To Dare to Imagine Again: Pope Francis and Thomas Merton

During his historic address to the US Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis spoke of four “great” Americans who “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Needless to say, for me, a Merton scholar–and longtime admirer of the other three figures–it was a wholly unexpected and thrilling affirmation of Merton’s contributions to the American story and his enduring gifts to the people of God.

Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so.  (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The first hint that the Pope’s address would not conform to the usual order of things on Capital Hill came when he invoked the prophet Moses, whose stern visage looks down upon the congressional chamber from a wall high above. Speaking slowly and deliberately in English, by no means a comfortable language for Francis, he told US lawmakers that Moses “provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

In 1966, Merton had similarly declared that our first and last duty as human beings is “to be human in this most inhuman of ages, to guard the image of man for it is the image of God.

Pope Francis described Merton as  “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” Whereas once upon a time Merton was (and still is) derided by many American Catholics and dismissed by not a few US bishops for these very qualities, Francis has repeatedly emphasized these aspects of the Christian vocation as more urgent than ever in our times.

I cannot help but recall a passage in Merton’s journal of 1961, where he reflects with some anxiety on fellow Catholics who were increasingly, often scathingly, critical of him for his public stances on war, racial justice, and other urgent social issues: “Frankly,” he wrote, “I’m not one of the bunch, am I?” It was the year of his “Cold War Letters,” when he had just completed a book called Peace in the Post-Christian Era, only to see it censored as too radical by his own Trappist order.

Echoing a frequent theme of Merton, Pope Francis warned members of Congress that one of the first enemies of human dignity is the kind of “polarization” that divides the human community into “camps.” Invoking–perhaps by contrast to his present audience–the sacrificial leadership and courageous efforts of President Lincoln to unify and transform America in “a new birth of freedom,” Francis observed that ideological and religious fundamentalism isn’t merely a political problem; in light of our call to protect the image of God in others, even (if not especially) our enemy, it is foremost a spiritual problem, and a deadly temptation:

We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

“Is it?” I wanted to ask. (Thinking, for example, of Donald Trump’s reference to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” And the crowds of jubilant supporters cheering him on.)

Hearkening to King’s prophetic “dream” for racial equality and Dorothy Day’s “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” Pope Francis called the world’s most powerful political body to “courageous action and responsible effort” to bring hope and new opportunity to “all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.” Citing his encyclical Laudato Si, he urged “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

At the United Nations a day later, Francis would suggest that our common home, the Earth, has fundamental rights–and perhaps dreams?–of its own. The pope dares us to imagine this: How dramatically would our relationship with the planet shift–and our children’s hopes for the future come closer to realization–if we, and this Congress, our representatives, were to take seriously the sacred intuition that “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist”?

Of course, both the allure and the danger of dreams–as Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton knew very well–is their capacity to suffuse and haunt our waking and sleeping hours, daring us to imagine again what is possible. Francis shares with Merton an uncanny ability to stir hope in people of diverse cultural, political, and religious backgrounds, the capacity to imagine things across gaping divides we had long ago dismissed as “mere dreaming,” “unrealistic,” a “pipe dream.” Moreover, hope sings from Merton and Pope Francis not in a downward direction, as if from places “on high” to us commoners below; rather hope reverberates in them sideways, as between fellow pilgrims on a journey–cor ad cor loquitur, where heart to speaks to heart. Hope catches fire, as Pope Francis has written, “from the heart of the people.”

Merton.rusticMerton was once appreciatively described, and accurately, I think, as “a people’s theologian.” It is beautiful and perhaps not too surprising that Pope Francis, whom many are calling “the people’s pope,” would invoke Merton, and precisely in this context before the US Congress, as he beckons people everywhere to shoulder the responsibilities of public life and embrace the gifts of faith in the twenty-first century. Somehow both Merton and Francis answer the call joyfully, even playfully and confidently, as we face the great challenges of the future. To dare to dream again we need new eyes, perhaps something of their eyes, “for seeing and interpreting reality.”






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