes of both a restlessness as well as listlessness.  He assesses that Merton shared a condition well known out of monastic history.  It’s a condition that comes over the monk who is unconvinced that their life is just where it needs to be as they feel the nagging thoughts of a suspected missed vocational direction.  This causes a restless spirit to join with a listless attitude to become something well known in the ascetical life, a case of acedia.  It’s a sort of ascetical “spinning of the wheels” on a vocational stationary bike.

Psalm 91:5-6 is the reference for the Noonday Demon.

“You shall not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day;

Not the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the devastating plague at noon.”

Noon symbolizes that time of life when all the start-of-day duties are done and next comes the time for wondering, to quote a song, “Is that all there is?”  When Merton asked that question he saw himself called to the desert with its demand for emptiness and abandonment of all things material.

The revelation of the all too human Merton in this correspondence – of the persistence, of the second-guessing, of the badgering of his superiors, and, yes, of the complaining – marked his search for definition and clarity.  As with other events in Merton’s life, he apparently saw that a good struggle should involve as many people as possible.  These letters are a revealing of the negotiation that occurred.  And it wasn’t always pretty.

He writes to the Camaldolese  (hermit community) superior, Dom Anselmo Giabbani.  He writes to many people including Archbishop Giovanni Montini (the eventual Pope Paul Vi).  He complains on several occasions that Dom James is a real obstacle in his effort.  Correspondence from the Abbot, also to those same people, acknowledges his reluctance owing to his skepticism that the full hermit life might not be exactly what Fr. Louis was looking for.  He shared in one letter that after he allowed Fr. Louis to turn a former tool shed into a place for solitude and for time of extended and prolonged prayer what he heard was the proto-hermit banging on a typewriter producing his ever growing output of books and articles.

Upon returning from Europe in 1955 from a meeting with the General Superior of the Trappist Order, a meeting that covered what to do about Fr. Louis, Dom James let him know that he had permission to become a hermit.  The one stipulation was that he had to be a 100% hermit.  Whatever that meant, it unnerved Fr. Louis enough that the next day he sent a note to the Abbot indicating that he was offering his services to become Master of Novices.  This put a stop, for the time being, of becoming a hermit at any %.

The correspondence in this book makes the clarifying point that Fr. Louis was negotiating what this call meant.  Perhaps he realized a 100% hermit would not inform his superior, as Merton did to Giabbani, that he would continue as a writer (with all that meant in terms of maintaining relationships with the world of publishing)  and select a spiritual director from outside the community (again, maintaining contact with the outside world).  These not-quite-demands which he made in advance of a transfer to a hermit community weren’t exactly illustrative examples of the total emptiness and abandonment of the desert.

Fr. Louis had a difficult negotiation with himself and apparently decided to work it out through correspondence with many people.  In this period of 1952-55, with plan in hand, he ran with it.  He let the Abbot know that the Passionist, Fr. Vincent Oberhauser (one of his 5 spiritual directors) thought he should transfer to the Camaldolese.  He didn’t acknowledge to Dom James, who had started his own religious life in the Passionists and later transferred to the Trappists, that another Passionist, Fr. Barnabas Ahern, New Testament scholar based in Chicago at the time, sent a detailed letter (Ahern actually sent the original to the Abbot) that made the case for Fr. Louis to stay put.  Merton pretty much got the same response from Archbishop Montini, all this in 1955.

Fr. Louis became Master of Novices, a position he held for the next 10 years.  That suspended his internal and external negotiations until, at long last, he was approved to move to the hermitage (a building that had been used for Ecumenical Dialogues) on the grounds of Gethsemani in 1965.

The first point I want to make by this story is that each of us works through the question of the best response to the call of God.  For St. Paul it made him question the value of life or death in Christ’s service, as well as question the value of returning to the Philippians – his beloved community.  For Thomas Merton it made him question which form of monastic life best suited his Call.  For you and me this too is likely a life-long negotiation.  Am I ever certain that my response to God is where the divine call was intended to lead?

My second point is that working out one’s response is best done with those one loves.  Remember, Paul himself planted the church at Philippi on or about the year 50CE while on his 2nd Missionary Journey.  On 2 or 3 occasions the Philippians sent financial resources which he needed to continue his ministry.  This also meant supporting him during his imprisonment.  He loved this community.

In Merton’s case it should be remembered that for all the obstructions and denials he received from his Abbot, Dom James selected Fr. Louis as his personal confessor.  After he stepped down as Abbot, Dom James himself followed Fr. Louis and became a hermit.  It should also be noted while Fr. Louis died in 1968 and Dom James died in 1987 the former Abbot saw to it that he be buried next to Fr. Louis.

It is best to work out one’s spiritual and internal negotiations with those one loves.  While St. Paul had the Philippian community, and Thomas Merton and Dom James had each other, hopefully  you/ I have those we love.  These grace-filled relationships are all the evidence we need of Christ present in our lives.

“Christ will be exalted through me, whether I live or die.”   Philippians 1:20b

A Prayer   (JR)

We praise you, O Christ!  You encourage and strengthen our decisions and commitments:

To act with fairness in our everyday relationships – especially the economic ones;

To act with openness in our role as citizens;

To act with depth in our response to your call.

Justice convicts us in our weakness.

Justice also grounds us to put our love into practice today, every day,

now and forever.      Amen.


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