Today, January 31, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, monk, writer, poet and peace activist who lead readers to discover faith, to discover Catholicism, simply through his words. James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America Magazine, has described his encounter with Merton through the monk’s autobiography. Martin, in fact, visited LMU in 2011, and I had a chance to interview him. We didn’t discuss Merton, though I’m certain the monk would’ve loved the fact that humor was a focus of the interview.
Martin’s life, and that of many others, was changed by Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain.” I have to confess that I started reading the book — I was in my 20s at the time — but I didn’t finish it. I often have wondered if I should feel ashamed of that, as if it demonstrates a lack of intelligence, or a lack of faith. On the other hand, a biography of Merton that I also began, and finished, at about the same age, is a book I've always treasured: “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton,” by Michael Mott. That volume is where I first read of Merton’s epiphany moment at the corner of 4th and Walnut, during a visit to Louisville:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” by Thomas Merton)
I don’t believe Merton’s insight is only for the mystics, or saints, among us. On a few occasions, usually in cities, I’ve stopped on a corner of an intersection and thought to myself, “Everyone I see is loved. Everyone is redeemable. Wow, I get it. I think I know what Merton meant.” That moment strikes me as the closest we, or I, can come to seeing with God’s eyes. The world’s troubles, in our time as well as Merton’s, are ever-present, unavoidable. For a reason I cannot explain, we seem to need to stop and look for the ever-present good, for what it is that joins us all.
Here is one of my favorite poems by Thomas Merton, written in memory of his younger brother, John Paul Merton, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and died from injuries suffered in a plane crash over the English Channel in April 1943. You can find the poem in “Selected Poems of Thomas Merton,” published by New Directions.
For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.
Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?
Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed—
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.
When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.
The River Journey of 1959
January 27, 2015
We learned this week that freelance writer Sandra Millers Younger hauled in an award for LMU Magazine on the strength of her writing. Younger wrote “Operation Huck Finn,” a feature in our fall 2013 issue about a group of students who in 1959 reenacted Huck Finn’s fictional trip down the Mississippi River in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Younger received the bronze award for Best Article of the Year in the 2015 CASE District VII Circle of Excellence Awards. CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) is an international association of educational institutions. District VII is the region that includes institutions from Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Utah.
Part of the story’s attraction, simply as an idea, was the familiarity of its subject matter: Alumni who studied American literature at any point in the past six decades probably read the novel. If they hadn’t, then they probably did in high school. Also, there’s something impulsive about the trip, which likely arose out of the same spirit that makes it hard to resist perfect pranks. Combine that with the students’ meticulous commitment to detail needed to actually plan and organize the trip, and you have a story with timeless appeal and several very sharp hooks.
Younger’s treatment impressed me as soon as I read her draft. Its tone was comfortably both light-hearted and serious, a balance I find very difficult to achieve. She captured the students’ adventurousness: A charismatic professor sought volunteers for a ludicrous idea, and six students raised their hands. How many parents lost sleep during that journey? Also, the group included a Mexican American, Carlos Salazar, and a Japanese American, Alan Kumamoto, both in the class of 1962, and Younger conveyed the undertone of racial tension that they sensed while traveling through some parts of Missouri. Best of all, she introduced into her text short segments of Twain’s novel — Huck’s comments — that helped frame the August 1959 journey. Here’s my favorite:
“It would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.”
I thought that was brilliantly used. Thanks, and congratulations, to Sandra Millers Younger.
The Work of Ponzi
January 23, 2015
Working as an editor can often seem a gray existence. Sometimes I go for weeks with my nose buried in text, the stuff that makes the pages turn gray. If the universe of the publishing profession could be expressed geographically, I’d say most editors’ lifetimes are lived out in Seattle. I like Seattle quite a lot, actually, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. But, like Seattleites, editors respond when the sun breaks through into a dull afternoon. It’s a glorious moment.
For me, bright light cuts through the clouds when an illustration for an insightful piece of writing arrives weeks into the editorial process. It was a glorious day, then, when we received Emiliano Ponzi’s illustration for an essay by Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., about the significance of the election of Pope Francis.
Ponzi’s work is a stunning, sublime statement that exquisitely expresses much of Deck’s commentary as well as the heart of the newest successor to Peter only months into his pontificate. Francis’ pastoral gifts have been evident from the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after his selection. When Maureen Pacino ’93, LMU Magazine’s creative director, called me into her office, I knew in minutes that the story headline had to be “Assisi Road.”
I could compose choruses of praise to Ponzi’s art. But better is to point to his work. The new edition of Communication Arts magazine, a premier publication in the world of design, profiles him in its latest edition and includes several of his illustrations. The illustration the editors chose to introduce their nine-page, in-depth feature about this internationally known artist is the one that first appeared in LMU Magazine.
Take a look. The range of Ponzi’s imagery is inspiring. And the story — yeah, the good-old gray text — is an excellent piece of writing that gives an insightful look into the mind and intentions of a wonderful artist.