A New Center (Where the Gospel Requires Us to Be)
In Calcutta just weeks before his death, Thomas Merton famously described the monk, and thus himself, as a “very strange kind of person,” a “marginal person, who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience.”
Some forty years later, an aged Fr. Daniel Berrigan took issue with Merton’s self-assessment. “I thought maybe his work, and mine as well, was not to look upon ourselves as at the edge of anything. We were creating a new center. We were where the Gospel required us to be, and the people giving in to violence as a Christian assumption, they were the people at the edge, not me.”*
Merton’s “marginal” location and Berrigan’s “center” are not, I think, two different places, but one vocation of the heart, animated by the dance of freedom and grace in which each of us must discern “where the Gospel requires us to be.” But here is the catch. Where the Gospel requires me to be may not be the same place the Gospel requires you to be. Why? God gifts each of us with particular gifts, and a Spirit Who moves through individual conscience and freedom and the wisdom of the community all at once. The vocation to discernment and discovery involves learning to navigate “our place,” where the Spirit calls us, in all of these dimensions.
How difficult it is to discern the path between conformity and critical dissent! Jesus was a faithful Jew, and a subject of the Roman Empire. But there was a time be born again and to break free, to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, to refuse allegiance to Empire, to be crucified. Berrigan took to the streets and temples of military-industrial power; Merton took to the woods and sung his protest in Psalms.
I wish we lived in a world and church where Fr. Berrigan’s discipline and spirituality of non-violence was not seen and so easily dismissed as marginal—surely not fit for the “real world”!—but finally reclaimed as the truly humane and Christian center from which we realize our joy and fulfillment as persons in community. So long, however, as the “powers and principalities” are running the show, I’m afraid Merton’s image of the religious and spiritual life at the margins feels more apt.
As Merton has it, to be haunted by God—a God of love and covenant relationship, who commands “thou shalt not kill,” and “care for the widow and orphan,” and “he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword,” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—is to become ever more a “marginal person,” a “creative extremist” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), perhaps even “the most maladjusted person in society” (Abraham Joshua Heschel).
It was a much younger Berrigan, of course, and many other Catholic peace activists, whom Merton welcomed often to Gethsemani for counsel, and supported publicly through his writings. “It was a long, hard road, and we needed help along the way,” Berrigan remembers, “and he gave it, he gave it. He was very important to all of us.”
That sentiment may be truer today than it was five decades ago. Given the degree of our accommodation to “the way things are” as preached by the powers of our times, my hopes for realizing Berrigan’s “new center” are not great.
As difficult and sometimes lonely as the discovery of our vocation in church and society can be, Merton helps me to live with the trust that each of us, always in motion, are nevertheless “held in place” each moment by the Love and Mercy of God, who at once “holds” and “sets us free” to labor for justice and peace, but to do so from a place of love and hope, and not of contempt, for the world and all of God’s people. How easy it is, by contrast, to enclose our hearts in cynicism, or to slip slow-motion-like into despair.
“My ideas are always changing,” Merton once confessed, “always moving around one center, and I’m always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence I will always be accused of inconsistency. But, I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.” Merton remains a “marginal” figure, I suggest, only because the rest of us have yet to catch up with him, have yet to discover the “one center,” who is Christ, the Prince of Peace, from which he lived.
The way of love is a long, hard road. More than ever we need witnesses like Berrigan and Merton to show the way.**
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
* See Morgan Atkinson, dir., “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.”
** Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era, quashed in 1962 by his superiors as too controversial, but recently published by Orbis, remains a tour de force of prophecy fired with mysticism, a field manual not only for the peace movement, but also by which the church today might gauge the adequacy of its own response to the present times. Frs. John Dear and Roy Bourgeois, Malala Yousafzai, the Mothers of the Disappeared, and many others more hidden, often marginalized from their own communities, continue to labor for peace and justice in the spirit of Merton and Berrigan. Today Pope Francis seems to be leading the church forward, and back to the margins, in a similar spirit of mercy and accompaniment.
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