Temporary and not so temporary . . .

In my last blog, I offered a parallel between the short reign of the Emperor Julian (361-63 CE) and what many of us hope will be the short occupancy of the American presidency by Donald Trump. Julian’s reign was a temporary hiatus in Roman history; Trump’s administration (in the Globe and Mail this morning he was called a mafioso) will, we trust, be a temporary phenomenon.

Some of those who commented on this blog, however, pointed out that even if/when Trump goes, the angry and alienated cohort that put him in power will remain. This cohort is largely composed of older white males who feel, angrily, that the American dream has passed them by; that they have been excluded by “the elites” from what they deserve as citizens.

Point taken. And then the riposte to it is that as never in recent history there has appeared a resistance movement. Four states, 175 cities and a large number of universities have formed an alliance focused on American support for the Paris Accord. This is something I find very hopeful. That alliance will also need to do what it can to respond to the legitimate gripes of the cohort that supported Trump.

Resistance, then. I have just submitted a ms. to a publisher entitled Thomas Merton’s Day of a Stranger: Solitude as Resistance. Merton has been called by Irish writer Gerry McFlynn “a theologian of resistance,” and well-deserved that sobriquet is. From his monastery and hermitage there issued a steady stream of writings calling for resistance to the toxicity of society, a malaise surely worse now than it was in his lifetime (he died in 1968).

And just now I have watched and listened to a spoken-word poem on “Love and Anger” offered by my friend Christina Kinch, co-ordinator of the Contemplative Justice Network of the United Church in BC. Here’s the link . . .


I invite you to watch/listen to it, and use it as a stimulus to your own reflection on how resistance has found its place in your life. Energized by love and anger, resistance will move us past the temporary phenomenon of populist maladministration (yes, I’m thinking of the US, and this is Canada; but what the US does affects us all) to a better place, one in which real democracy is honored and practised.

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Trumpus Temporarius

In the year 313 of our era, the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, previously a prohibited religion, and launched the first Christian imperial dynasty.

All the emperors who succeeded him were Christians, until the accession of the Emperor Julian in 361. Never heard of him? Good, and may that be instructive in regard to this blog.

Julian was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, and it was his desire to bring the Empire back to its ancient Roman values, in order, as he saw it, to save it from dissolution. He attempted to revive traditional Roman religious practices at the expense of Christianity. His anti-Christian sentiment caused him to be remembered as Julian the Apostate by the church.

He wanted to effect a permanent change in the empire, but in his short reign (361-63) was unable to do that. More to the point, he was on the wrong side of history. Christianity was growing exponentially, and there was not enough energy in the old Roman religion to counter it.

Still with me?  Good, because I’m about to make my point.

Barack Obama spoke in Montréal this week to a rapturous audience of 6000 people. Without mentioning the name of his successor, he asserted his conviction that the Trump presidency was a temporary thing. In positioning himself against the need to tackle climate change, and withdrawing the US from the Paris Accord, Donald Trump placed himself foolishly, quixotically and unnecessarily against the forward movement of history.

It is Obama’s conviction, and mine, and, I trust, yours, that the present US administration is a temporary phenomenon, a historical blip. Twenty years from now (may it be so!) fewer people will remember Trump than remember Julian the Apostate.

Let us encourage one another with this thought!

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The gates of Hell

Sometime in the nineties I took a group of SFU students down to the Ground Zero peace centre in Poulsbo, Washington. GZ was started in the eighties by Jim and Shelley Douglass, longtime peace activists–Jim was a friend of Thomas Merton.

GZ is very close to the Trident submarine base at Bangor. (This is the west-coast Trident base; there is an east-coast base at Norfolk, Virginia.) There are 24 submarines at Bangor; each one carries 408 times the firepower of the nuclear weapon that was dropped on Hiroshima. Each single submarine carries enough firepower to destroy all the major cities of the northern hemisphere–and there are 24 of them.

Our first morning at GZ we joined members of its community in their weekly leafletting vigil at the gates of the Trident base. As workers go into the base, they are handed a leaflet–or sometimes a chocolate chip cookie or, on or near February 14, a valentine. Thousands go in and out every day; and each year in the nineties (I don’t know if this is still true) one worker would quit as a result of the GZ leafletting.

This visit got me onto the GZ mailing list; and every few months I get its newsletter. In that I regularly read how the GZ community has since its beginning maintained a steady and faithful witness against nuclear weapons: against their invention, their design, their construction, their transportation, their being readied for use, and, most ominous, the prospect of their use.

Here is an excerpt from the most recent newsletter (April 2017). It comes from Leonard Eiger, chair of the GZ communication and outreach committee, and requires no comment from me.

The end of the Cold War brought with it a historic opportunity for the US to begin serious negotiations with Russia leading to nuclear disarmament. Instead, our nation continued to pursue nuclear dominance, and as a result, over 25 years later we are entering into what is unarguably a new Cold War with Russia.

Trident is now three times more deadly than ever before. The US is rapidly moving toward production of a new ballistic missile submarine fleet that will be even more sophisticated than its predecessor. . . .  How long can we go building newer and more sophisticated (and deadly) nuclear weapons systems before they end up being used either accidentally or intentionally? . . . How can our nations’ leaders, in good conscience, continue to put humanity at risk of nuclear extinction?

Let me pick up on his use of the word “nations,” plural. The US is not the only country contributing to this madness. Canada, with its reluctance to speak and act in direct opposition to this situation, is contributing to its continuance–a sin of omission.

As many of you know, I spent most of the eighties and early nineties working at issues related to nuclear disarmament. On the basis of that experience, I am distressed to say that in my view the world is in greater danger of nuclear war today than we were during the Cold War. Both the US and North Korea are headed by maniacs, not to put too fine a point on it. From Donald Trump’s public comments on the subject I can only conclude that he is, as the kids used to say, “not clear on the concept.”

So where to? As Canadians, we need to put pressure on our political leaders, asking them to place Canada firmly on the side of nuclear disarmament, to support the many initiatives under way which are trying to move us to nuclear sanity. Then if Canada does step up to the plate, to support its progressive policy in this regard. A good way to do this is to support the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank headed by Peggy Mason, former Canadian ambassador for disarmament at the UN (1989-1994) – rideauinstitute.ca

A final word: my title. Standing there at the Trident gates early in the morning, a word of Jesus came to me: “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against you” (Matthew 16:18). Yes, I said to myself: I am standing at the gates of Hell. It was only later that I realized what “prevail” implies. It implies that we are battering at the gates of Hell, and that sooner or later, they will not prevail against us. They will fall. This blogpost is an invitation to you to join with others in the assault on the gates of Hell which our historic moment requires of us.

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Happy Easter: “the Alleluias are back”

“‘The Alleluias are back’: Thomas Merton’s Easters.” The Merton Journal 19.1 (Eastertide 2012), 3-5.

Fiona Gardner, then editor of The Merton Journal (UK), asked me, somewhat late in the publication schedule for the Easter 2012 issue, to write an Easter-related reflection. Merton’s journals provided all the references I needed, and I was able in short order to send this item to her. The title refers to the liturgical custom of not saying or singing “Alleluia” during the pre-Easter season of Lent. Thus, with Easter, “the Alleluias are back.”

Happy Easter, then, to my Christian friends, and to others, a glimpse of what Easter means to Christians. The Easter bunny doesn’t really say it all!

“The Alleluias are back.” Thus Thomas Merton, at the last Easter of his life, 1968.[1] Lent’s long shadows have departed, and with Easter and its alleluias have once again come the gifts of the new fire, the new light, and the new life.

In the northern hemisphere, of course, the new-life dimension of Easter is supported by the season. At Easter in 1948, Merton rejoices in the blossoming of the apple trees. “The willow is full of green. Things are in bud,” he adds.[2] In 1965, he strikes the same note.

Peace and beauty of Easter morning: sunrise, deep green grass,soft winds, the woods turning green on the hills across the valley (and here [the hermitage] too). I got up and said the old office of Lauds, and there was a wood-thrush singing fourth-tone mysteriesin the deep ringing pine wood … behind the hermitage.[3]

The night before he had gone down to the abbey for the Easter Vigil by the light of the moon, and come back “also by full moonlight, the woods being perfectly silent, and the moon so strong one could hardly see any stars.”[4] With grass and trees and birds and moon and stars, as well as with his brothers in the community, and with Christians everywhere, Thomas Merton, one with creation, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus now to be called Christ.

Easter itself, however, is meaningless, as we know, without Good Friday. Merton holds them together in a journal entry from 1949: “Good Friday and Easter,” he says,” the center of everything.”[5] Curiously, on the afternoon of the Easter Day at the end of his first visit to Gethsemani in 1941), he makes the Stations of the Cross,[6] which strikes me as strange and out of sequence. But he was at a moment in his life when he was hungry for the active liturgical expression of his developing sense of vocation, which, with the apple trees, was coming into full bloom.

In the years following, the regular sequence is restored: and his celebration of the resurrection is grounded in his engagement with the Cross. He offers himself to be crucified with Jesus, so that he may rise with Jesus. In “A Christian Looks at Zen,” he gives us a very deep word about this.

… it is essential to remember that for a Christian “the word of the      Cross” is nothing theoretical, but a stark and existential experience of union with Christ in His death in order to share in His resurrection. To fully “hear” and “receive” the word of the Cross means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for our sins. It means to be “nailed to the Cross with Christ,” so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us. “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20).[7]

At Easter in 1948 he had been in the monastery for seven years, entering all that time into this paschal mystery, which welds Good Friday and Easter into one indivisible reality, the mystery which offers us the template not only for our personal lives but for the life of society, the planet and the cosmos: death and resurrection. Here is what he said at that time.

Easter is like what it will be entering eternity, when you suddenly,     peacefully, clearly recognize all your mistakes as well as all that you did well: everything falls into place.[8]

Mistakes and death, all we do well and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter, yes: “everything falls into place.”

[1] The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, ed. Patrick Hart. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 7, 1967-68.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, 81.

[2] Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, ed. Jonathan Montaldo. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 2, 1941-52.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 193.

[3] Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, ed. Robert E. Daggy. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 5, 1963-65.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, 231.

[4] DWL, 232.

[5] ES, 303.

[6] Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation, ed. Patrick Hart. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 1, 1939-41.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 356.

[7] In Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, ed. and introd. Lawrence S. Cunningham, fwd. Patrick Hart, pref. Anne E. Carr. New York: Paulist Press, 1992, 418.

[8] ES, 193.

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Shrove Bloody Tuesday

Decided to add the “bloody,” because I have been watching, indeed inhaling, the BBC series, “Sherlock”–Sherlock Holmes updated to the 21st century: just wanted to get your attention [ :) ].

So yes, today is Shrove Tuesday. My evening minder has promised pancakes and sausages. And why pancakes to mark the day? Because in medieval times, the day before Ash Wednesday was a day when the folk of those times used up all the foods which they were supposed to fast from (mainly eggs and sugar) during the fasting season of Lent, which starts tomorrow, Ash Wednesday. (My evening minder for tomorrow will be very kindly bringing me the ashes.) And the shrove part refers to the practice of being “shriven” in preparation for Lent, i.e., to make one’s confession and be absolved.

Speaking of Lent offers me the opportunity to say how much I admire the way Muslims practice their season of fasting, Ramadan. Christian observance of Lent in the West is a feeble thing by comparison. I am thinking here of Canadian Muslims, of course. As members of a minority community, they are motivated to a disciplined practice of the norms of their religion. Christians, being a majority in Canada, feel no such motivation; and so for most of us, even the church-involved, Lent passes quickly to little effect.

In December, when I thought my time on the planet was very short, I took advantage of a visit from the priest whom I have asked to preside at my obsequies to hear–not my confession, but a recounting of my regrets. Having come to my venerable age, temptations to the more egregious varieties of personal sin as such are few and far between; but I did want to let go of my regrets in a formal, serious way.

So rather than think about personal sin, I am inclined to focus on social sin–structural, corporate, institutional sin. It would be wonderful if our society, the Christians among us at least, could use Lent to deal with the aspects of our society that separate us from our social well-being. (I’m thinking of a theological definition here, i.e., that sin in all its forms is separation–from God, neighbour and self.)

There are many social challenges, of course, and sometimes we can use that recognition to avoid dealing with any of them. Of all of these, the one issue that keeps catching my attention is child poverty. With a child-poverty rate of 18.2% (roughly one out of every five children in the nation–disgraceful), Canada ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries; we are also 21st in the ranking of children’s overall physical and mental health, in which of course poverty is a determinant.

This Lent, could we combine a concern for child poverty with the fasting that is a major part of the Lenten tradition? Could we fast from watching TV (I’m not talking “Sherlock” here: it’s on Netflix) and use the time to save to study the issue? Dr Google is ready to help us with our research. Might small groups in a congregation or a neighbourhood make child poverty the focus of a Lenten study? I’m all in favour of prayer and bible study, the staples of Lenten study; but to incorporate research and action on child poverty would make concrete what the Bible and prayer point us toward.

And with these thoughts, I wish you, if not a happy Lent, then a challenging, energizing and productive Lent. Your celebration of Easter will be all the better for it.

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45 years and away they go . . .

Yes, I have come to the time when the ongoing challenge of acquisition and relinquishment has tipped, permanently, I hunch, in the direction of relinquishment.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Judith Hardcastle bought some spanking new packing boxes. She brought them over so that I could fill them with my Thomas Merton collection. I have been collecting books by and about Merton since 1972, when, just before starting grad school, I decided I would focus my grad studies on Merton. I got the idea to do this when, in a Roman Catholic bookstore in Spokane, Washington, I ran across a crazy little book called The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Life and Hard Times of Thomas Merton, written by Merton’s Columbia University friend, Ed Rice. It does have some crazy stuff in it, but there was also enough good stuff in it to make me realize that in the reconstruction of Christian spirituality which the times were requiring of us, Merton’s contribution would be critically important.

Why? Because he combined work on personal spirituality with a very clear parallel focus on social spirituality–justice, peace and the integrity of creation. He stands on the boundary between Christianity’s past and its future (we all do, come to think of it, but he engaged it in a very creative way) and on the boundary between Christianity and the other major faith-traditions, Buddhism in particular. He was a holistic thinker and writer of astonishing creativity and productivity. He published some 60 titles before he died (in 1968) and has had published 40 more (with a little help from his friends) since he died. When Pope Francis spoke to the US congress in 2015, he listed Merton along with Dorothy Day, MLK Jr, and Abraham Lincoln as four great Americans worthy of the emulation of all.

So then I went to Toronto, found that a course on Merton was being taught at St Michael’s, and I was launched. I did my master’s and PhD on Merton, and started publishing my own contributions to the great pile of secondary literature about him that was quickly accumulating. When it was formed in 1989, I joined the International Thomas Merton Society, serving as president (the first non-American) in 2007-09. And–tremendous fun–I started leading or co-leading pilgrimages of a decidedly Chaucerian type to places associated with him: his birthplace in Prades, France; Rome, where he had an initial spiritual awakening in 1933, aged 18; Alaska, where he went to lead some retreats in 1968; his home abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (just learned a month ago that Gethsemani is the French spelling of the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested: the abbey was founded by a French community);  and New York, where he became a Roman Catholic and where, at Columbia, he discovered his enormous capacity for work.

Which brings me to the packing boxes. A few years I sent an initial batch of Merton books which I seldom used to the Thomas Merton Reading Room at the Vancouver School of Theology, in its genesis a project of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. That left me with about 200 books, which with the help of friends, I packed up and put them all in Judith’s boxes. After doing so, it felt somewhat “rash, unadvised and sudden” (somewhere in Shakespeare), and so I retrieved four books: Seeds of Contemplation, in its hopsacking binding, the first Merton book I looked at, in the Dunbar Library when I was 15; The Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography, first edition, falling apart until I recently had it rebound by Vancouver Island hermit, Charles Brandt; Thomas Merton’s French Poems, because it is rare and valuable; and my most recent Merton book, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camaldoli Correspondence (which I recently learned will be translated into Italian).

So there they sat for a few days in their boxes in my living room, staring at me somewhat reproachfully, and giving me little vibrations of abandonment. Then, the second coming of Judith, and off they went. She is having them catalogued and their value estimated. After that they will go to the TMRR. The librarians will decide which ones they need for their collection, and the remainder will go to the Regent College bookstore, for sale, or if not saleable, for free distribution to students.

For a day or two the emptiness where they had sat loomed large in my awareness. I confess to more than one pang as I saw them being wheeled away on the dolly, because they represented 45 years of reflection and writing, a huge chunk of my life in both temporal and intellectual terms. I’m trusting they will all find good homes.

Merton and I have become good friends over those 45 years. He regularly turns his readers into friends. I would also say that he became my spiritual director in absentia, helping me find my way forward on the spiritual journey in this confusing time of history.

So thanks, Tom. It’s been great.


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Zen and the enlighenment of Christians

I have often been asked to recommend an introductory book–to Thomas Merton, to meditation, to Christianity. Recently a friend lent me a book she had enjoyed: Resurrecting Jesus–Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti. He is a teacher in the Zen tradition, and writes books on spirituality.

What I found most interesting about this book was its perspective on conversion, or changing one’s religion. The conservative segments of Christianity favour conversion, with the ideal being a world in which everyone was a Christian. The liberal segments typically take a pluralistic view, with all major traditions granted respect, and no expectation of conversion to Christianity–although of course in a free country, everyone is free to change religions if they so wish. (I say “major” traditions: I’m not ready to respect Scientology or the Moonies.)

Adyashanti takes a different view. He wants Christians to remain Christian, *and* to open themselves and experience enlightenment. In other words, for him, enlightenment is the important thing, and it doesn’t matter in which tradition it occurs so long as it does occur. I find this very appealing. He holds before us a vision of the major traditions, the members of which live lives of inner experience of divinity, an enlightened state in which we know ourselves as divine.  Here’s a paragraph that expresses this point of view.

Today we’re in need of a mythos that shows us what real, engaged spirituality looks like. The words of the Jesus story have inspired people for the better part of two thousand years. And yet, those words and images need us to breathe new life into them so that they once again come to life within us and reveal heaven here on earth. For Jesus the Christ walks amongst us even now, in the depths of our own consciousness, proclaiming the reality of eternal life that is present in the core of our being. 

He says that we need to “pour ourselves into the story,” “become the story in ourselves,” “breathe the all-transforming spirit of new life,” and thereby “reclaim the original power it once had before it became weighed down by centuries of egoic misunderstanding. When we become the story, we resurrect it from all of the old ways, . . . as Jesus had intended it to do.”

Enlightenment, or, in the Zen tradition, satori, is what he wants for everyone. He wants Buddhists to be enlightened while remaining Buddhist, Christians while remaining Christian, and so on. The larger vision this holds before us is of a family of religious traditions, their members living enlightened spiritual lives, working together in love, joy and peace. Now that I think about it, this is very close to what Thomas Merton might say.

Enlightenment for all: may it be so!

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Interview with Michael Bell

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Courtesy of the University of Windsor

Interview with Michael Bell

The University of Windsor’s senior scholar for international diplomacy and former ambassador to Israel, Jordan and Egypt talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Canada’s response

By Donald Grayston

Q What was it like being the Canadian ambassador to Israel?
A I first went to Israel as a middle-ranking political officer from 1975 to ’78, and then later returned for two stints as ambassador from 1990 to ’92 and 1999 to 2003. I enjoyed my time there. Israel has a tremendously impressive society. A good part of my enjoyment, I have to say, I attribute to the complexity of the situation, to trying to comprehend the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It was enormously intellectually stimulating, in particular living among a people that privilege active discussion. Education is highly valued, and many Israelis are notable for continued learning. This wasn’t true of the entire country, of course; you could live in largely secular Tel Aviv with virtually no awareness or discussion of what was happening in the West Bank.
Q What is your take, at the present moment, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A The options for a viable solution, one leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state, have greatly diminished since my time there. The current Israeli government is right wing and expansionist, meaning that it wants to extend the Jewish presence in the West Bank by means of the so-called settlements. This precludes the creation of a viable Palestinian state. There are shortcomings on the Palestinian side as well.
The last real opportunity for an agreement was at the time of the “napkin map” affair in 2008. Then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert showed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a map of possible land-swap proposals but refused to allow him to take it with him, after which Abbas sketched a version of the map by hand on a napkin. In those discussions, Olmert proposed a land swap in which Israel would annex the settlements it had already established in Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem in return for land concessions by Israel to Palestinians elsewhere. After Olmert left, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office and dismissed previous discussions, insisting on starting all over again.
Opinion has hardened since then because of the frustration both sides feel about what they see as the unwillingness of the other side to concede anything. Distrust has grown on both sides, particularly among the Palestinians. The anxiety is palpable.
Q Do you think the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is permanent?
A I prefer to remain hopeful, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Years ago, there was a decent chance for a viable two-state solution, but now the settlements — with over half a million nationalist Israelis in them — are a growing and cancerous obstacle. After the failure of the Abbas-Olmert discussions, Hamas, in Gaza, argued that Abbas’s Fatah party was corrupt, that it couldn’t deliver, that it had nothing concrete to offer and that violence was the only option. It’s difficult to think that in any case those discussions would have arrived at a resolution based on the 1967 borders. Later, then-Israeli president Shimon Peres, on his own initiative, tried to restart far-reaching discussions with Mahmoud Abbas, but was told to drop them by Netanyahu.
I’m not sure, in fact, whether the conflict is resolvable at all. So many opportunities have been missed. The Americans, Canadians and the other key players would have to be willing to pay a very high political price in terms of domestic opinion. Occupation practices, including collective punishment, can be brutal and are the subject of considerable criticism from Israeli human rights and centre-left groups.
Q The Israeli government, you’ve said, is right wing. What about the left?
A If I were an Israeli on the moderate left, and I know many, I would be very discouraged. The current circumstances in much of the Arab world have fuelled a sense of siege, and with reason. They fear Islamic extremism and a nuclear Iran, and they fear that the establishment of a Palestinian state might give extremists entree into the Israeli heartland.
Q Where is Canada in all of this?
A Canada is officially opposed to the settlements in the West Bank, as are the Europeans and the Americans, regarding them as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Former prime minister Stephen Harper, however, contrary to stated Canadian foreign policy, volubly favoured Israel, in contrast to the more fair-minded approach of previous Canadian governments. His position, I would say, was based on his personal convictions as a Christian Zionist as well as on political considerations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking a cautious approach, saying that funding for the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Palestinian territories, cancelled by Harper, may be restored. [Editor’s note: Last November, the Canadian government announced that it was restoring funding to UNRWA.] Canada has not been as forthright in its opposition to the settlements as the Europeans or the Americans have.
Q What is the best way for Canadians to inform themselves about the situation?
A I recommend the website of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (fmep.org) and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (haaretz.com). There are many other good sources, including the Middle East Institute (mei.edu), the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (jiis.org), Foreign Affairs magazine and often The Economist.
Q You are a co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative. Can you explain what this project is about?
A It’s a project my colleagues and I have been working on since 2003, when I retired as ambassador. Michael J. Molloy and John Bell are the other co-directors. It involves developing creative options for the governance of the Old City of Jerusalem in preparation for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. It deals with archeology, law, entry and exit, internal security, economic relations, the status of foreigners, land titles, construction, sewage and much more. It does assume the realization of a two-state situation, the difficulty of which we have already discussed. Jerusalem is a city with which both the Israelis and Palestinians have powerful symbolic, religious and emotional attachments, and agreement on Jerusalem is essential to any workable peace plan. Routledge will publish our work in three volumes over the next year and a half.
Q A motion condemning the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement passed in the House of Commons, and a similar resolution was defeated in the Ontario legislature. How do you see BDS?
A BDS is unlikely to affect Israeli government policy in any major way. However, it has affected, to some degree, the investment climate in Israel. Rightly or wrongly, it contributes to the sense of victimization that many Israelis already have and to the fear of anti-Semitism.
Q You’re an active member of the United Church. Did your time in the Middle East affect your faith in any particular way?
A I think of myself as a progressive Christian. Being in the Holy Land and visiting the authenticated sites of Christ’s activity was very rewarding because it gave me a sense of the real Jesus of Nazareth. It affirmed my sense of the importance of Christian values as I believe Jesus would have articulated them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Founded in 1829, The United Church Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English speaking world. It has won international acclaim for journalistic excellence and garnered more awards for writing than any other Canadian religious publication. Read more…
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Charles Brandt: fifty years a hermit

Last February, my friend and colleague Dave Chang and I travelled to the hamlet of Black Creek, north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Our purpose: to interview Charles Brandt–hermit, artist-bookbinder and award-winning ecologist. (The interview will be published in v. 29 of The Thomas Merton Annual (2017).

Today, November 5, at the Roman Catholic parish in Campbell River, BC, he will celebrate and be celebrated for the fifty years he has spent as a hermit, originally at Merville, soon afterward at Black Creek, where he lives in his hermitage, Merton House. Now 93, he says, “I’m looking towards eternity now . . . . I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling.” He is a beautiful old man, a member of a category special to me which includes such others as Dan Berrigan, Trevor Huddleston, Chatral Rinpoche, Bill Shannon and Marie-Bernard Nielly.

His journey to Black Creek took many turns. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, of Danish-English heritage, his family moved to a farm not far from the city when he was five years old. Between high school graduation in 1941 and 1951, he undertook post-secondary studies, interrupted by four years (1942-46) in the US Air Force. He encountered the Episcopal Church during his military service (the family was Methodist), and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church while at Cornell. Over the next four years, he explored Anglican religious communities, and was ordained an Anglican priest in England in 1952 (interestingly to me, at Mirfield, the monastic seminary I attended in England some years later). During this time of searching, however, he had been questioning whether the Anglican Church was truly his spiritual home; and in January 1956, aged 33, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

That Easter he visited the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, and met Thomas Merton. His intention was to ask to be a novice at Gethsemani, where Merton was the novice master. Merton, however, said to him: “We could make a monk of you, but not a contemplative”–which is what he wanted to be. He then went at Merton’s counsel to the abbey of New Melleray, in Dubuque, Iowa, for nine years, but without making final monastic profession, and continued to explore other expressions of religious life. In 1965, the same year that Merton entered the hermitage at Gethsemani, he moved to Vancouver Island, to join others attempting to establish a hermit community there. Received into the diocese of Victoria by Bishop Remi de Roo, he was ordained priest as a hermit-monk in 1966, at the age of 43.

From 1973 until 1984, he lived away from Black Creek, undertaking advanced studies in bookbinding and archival paper conservation in the United States, Switzerland, Italy and England, then working in this field in Canada; during these years, his apartment was his hermitage. Having returned to his own hermitage in July 1984, he earns his living by bookbinding, and has also been active in ecological restoration work on the Oyster River, where his hermitage is located. He has received wide recognition for this, and a number of environmental awards. When people express a wish to keep in touch with him, he adds their names to his listserv, and regularly sends them photographs of birds, animals or plants from his immediate environs. He welcomes local people to visit him at the hermitage, and to share his life of contemplation and love of the natural order. He has arranged that on his death, possession of his 30-acre property will pass into the care of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, except for the hermitage and the road which leads to it, which will be entrusted to the Roman Catholic diocese of Victoria.

We began our interview with a very basic question: “Why be a hermit in the 21st century?” Here’s his answer. “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ [i.e., the Christian community, and beyond this, the entire human community]. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world.  I’m very keen on the natural world, and I think that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community or perish in the desert, as Thomas Berry [Catholic priest, cultural historian, ecologian] says. Praying, living a life of solitude and stillness, quiet, is good for my soul; it’s good for everybody, I think.”

Two points from this. First, he sees what he is doing, his way of life, as something he is doing on our behalf as well as for himself. He lives peacefully, in a peaceful place, as a kind of counter-witness to or compensation for the frantic lives so many of us live. Second, on the global level, he models the hope that we will learn to live in “a single sacred community” in which as humans we will honour our fellow-creatures of other species as well as the planet itself. Vaclav Havel, former president of then-Czechoslovakia, said something very similar: that the only way we would meet the ecological challenge of our time would be to learn to regard the earth as sacred, and to treat it as such.

“I walk out, he says, “and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community.” His life and his work are one. In living as a hermit in communion with the surrounding natural order, he is modelling in his own way what all of us need to learn how to do in our own way–take our places as members of the single sacred community of which he speaks.

Charles Brandt, hermit, ecologist–ecologian!–celebrating a half-century today of commitment to your calling: ad multos annos!


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Gandhi’s birthday today, October 2

Today is Gandhi’s birthday.  He was born in 1869, 147 years ago and two years after Canadian confederation. Environmentalist Bill McKibben has made this interesting comment about him: that he is the only great political figure of the 20th century with whom we are not “finished.” Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Roosevelt–dead and buried; but Gandhi continues to challenge us.

His name was in the news recently in regard to a recently-erected statue of him at the University of Ghana, a gift of the Indian government. Some of the students want to tear it down, Continue reading

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