My wife Lauri and I just returned from two weeks in Australia. I was invited by Marist Brother Mark O’Connor to give a series of lectures and retreat days on the life and writings of Thomas Merton, with a healthy dose of Pope Francis thrown in for good measure. We spent a number of days at Newman College, a venerable Jesuit residence for graduate students in Melbourne. We enjoyed a day in Adelaide, several days in Sydney, and finally, a few days at the Marist retreat center in Mittagong, in the heart of south Australian wine country.
Yes, we did see kangaroos and an adorably shy koala! Not in the wild, mind you, but at the Melbourne Zoo. And yes, we spent several days basking in the magnificent environs of the Sydney Harbour, justly famous for its sail-draped Opera House and “Coat Hanger” bridge. I’ve never seen human art and architecture so beautifully and organically well-fitted to their natural landscape as in these two structures. Neither the opera house nor the bridge dominate the harbour in such a way as to overstate their place in the natural order of things. They are human inventions that accentuate, rather than erase, the transcendent beauty of the harbour’s waters.
Lauri and I spent our last evening in Sydney at a lovely seafood place on the north shore of the harbour. Expensive, yes – location, location, location – but the Marists are very generous, and it felt like a fittingly sensuous and sacramental end to an extraordinarily grace-filled sojourn Down Under. (Ever seen the film “Babette’s Feast?)
There are so many things, beyond the culinary, that will stay with me from this experience, but three especially stand out.
First, Australia is a remarkably welcoming, international, and multi-cultural country. Its cities teem with what Pope Francis calls the “culture of encounter,” or better, the “encounter of cultures.” Traveling up and down Melbourne by train was a wonderful experience, a feast for the poly-cultural senses. Coming from the United States, where Trump-style xenophobia is palpably and ominously present, the juxtaposition of Asian, Euro-Australian and aboriginal cultures — shops, music, fashion, art — was liberating, refreshing, beautiful. Perhaps globalization has its upsides, it occurred to me, when embraced with human possibility, and not fear.
Second, while the Catholic Church in Australia is reeling with fallout from the sexual abuse scandal — Cardinals Wilson and Pell are currently on the hot seat — nevertheless the ordinary laypeople of the church that we met are faithful and resilient people. The fact that most of these lay folks are involved in Marist ministries — they are teachers, administrators, lay and youth spiritual formation leaders — suggests to me that I have a great deal more to learn about the Marists! The witness of the brothers themselves — welcoming, down to earth, joyful, kind — communicated a sense of inclusion and love sorely needed in our church today.
Third, Merton still rocks. That is to say, his life and witness still resonate no less powerfully, if a bit more quietly, than half a century ago. If Merton could describe the 1960s as “a season of fury,” and 1968 as a “beast of a year,” I wonder how he would describe 2018, under the relentlessly turbulent storm clouds of the Trump presidency. On December 10 of this year, when people around the world mark the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death, it will be no small consolation to me that all of his books remain in print, and that young people still look to Thomas Merton as a sign of faithfulness, hope and love amid tumultuous times.
Merton’s father Owen, it is worth noting, was from New Zealand, his mother Ruth, from America. Both were artists. Perhaps in Merton the artistic spirit of North America and the Oceanic lands Down Under were joined and flowered in new ways together, as one. A bit romantic, I admit, but not beyond the pale of thought and imagination. Across all oceans and every time zone, we are joined together in the “hidden ground of Love.”
My dear brothers and sisters. We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.
From his earliest books to his final pilgrimage and death in Asia, Merton is living witness to “the sign of Jonas,” flashes of diamond-light resurrection, hints of the empty tomb, hidden in plain sight among us. The prophet has found his way free from the belly of the whale. His liberation, the inheritance of the risen Christ he adored, anticipates our own.
To my new friends in Australia, thank you. You have renewed my spirit, refreshed my body and soul – who knew? your wines are quite good! – and reignited my hope for the church.
Be of good cheer, mates, and keep on keeping the faith.
Postscript: the titles and locations of our Australian itinerary
1/ “God Accompanies Persons: Thomas Merton and Pope Francis on Helping People Become More Fully Human and Fully Alive in their Faith Journey.” Day of Reflection, Newman College.
2/ “Wisdom-Sophia in the Life and Prayer of Thomas Merton.” Bishop Dom Helder Camara Lecture, Newman College, Melbourne.
3/ “In Everything Mercy: Thomas Merton and Pope Francis on the Merciful Heart of God.” Day of Reflection, Newman College, Melbourne, and Marist College, Adelaide.
4/ “Thomas Merton and the Future of Faith: Merton Dares to Imagine What is Possible for God and for Human Beings.” Marist Ministries Formation Day, Sydney.
5/ “Thomas Merton: The Scriptures and Contemplation.” Two-day retreat, Mittagong Marist Retreat Center.