Find a quiet place to sit in peace and ponder

— Photo from

Thomas Merton

As has been mentioned here before, Pope Francis, during a six-day visit to the United States in 2015, was invited to (and did in fact) address a joint session of Congress — on Thursday, Sept. 24. He was the first Pope of the Holy See ever to do so.

In a subtle way — paradoxically — he was being quite bold, giving the kind of sermon a deeply-Christian preacher might give to his congregation at Sunday service. There were more than a few in the politically savvy conclave who thought they were back in college listening to a lecture in The Politics of Social Justice 101.

The Pope started by calling attention to the elements a society needs to evolve successfully into the future. He said, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”

By satisfying common needs he meant meeting the needs of all, which was then, and remains, the calling card of his papal administration; in Congress, he was challenging America to see if it had the brass to adopt such a view.

In using the word “vocation,” as in “having a calling,” he was describing the inner energizing force a society needs to help the least of its members, “those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” without resentment, where the undying care for others is a cardinal rule.

The Pope was more than intimating that societal instability does not arise when neighborhoods and communities attend to “the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” The gloss on the text is: He was calling for the needs of the poorest person in America to be responded to in the same way those of the richest person are. He is not one to brook benevolent triage.

But, when we look at American society today, we see social-movement-like rivulets of dystopian resentment springing up everywhere toward those in need, those who require extra (special) attention, more time, more money, more care. If the dystopians had their way, the weak and needy would fall off the face of the Earth and wither from memory.

The Pope is very smart — and not just because he’s a Jesuit — more because he’s ingested the core message of Jesus, which he lives out each day with humility. From the start, he rejected all the trappings of papal royalty — like living in the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo — in favor of his namesake Francis of Assisi.

As the Senators and Representatives — the Supreme Court judges were there too — listened to his every word, the Pope drew attention to those Americans who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” a spirit that enables a country to withstand “crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity.”

He mentioned four Americans who fostered such a spirit: (1) Abraham Lincoln; (2) Martin Luther King Jr.; (3) Dorothy Day; and (4) Thomas Merton — for which he received a rousing applause.

Lincoln and King everybody knew but Day? Merton? Puzzled faces abounded: “They aren’t in the history books!”

I greatly admire Dr. King, as I do our 16th president — though not fully understanding all he did — but what more than thrilled me that day was to hear the Pope mention two visionaries who helped shape the ethical foundation of my life: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — and by ethical I mean the values I live by each day.

I started reading their works more than 50 years ago and, in the case of Merton, I read him still — he’s the person who’s most influenced my life.

With respect to Dorothy Day, some members of Congress were aware of her because a group of Catholics had been feverishly pushing Rome to make her a canonized saint. And on April 28 of this year, millions more knew her because the New York City Department of Transportation led the inaugural ride of a 4,500-passenger Staten Island Ferry called the Dorothy Day.

In the 1940s, Day had a cottage on Staten Island she used as a respite from running her Catholic Worker soup kitchen and house of hospitality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She took the ferry back and forth, which she no longer does because she’s a permanent resident of the Island: Section 10, Resurrection Cemetery overlooking Raritan Bay.

But in the case of Merton, who has no boat, the average person walking down the street in any-town-America can no more identify him than they can the local Roto-Rooter man.

Merton was a poet who entered the Trappists in 1941 and almost never left the monastery’s grounds in Kentucky for 27 years. In 1968, when a new abbot took over, the abbot gave Merton permission to travel to Bangkok, Thailand to make a presentation at an important international gathering of monks from East and West.

Many at the time considered Merton — Christians and believers of other faiths alike — the most important spiritual writer of the 20th Century; he kept emphasizing how important it is for a person to be his/her/their authentic self if they wanted to be with God.

After his talk at Bangkok on the morning of Dec. 10 — he was slated for a Q and A in the afternoon — the tired traveler took a shower but, somehow on the way out, grabbed hold of a faulty fan and was electrocuted on the spot: dead at 53. His first big trip outside the walls in 27 years and whammo.

In addition to his many works on peace and justice and embracing a life of solitude, Merton left seven volumes of journals containing thoughts from nearly every day of his adult life. Every page is a Rorschach card revealing a man in search of peace within.

He mandated that the contents of the journals not be released to the public until 25 years after his death — he’d named names. Thus, in 1995, the first of the seven volumes appeared, which all together run to 2,966 pages. I’ve read all seven several times and Volume Seven as many as eight times. It’s on my bed now; I’ll read some tonight.

The great spiritual writer, Madame de Guyon, says in her treatise, “A Short Method of Prayer,” that every soul needs to take a few minutes out each day for meditative reading to assess if they’re going in the right direction.

She says every such soul needs to have a book that shows them how to be a more mature and happier person; the aspirant should start reading just “two or three lines, [to] enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further [until] satisfaction [is found] in them … not reading more than half a page at once.”

In other words, she was advocating for meditative self-reflective reading so that a person can assess his/her/their progress in becoming a better, happier, more sensitive person each day.

To those sympathetic to Guyon’s urging, I recommend Merton’s journals, all from beginning to end, 1941 to 1968, to see how one thoughtful solitary struggled to rid himself of falsity and be at peace with himself and the world around him.

Of course such reading requires laying down the phone and iPad and finding a quiet place to sit in peace and ponder for a while.

For those bothered by Merton being a monk, a Catholic, and forever talking about God, I suggest simply viewing him as a poet, a man, who sought to transcend every one of those categories — monk, Catholic, God — himself, unwilling to be hemmed in by any construct that stifles the authentic self within.

In his “Disputed Questions,” the poet prefigured Pope Francis by 50 years when he said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”