For Faith in Action: Thomas Merton’s Letter to a 6th Grader

I don’t exactly remember where I found what follows, so forgive me for not providing footnotes. I was reading Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin’s, recent blog post reflecting on today’s gospel reading. The reading from Sirach applies as well.

The message is simple, yet paradoxically difficult, like most of the tenets of our faith. As Father Jim notes, it is simply “be kind.” Simple, but my kids (and I) are still working on doing this so it is not easy!

While pondering this message,  the memory of this kind letter written by Fr. Louis (Thomas Merton) to a school child popped into my head. 

I mention this also because someone sent me an e-mail yesterday looking for a book recommendation, and in my haste I must have deleted it, because I can’t find it anywhere. So whoever you are, please e-mail me again because I’m not being unkind in not replying to you. I just blew it, is all. Just another plank in my eye (he thought sheepishly).

And now, Father Louis has the floor,

Thomas Merton’s Letter to a 6th Grader named Susan

In 1967, Susan Chapulis, a sixth grader studying monasticism, wrote to Thomas Merton asking for “any information whatsoever” that she could share with her class. Merton replied:

Thanks for your nice letter. You want “any information whatsoever” to help the sixth grade in the study of monasticism. Well, I’ll see if I can get the brothers down in the store to send you a little book about the monastery here. That ought to help.

The monastic life goes back a long way. Monks are people who seek to devote all their time to knowing God better and loving Him more. For that reason they leave the cities and go out into lonely places where it is quiet and they can think. As they go on in life they want to find lonelier and lonelier places so they can think even more.

In the end people think these monks are really crazy going off by themselves and of course sometimes they are. On the other hand when you are quiet and when you are free from a lot of cares, when you don’t make enough money to pay taxes, and don’t have a wife to fight with, and when your heart is quiet, you suddenly realize that everything is extremely beautiful and that just by being quiet you can almost sense that God is right there not only with you but even in you. Then you realize that it is worth the trouble of going away where you don’t have to talk and mess around and make a darn fool of yourself in the middle of a lot of people who are running around in circles to no purpose.

I suppose that is why monks go off and live in lonely places. Like me now. I live alone in the woods with squirrels and rabbits and deer and foxes and a huge owl that comes down by my cabin and makes a spooky noise in the night, but we are friends and it is all ok. A monk who lives all by himself in the woods is called a hermit. There is a Rock ’n’ Roll outfit called Herman and his Hermits but they are not the same thing.

I do not suppose for a moment that you wish to become a hermit (though now I understand there are some girl hermits in England and they are sort of friends of mine because they are hermits, so I send them stuff about how to be a hermit). But anyway, I suggest that you sometimes be quiet and think about how good a thing it is that you are loved by God who is infinite and who wants you to be supremely happy and who in fact is going to make you supremely happy. Isn’t that something? It is, my dear, and let us keep praying that it will work out like that for everybody.

Good bye now.

Which reminds me of the old Shaker hymn,


Because Life is Like an Epic Poem (Not a Report Card)

Report cards used to be a once every nine week event. Remember those halcyon days? Information technology being what it is, nowadays we can check our children’s grades daily. Oh, the horror!

I say that because lately, the picture hasn’t been pretty for several of my little darlings. Not that I ever hoped that my kids would make straight A’s or anything like that. That would be a miracle, considering my part of their genetic make up.

Confession time: I didn’t out and out hate school, but I just never gave my studies the attention they deserved. Truth be told, I know that I never gave more than a fraction of my best effort to school work when I was growing up. My home life was a train-wreck, my parent’s had divorced just before I entered the first grade, and it was all I could do just to maintain my sanity growing up. I wasn’t into sports either because that was my older brother’s department. Oh, but I was into reading, though not into reading my textbooks for homework assignments. Unless it was a subject I really liked.

I was also a very young high school graduate too, and I left home when I was seventeen to join the Marines. I had to have my mothers permission, of course, because I was under eighteen. My mom, knowing that I was called to serve in the military, agreed to this in my case. How did she know I was called to this? Because since I was about 8 years old I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I figured that school was just a delaying action until I could join the service. On top of all that, college was unaffordable, for me anyway, so I figured why get all uptight about it?

My mom had one condition on agreeing to sign her little boy’s life away to the Marine Corps. For starters, she would only let me join the Reserves because she wanted me to go to college too. I didn’t mind this condition at the time, because I knew that all Marines, whether Reservists or Regular, both went through the same training, and that I would spend six months on Active Duty, at which point I would a) have an idea if I liked the Marines or not and b) I would be 18 and could apply to re-enlist as a Regular Marine, which is what I wound up doing. The second condition was that upon my return, I promised to attend the local college in our area. That part of the plan didn’t last long.

What does all this have to do with homework, grades, and parental performance anxiety? Well, though I may not have spent much of my childhood mental horsepower on trying to understand square roots, or on learning what a gerund is, I did know one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: my mom loved me. And she taught me that God loved me even more. And that when all was said and done, what was most important in life was for me to realize this and to love God back. And that God had a purpose in mind for me was something I understood too. I figured I was meant to be a soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine. And I was happy, like Joseph of Cupertino.

And that was good, because with my grades in high school, there wasn’t much chance of my being accepted by a college, not to mention a prestigious one. You know, the ones that you and all the other parents are salivating over when you chit chat with one another at the ball field, or at the family reunion, or amongst your co-workers. Uh-huh, like which school they wind up in is the absolute most important thing in the world to you.

Because, see, if Janie or Johnny doesn’t make it into “Top o’ the Heap” University right out of high school, their lives, and by extension yours too, will be over. What will the neighbors, and oh my heavens, the relatives think?! I don’t know, nor do I care.

And as for my children’s teachers thoughts? Well, let’s just say that teachers of children have no better success at choosing who among their students will be “winners” and who will be, ahem, not, then does a random coin toss. And despite their best intentions, they see only as man sees, and not as God does. God, seeing the heart,  is ultimately the career planner of my children. I’m not, and neither are the guidance counselors at school.

I sincerely believe that God has a plan and purpose for all of my children. For all of His children. And all of my children are His children, so I try not to make mountains out of mole hills. I realize that as a parent, I am called to provide for my children the best education I possibly can, and opportunities to discern what it actually is that the Lord is calling them to do with their lives. And that is what my wife and I try to do. But in reality, only the Lord knows what He has in mind for them.

As I was pondering report cards and what really is important to teach my children, I ran across Heather King’s blog Shirt of Flame. She recently wrote several posts about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. I really enjoyed these essays as she turned the spotlight on some of Gladwell’s assertions and helps explain that if Gladwell’s model is the path to success, then I’m happy to let him know that he can keep it.

I too had thought of writing a post about Outliers once. I was going to title it Because of Malcolm Gladwell…Not! way back when Webster first invited me aboard YIMCatholic, but I never got around to it. Now I don’t have too, thanks to Heather.

For those of you who haven’t read his book, here is a taste of Heather’s essay:

One thing I saw right away: Gladwell’s book isn’t about outliers, defined as “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.” His book is about the opposite of outliers: people who’ve managed to parlay their talents into utterly mainstream, predictable and garden-variety money, property and/or prestige. For the most part, he doesn’t mean outliers: he means the extra rich, extra famous, extra lucky, and/or extra smug.

You’ll want to read the companion piece too.

Maybe Gladwell means what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans,” only in this case the rare and improbable event is the success of a single person in “the world.” Taleb’s book, on the rare events in finance that come out of nowhere, and can’t be predicted, is really the opposite of Gladwell’s book too. Because Taleb’s thesis is that you can’t predict these event’s, even though we fool ourselves into thinking we can. Meanwhile,  Gladwell’s book tries to tease out the behaviors and circumstances that separate winners from the losers. And as parents, we want our kids to be winners, right?

So Gladwell preaches that it all comes down to doing dreary stuff, like putting in at least 10,000 hours shooting free-throws, for example, or to just being lucky enough to have been born in Seattle and having a wealthy dad who gives you carte blanche at the office, or having the good fortune to have been born in the Great Depression, or in January if you are a little league hockey player, so you get an extra year of playing time etc. It’s all so simple. And there is absolutely no room for the Holy Spirit to transform anyone in Gladwell’s world.

None of us have any control over many of these events, for example, like when or where we were born. And Gladwell would have you believe that the Beatle’s really were successfull just because they played more gigs at an earlier age than anyone else at the time?! I wonder what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger think about that? I don’t know, but I can think of one word—balderdash!

But enough of Gladwell and back to why I won’t be losing any sleep over my kids grades any time soon. Because as someone who was almost killed, an event that was completely unplanned I might add,  I know that life is too short for me to ride herd over every decimal point of my kid’s grade point averages. I’m not saying I don’t help them with their homework, or give them pep talks to do their best, etc. I do.

Thank God this is the phony ending!But I will be teaching them something that I noticed was missing from Gladwell’s book. And that is that the Holy Spirit will work through them and will change them, and bring gifts to them too. And I’ll teach them that they shouldn’t be surprised if their best laid worldly plans turn out to be all made of straw, and that their lives take a radically different turn away from the one that they had planned for. And that they shouldn’t be so quick to kill Hobbes (Thank God that is the fake ending!).

After nine years in the Marines, I decided to give college another try. At that point in my life, I was a much different person than I had been in high school. I met my wife, and she missed out on meeting the lousy high school student and instead met the young man in a hurry. He looked a lot like the faux Calvin in that last frame.

It may be a minor miracle that this C-/D+ high school student from Tennessee eventually graduated from UCLA, but that is surprisingly what happened. I don’t think a single teacher in my high school would have seen that one coming. But the Holy Spirit saw it coming, even when I had no way of knowing that this would even have been possible.

Now I’m all grown up and I can’t be a Marine anymore. And how in the world did I wind up here in this space? Hmmm.

Nowadays, I think the most important classes my children attend currently are their CCD classes. That may seem like a strange assertion, but I believe it to be true. Because though everything else passes away, our faith and the Church will still be here for them. And the love that my mother has for me, and the love of God that she taught me, is the single most important intangible thing that I can pass on to my children.

I came across these words by Kenelm Digby while adding books to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf (I certainly never saw that hobby coming!) which prompted me to title this post as I have. This is from the preface of a poem in twelve cantos he wrote entitled Ouranogaia: Heaven on Earth,

The design of this Poem (if such it may be called) is to represent the happiness, comparable in some degree, we might think, to what reigns in Heaven— which results from taking a cheerful, sympathetic, tolerant, and Catholic view of human life, as being on the confines of our celestial country, with constant means of access to it, amidst our various ordinary, or comic, or tragic conditions, hearing and observing with delicate exactitude the most minute things, whether jubilant, or, in a material sense, sorrowful, while escaping from impediments to this intense intellectual enjoyment, by mentally merging, as it were, in a confused way, one’s own individuality in some other person, or, at least, losing for the time self-consciousness, as if it were others who felt, heard, witnessed, and realized the approach to Paradise.

The object is also to suggest that human pleasures in this world, even those which are deemed most strictly confined to earth, and to our twofold formation in the present state of existence, are enhanced immeasurably when associated in a general way with such higher thoughts as may be said, without extravagance, to culminate in Heaven, being tempered and colored as it were by an all-pervading tone of trust in that forgiveness which constitutes an Article of the Christian Creed.

The whole is so arranged as to show in detail that some of the bliss of Heaven, as far as we can conceive it, may be enjoyed by mankind in this life by means of the spectacle of Creation, and in particular of Beauty, as also Mirth, Admiration, Friendship, Love, Goodness, Peace, Poetry, Learning, Philosophy, the Festivals of the Church, as developing, even by the rites attending them, those internal dispositions which render man what a theologian calls “animal carissimum Deo,” and in fine, through sanctity, untroubled and unaffected by human follies, while ignoring, rather than trying to extirpate the inevitable.

There is an attempt to show likewise with what effect Heaven may be said to descend especially on youth and age, and on those who have gone astray without having had, as a famous author says, “the foretaste of evil, which is calculation, or its aftertaste alone, which is zero.” Poverty, and a low social rank with its consequences, are shown to present no obstacle to this vision of two worlds; and, lastly, Heaven is represented as brought down to the sick and to the dying.

Digby’s first lines from Canto I ? I thought you would never ask.

Oh, joy, wing’d guest, how wonderful thou art!
Yes, just as wondrous as the human heart,
Or all that in the universe we see
Replete with wonder and divinity!
Joy at its highest is the lightning’s gleam,
Dazzles the sense and passes as a dream.
But then its precious memory can last,
Denoting through what golden gate we pass’d.
And, oh! that moment’s glimpse of what’s beyond
Once caught—no, never more should we despond.

That about sums it up for me.  Because the Catholic view of life is about a whole lot more than making straight A’s, hitting the high life, and reaching the top of the earthly pyramid. Because as St. Paul explains,

It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.—Ephesians 2:8-9

Because I’m Billy Jack (Not Francis of Assisi)

A while back, I wrote a post where I said that I became a Catholic because I discovered that Christ, and His Church, wanted 100% of me. My whole heart, soul, mind and strength. The full-spectrum of Frank, warts and all. I needed to change, but I didn’t have to stop being a man.

I’m especially thankful for this, as I don’t fit the mold of modern-day milquetoast Christian guy. Namby-pamby, pacifistic, always gentle and kind. The ancients counseled “Know thyself,” and I know this about myself: I’m more like Billy Jack than I am like St. Francis of Assisi.

Remember Billy Jack? The movie character brought to life by Tom Laughlin?  He made four movies as this character. The first was Born Losers where we meet Billy and his back-story. Fresh out of the Army, Special Forces. A former Green Beret, see? Eager to turn his sword into a ploughshare. “I ain’t a gonna study war no more,” as the ditty goes.

But then some bad guys roll into town on their choppers and start terrorizing the locals. Raping, pillaging, and generally carrying on in a despicable manner, disturbing the peace with impunity. Enter Billy Jack, who moves to protect the weak with his gifts of strength and skill. Does he go over the top with his vigilantism? Of course (it’s a movie, after all)!

The next movie he made was simply titled Billy Jack, and now he is seriously trying to make himself into a pacifist Christian guy, like he believes he is supposed to do. A square peg trying to fit into a round hole. But Billy is a warrior, and though in his heart he deplores violence, sometimes he realizes that is what is called for. Like in this scene below,

YouTube Preview Image

That could easily be me. I’m not saying it’s pretty, but the Marine in me, the berserker, can admit that it is pretty true. The difference between me now, and Billy Jack/former Frank, is that a) I know that standing up to bullies and hooligans is not forbidden “Christian man” behavior, and b) if my switch gets tripped and I go nuclear, as Billy Jack does in the clip above, the confessional is only a few blocks away if my conscience screams, “You went too far!”

I understand the use of deadly force. I understand that it is hard to control violence, and that lines are crossed daily, from the misapplication of force, changing lives for the worse forever. But I’m also a man, a husband, a father, and a warrior. A protector of not only my family, but of the innocent, a champion of the oppressed, a friend to the unloved. This is what I, with the help of the Church, am teaching my two boys. Teaching them what it means to be a strong Christian, a strong Catholic man. And I trust that my daughter will benefit from this too.

There has been lots of press lately about young people taking their own lives when they were bullied to the point of no return. If they weren’t physically assaulted, then they were attacked verbally. I’m left with a question to parents of children everywhere: Where are the Christian kids who aren’t afraid to back up the bullied kids? Who aren’t afraid to befriend them? Who actively rally around them and protect them?

Obviously, it takes fortitude to go against the mainstream, especially in the peer-pressure-cooker pack of the school-age set, both in public and private schools. Sometimes, it takes young men with the mindset of Billy Jack to police the halls of the world and keep the peace. Thankfully, there are Warrior Saints I can share with my children too.

We have to teach our children this fortitude, along with the rest of the Cardinal virtues of justice, temperence, and prudence. These complement and put into action the Theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Teaching our children only the latter (the Theological virtues), while neglecting the former, will leave them ill-equipped to be faithful examples of lived Christianity in our world today.

We are called to love, and to pray for peace. But we are not to turn our backs on injustice, or flee from standing up for what is right, or run away from defending the weak.

I pray that my children, and yours, will do the right thing: love and protect all of their peers—the popular, the average, and the unpopular, and that they be virtuous in this life. Amen.

Because the Vocation You Pray For May Be Your Own

A few days ago, I wrote a post where I said that as a father and husband, I can’t literally go “to the Desert.” I quipped “maybe in the future.” Sure you will, I thought to myself. And then I found this story of a saint who did just that. Her name is Marie of the Incarnation and her Feast Day is April 18th.

Allison wrote a post on the same day about praying for vocations. Keep this in mind as you pray, because it just might turn out that the prayer may well be answered by an opened door. Who is to say what lies ahead for us? God knows. Barbara Avrillot was a mother of six, but her babies grew up and her husband passed away, opening the door to a life she had always admired. Let’s take a look.

What follows in italics is from the citation on Marie found in the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent.

Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation

Known also as Madame Acarie, foundress of the French Carmel, born in Paris, 1 February, 1566; died at Pontoise, April, 1618. By her family, Barbara Avrillot belonged to the higher bourgeois society in Paris. Her father, Nicholas Avrillot was accountant general in the Chamber of Paris, and chancellor of Marguerite of Navarre, first wife of Henri IV; while her mother, Marie Lhuillier was a descendant of Etienne Marcel, the famous prévôt des marchands (chief municipal magistrate). She was placed with the Poor Clares of Longchamp for her education, and acquired there a vocation for the cloister, which subsequent life in the world did not alter. In 1684, through obedience she married Pierre Acarie, a wealthy young man of high standing, who was a fervent Christian, to whom she bore six children. She was an exemplary wife and mother.

So she came from the upper crust of society and basically went to a boarding school (of sorts) with the Poor Clares. Sounds like something I’ve read before in a novel by Sigred Undstet. She married well and then had six children, which will definitely keep any mom busy for a while. Any dad too. Speaking of dads, he had his hands full at work. Take a look.

Pierre Acarie was one of the staunchest members of the League, which, after the death of Henry III, opposed the succession of the Huguenot prince, Henry of Navarre, to the French throne. He was one of the sixteen who organized the resistance in Paris.

Tea party anyone? Being a rich and well placed gentleman, I daresay he thought he could change the world, and obviously win. This story is getting good. Stand-by for an act of God.

The cruel famine (!), which accompanied the siege of Paris (war!), gave Madame Acarie an occasion of displaying her charity. After the dissolution of the League, brought about by the abjuration of Henry IV, Acarie was exiled from Paris and his wife had to remain behind to contend with creditors and business men for her children’s fortune, which had been compromised by her husband’s want of foresight and prudence.

Ouch. Dad wound up on the wrong side in this fight and was sent away (in irons?!). The family fortune is compromised too? Uh-oh, now mom has to fight to save the estate and provide for her kids as well. I hope she is up to the challenge. Surely, it can’t get any worse than this.

In addition she was afflicted with physical sufferings, the consequences of a fall from her horse, and a very severe course of treatment left her an invalid for the rest of her life.

What the heck? And I thought Kristen Lavransdatter had it tough. But truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it? And, ahem, “severe course of treatment” most likely means a broken leg didn’t heal well. Game over? Not with her network, nor with her example of charity and good works.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Madame Acarie was widely known for her virtue, her supernatural gifts, and especially her charity towards the poor and the sick in the hospitals. To her residence came all the distinguished and devout people of the day in Paris, among them Mme de Meignelay, née de Gondi, a model of Christian widows, Mme Jourdain and Mme de Bréauté, future Carmelites, the Chancellor de Merillac, Père Coton the Jesuit, St. Vincent of Paul, and St. Francis de Sales, who for six months was Mme Acarie’s director.

Yeah, you read that right, St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul were in her Rolodex and paid calls to her salon. Sheeeeesh. Wait a second. I thought the rich had as much chance of getting to heaven as a camel has to pass through the eye of a needle. What gives? I told you this was a great story. It gets better:

The pious woman had been living thus retired from the world, but sought by chosen souls, when, toward the end of 1601, there appeared a French translation of Ribera’s life of St. Teresa. The translator, Abbé de Brétigny, was known to her. She had some portions of the work read to her.

Another rich illiterate? Doubtful, because she went to school with the Poor Clares, remember? Maybe either Vincent or Francis was reading to her in the salon on a visit. Ready for a miracle? Read on—

A few days later St. Teresa, appeared to her and informed her that God wished to make use of her to found Carmelite convents in France. The apparitions continuing, Mme Acarie took counsel and began the work.

I mean, what the heck would you do? Keep shopping and go on cruises? Talk about your life-changing experiences! As Our Lord says, “knock and the door will be opened to you.” Sure, the French hated the Spanish, but when Our Lord sends Big Terry as an emissary in a vision, well, I’d obey the call too, no questions asked. But what about the wealth?

Mlle de Longueville, wishing to defray the cost of erecting the first monastery, in Rue St. Jacques, Henry IV granted letters patent, 18 July, 1602. A meeting in which Pierre de Bérulle, future founder of the Oratory, St. Francis of Sales, Abbé de Brétigny, and the Marillacs took part, decided on the foundation of the “Reformed Carmel in France,” 27 July, 1602. The Bishop of Geneva (Francis de Sales again) wrote to the pope to obtain the authorization, and Clement VIII granted the Bull of institution, 23 November, 1603.

That answers the wealth question. Put it to work for the Lord! Speaking of Clement, way back around 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote a lengthy exposition entitled Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? Basically it spells it out for us regular folks that when wealth is put in its proper place (read “way out in left field”), while Christ remains in the proper place (read “at the center of our being”), things work out just dandy. Especially when you give all your wealth away, as Marie eventually does. But not yet, I don’t think her husband would agree. Anyway. . .

The following year some Spanish Carmelites were received into the Carmel of Rue St. Jacques, which became celebrated. Mme de Longueville, Anne de Gonzague, Mlle de la Vallieres, withdrew to it; there also Bossuet and Fénelon were to preach. The Carmel spread rapidly and profoundly influenced French society of the day. In 1618, the year of Mme Acarie’s death, it numbered fourteen houses.

From zero to fourteen Carmelite houses in France due to the work of this fine soldier for Christ. Can she rest now? Go back on vacation? Why would she want to when there is still so much for this crippled mom to accomplish. Like to help fund, er, found the French Oratory and then the Ursulines.

Mme. Acarie also shared in two foundations of the day, that of the Oratory and that of the Ursulines. She urged De Bérulle to refuse the tutorship of Louis XIII, and on 11 November, 1611 she, with St. Vincent de Paul, assisted at the Mass of the installation of the Oratory of France. Among the many postulants whom Mme Acarie received for the Carmel, there were some who had no vocation, and she conceived the idea of getting them to undertake the education of young girls, and broached her plan to her holy cousin, Mme. de Sainte-Beuve.

The Ursalines were founded solely for the purpose of educating young girls. How progressive. Those wacky Catholics, always pushing the frontier of humanism and never getting credit for it. I’d like to get to know her “holy cousin” too. Marie was still married all this time but alas,

To establish the new order they brought Ursulines to Paris and adopted their rule and name. M. Acarie having died in 1613, his widow settled her affairs and begged leave to enter the Carmel, asking as a favour to be received as a lay sister in the poorest community.

OK, all the children raised? Check. No longer married? Check. Remember her life long dream of a “vocation to the cloister”? Check. Exit stage left!

In 1614 she withdrew to the monastery of Amiens, taking the name of Marie de l’Incarnation. Her three daughters had preceded her into the cloister, and one of them was sub-prioress at Amiens. In 1616, by order of her superiors, she went to the Carmelite convent at Pontoise, where she died. Her cause was introduced at Rome in 1627; she was beatified, 24 April, 1791; her feast is celebrated in Paris on 18 April.

Ever heard the expression “God writes straight with crooked lines”? What a life and what a marvelous ending! Maiden, wife, mother, wealthy patron of the Church, cloistered Carmelite, and then home with our Lord. May all our journeys end blessed as such.

Madame Acarie, please pray for vocations and also please pray for us.

You can read a full account of her life on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf in A Gracious Life by Emily Bowles.


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