Pope Calls Attention to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton


A pontiff who prefers to eat with the homeless rather than national leaders is a different type of religious leader than one we otherwise might expect, Hugenot says. (Photo: House Office of Photography)

True to form, Pope Francis demonstrated humility in his way of interacting with all people, not only those in secular or sacred halls of power, during his trip to the U.S. last week.

A pontiff who prefers to eat with the homeless rather than national leaders is a different type of religious leader than one we otherwise might expect.

In his speech before the Congress, the pope offered a word of gratitude for the lives of four notable Americans.

Many Baptists cheer the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr., one of our most noteworthy contributors.

We also recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, leading the country when deep divisions required extraordinary leadership.

Perhaps some Baptists do not know the other great Americans also noted: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, two significant 20th century Roman Catholic voices.

Like any list of Baptist "greats," there are likely some Roman Catholics a bit perturbed with Day and Merton being cited.

They were faithful yet dissenting voices in their own way against institutional passivity when matters divine overshadowed the deep needs of the world.

Of Day, Pope Francis recalled, "In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed was inspired by the gospel, her faith and the example of the saints."

Merton, the pope said, "remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. ... [he] was above all 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."

I rejoiced in Merton gaining mention before Congress. While studying at American Baptist-related Ottawa University, I found myself enthralled in the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky.

I wrote my senior thesis on Merton, and as part of my exploration into his life and thought, I stayed a week at the monastery where he lived until his death in 1968.

At the entrance, the inscription, "God Alone," is carved over the gateway to the monastic enclosure.

Merton came to the abbey as a young adult who was mixed up with a lot of the life questions that we tend to have: "Who am I and what I am supposed to do with my life?"

He entered into the monastery after a long soul-searching, feeling called to a life withdrawn from the world.

The monastic life helped Merton reorient his life, later becoming regarded as one of the 20th-century's spiritual masters.

It was not an easy stretch of time for Merton, as his posthumously published multivolume collection of journals will attest.

He searched for God and wrestled with the world inside and outside the monastic enclosure, finding his grounding and his identity as he developed a deep trust in God.

While at the monastery he remained engaged with the world, becoming intertwined with the tumult of the 1960s, addressing issues of war, racism and political matters.

His hermitage would be a place where he hosted a number of activists and writers from time to time.

Martin E. Marty once criticized Merton for daring to comment on race issues from the distant cloisters.

Eventually, Marty realized that Merton's writings had a great deal of insight into the difficulties and tumult, bringing an incisive and considered word amid many voices clamoring for the right answers to perplexing and violent times.

Saints are always with us in every generation, whether they are canonized, beatified or known only to us from life's experience of faith gracing us through notable faithful lives we experienced firsthand.

I am reminded of Psalm 16, often called a psalm of trust, when considering such folks.

It is framed in the language of deep appreciation and unshakable knowledge that in God alone, we find our hope and assurance as well as our guidance in the journey ahead.

The psalmist asks us to be intentional about knowing ourselves fully, examining ourselves carefully and stripping down our vanities and pride.

We are called to be pilgrims, persons journeying toward God along the spiritual pathway.

Who knows? The Washington, D.C., beltway may have been blessed by someone aware enough to know that halls of power need redemption.

As we gear up for the 2016 election cycle, it might be a blessing to know that the people most tuned in to what this country and world needs most is not certainty and argument; they lead with a spirit of humility and service to others, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering, where a longer version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.

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Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Jerrod Hugenot, Mark Luther King Jr, Pope Francis, Social Justice, Thomas Merton


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