Friday, September 21, 2007

A saint and an activist

disclaimer: sorry for the somber mood of this post. I think I've been reading too much Ecclesiastes recently.

Different people can see the same sin,the same injustice, the same oppression, and react oppositely. The activist, when he sees injustice, is thrust into the world, seeking to extract the sin from society. The saint, seeing the same injustice, is thrust into himself, seeking to extract the sin from his own heart. One is with the people. He works tirelessly in the heat of the sun to bring about restitution. The other is with no one but God, and toils in the heat of brutal examination. The activist is perpetually frustrated. When one hole is patched, another one just as big springs a little further down the line. Always searching for a clue without, he fails to notice the presence of the perpetrator within.

The saint has no false notions of moral exemption. And so, he stays hot on the trail of sin's inner descent. It's not that he doesn't go out into the world, he just does so with a different point of view. Like the activist, the saint walks the streets of a sin-sick society and seeks to administer mercy. Yet the world to him is like a mirror. It merely serves to reflect back the wickedness of his own heart. The dark, dingy alleys that surround him pale in comparison to the putrid pathways of pride in his own heart.

After a job well done, the activist rests easy. As he drifts off to sleep, he whispers a prayer; "God, give me one more day to make a difference." The saint next door is wide awake. He stares up at the ceiling and prays quietly; "Search me O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

These days, God is gently teaching me that he doesn't need any more activists, but that saints are in short supply.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Life as a Protest

Thomas Merton was a promising young writer, destined to become a martini-sipping socialite in 1940's New York. Fortunately, a radical conversion rescued him from the jaws of decadence and landed him squarely in a Cistercian monastery, deep in the woods of Kentucky. From there Merton, a monk stripped of his worldly identity, would become a best-selling author, amassing a legion of fans who would never lay eyes on him. Much of Merton's writings were spiritual in nature, offering a transparent glimpse into one man's search for Transcendent Truth. Yet every now and again, the good Father would point his pen directly at the sinful structures of American culture.

He wrote scathing rebukes of American foreign policy, and gave articulate expression to the injustices of racial intolerance. In this way, Merton was a paradox, both relevant and reclusive. Much of this paradox was reconciled after his death in 1968. It was then, upon venturing into his hermitage, that his fellow monks found stashes of News Week magazines and Bob Dylan records piled high next to his collection of theological commentaries.

So what would possess a gifted writer with a social conscience to take on the life of a hermit? Though he had many reasons for his pursuit of solitude, one of his most provocative motivations was the making of his life into a symbol of protest. It wasn't a rejection of the world, but of its values that led Merton into self-imposed exile. He rightly saw that a perverse quest for power stemming from deep shame on a personal level, led to nuclear warfare and genocide on a grander scale. He considered it to be the calling of every Christian to let their lives stand as a ringing indictment of a sinful society. And so, he lived his life as a resounding "no" to a value system that stood in opposition to the Good News of Christ Jesus.

In contrast, I find my resounding "no" to be muffled by the undeniable presence of greed and selfish-ambition. Likewise, if we Christians are supposed to be living life as a protest, I must say that we form a pretty sad picket line. At best, our witness is more of a resounding " Uh, I'm not so sure about this."