Monthly Archives: December 2015

Imagine – peace on earth

‘And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.’
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton


Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

John Lennon
‘And in the political dark I light small frail lights about peace and hold them up in the whirlwind.’
Thomas Merton, 1961.


The anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death, ‘Advent: Hope or Delusion?’

December 10 is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton who died in 1968 in Bangkok in Thailand 47 years ago, and yet for many of us his wisdom remains vibrantly alive and he can still act as a spiritual guide through his writing and life experience.
The great thing about Merton is that there is so much – perhaps sometimes too much – to read and I was pleased to turn this week to his Meditations on Liturgy which includes a chapter on, ‘Advent: Hope or Delusion?’ One of the reasons that Merton can speak still to so many is that he is an authentic voice, and a voice that offers up an acknowledgement of the complexity of what it might mean to believe in God. He writes about the anguished seriousness of Advent, and contrasts this with what he calls ‘the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture.’ He attacks the inauthenticity of Christmas as it is currently celebrated, and urges a more reflective stance during Advent when we accept our problems and our tragedies in the world rather than covering them with slogans and unsatisfactory comforts.

Merton was writing this in 1963 and he comments on the existential position that involves a ‘frank acceptance of hopelessness in the face of life.’ Here he is thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre who queried why Christians always gave themselves a cosy answer to a desperate question that they lacked the courage to ask. Merton’s response is rather to accept the fact that the world is other than it might be, and indeed that we would want it to be, but that this does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that his will can still be done.

In that sense Advent is a celebration of that hope, even in the midst of the collapse of meaning. For Advent is the coming of the new, rather than the renewal of the old, and where the past is transformed into the present. Advent demands, Merton writes nothing more or less than a return to what he calls the ’emptiness’ of faith, and it may mean the destruction of the false image which we may have set up of God through our projections and wish fulfilments. Christ can only live in us if we are empty of our own fullness. This is why the mystery of Advent is a time of austerity and of poverty and of limitation. Merton ends his meditation in this way:
‘Advent, in the sombre years of “wars and rumours of wars” reminds us that though our work     may be judged, and found wanting, even totally consumed by fire, it is in the very fire that           destroys our imperfect works that we ourselves can be saved.’


Advent 2

Advent 2
There is always some anxiety in a time of waiting, and there is often anxiety in the dark when we can’t see what is going on. This Advent there is the added weight of different apocalyptic images of universal destruction.

One is the feeling that the climate is out of control – the weather is not quite right: too mild, too wet, too windy and above all too unpredictable. The seasons used to have a sense of delineation, in other words you knew where you were, now that has gone, and there is great unpredictability about what might be on offer. The second is the feeling of uncertainty around random acts of violence and terrorism. Carl Jung writing in the late 1950s (and it seems highly relevant now) spoke about the readiness of people with what he called ‘incendiary torches’ where flames might be fanned and new acts of subversion and violence possible. For some people contribute a peculiar dangerousness because their mental state is that of a collectively excited group ruled by affective judgements and wish fantasies.

In thinking about what might be going on he also noted how the gift of reason and critical reflection have not been proved in the end to be one of humanity’s outstanding achievements and even where it exists it proves to be wavering and inconstant. In other words we cannot really rely on thoughtful processes either to minimise the uncertainty we feel or to run society because collective irrationality can take place in all sorts of different groups amongst different peoples – in other words in everyone.

Sometimes for those of us not involved in political decision-making it seems that our leaders are always taking the wrong path, a clear sign of collective irrationality. In the UK why remove subsidies for solar and wind power to promote fracking and so on. Why join in a general busyness to bomb a country absolutely ravaged by warfare – why not put the similar amounts of money into humanitarian aid?

But we know from our individual psyches, and it is even more powerful in groups, that rational argument and sensible solutions can only be carried out with some degree of success if the emotional aspects are understood and fully integrated. The inhumanity that is present in everyone has to be owned before we can become humane. There needs to be some degree of self-knowledge so that some clear light can be shone into the darkness while we wait.

Advent 1

Advent 1
December is such a strange time of year but Advent seems to me an interesting and serious space – an opportunity for reflection. There is certainly some hope in it but there’s also conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. This year there seems a special poignancy as there is some hope at the point I’m writing this of some agreement on climate change action from the world’s nations, but this is alongside despair at the almost inevitable added destruction with the UK joining in the bombing of Syria.
It’s hard to remember that Christ offers something that transcends tragedy which is a passing beyond the darkness to glory. Advent is the celebration of the coming and the presence of Christ in the world and that is in the midst of all the terrible problems and disasters. The encouragement is for a time of great serious sobriety – in all meanings of the word. The fact that the world is not as we each might want it to be is surely part of being human, but perhaps Advent offers an opportunity to take a new look – to stand outside the usual and prepare for the unexpected.
The depth psychologist might say that the projection and wish fulfilment outwards onto Christ as the longed for saviour is a diversion from what may need to happen in the inner world. For Advent could also be seen as the serious space to clear out old conceptions and fantasies of who we are. What instead might be celebrated is a mystery of emptiness, of poverty, and of limitation, in other words celebration of a different sort of reality which would indeed be a reason to hope. That would be a different sort of beginning, a beginning that includes the end and acceptance of the complexity of life: the part of me that hopes and the part of me that is destructive. Perhaps these days are times of crisis, times when we become shaken out of our complacency into a new space and light.