"A new mentality is needed, and this implies above all a recovery of ancient and original wisdom. And a real contact with what is right under our noses."
-- Thomas Merton, in a letter to Thich Nhat Hanh
On Thursday, September 24, I saw Pope Francis with my own eyes. That's the gospel truth.
Now the confession. I was attending the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate rally -- organized to support the Pope's call to action on climate change. That's me on the right of the photo. That's Doug, my Buddhist friend and climate troubadour, on the left.
Attendees watched the Pope's historic address to a joint session of Congress via Jumbotrons on the Washington Mall, applauding frequently and enthusiastically.
Immediately following his address, the Pope ventured onto the Capitol's high balcony to bless -- Vatican style -- the masses assembled below. From my vantage point, nearly half a mile away, I could see a white-robed figure enter, pause, and exit the balcony. He was the size of a few pixels at most.
Still -- and I know it sounds silly -- I feel blessed having been, even remotely, in his presence. Surely Francis is a holy man. Here are some reasons why.
First, Francis voluntarily entered a lion's den when he spoke to our dysfunctional, fractious, and polarized Congress. He survived unscathed, perhaps even taming a lion or two. The next day John Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker of the House. Why? It was an apparently selfless act intended to prevent another needless government shutdown. Perhaps Francis' words had touched Boehner: "... [to pursue] the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics." Or perhaps the Speaker was so moved simply by the presence of the pope who had just blessed his new grandchild.
Second, in the lion's den, Francis faithfully followed Jesus' wisdom "to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves." In his writings, Francis often pulls no punches. For example:
- "No one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism [free-market fundamentalism] and consider themselves a Christian. ... Such an economy kills."
- "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."
His address to Congress, in contrast, was surprisingly gentle. He approached many subjects obliquely, almost as if in parable, avoiding the appearance of taking sides. I had to reread his address carefully to realize he'd performed rites of exorcism on the GOP, reminding them: "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners." And his anticipated pro-life comments caught all by surprise. Francis called for "global abolition of the death penalty."
Third, the Pope put his finger squarely on the scourge of our age: fundamentalism, in all its guises. Fundamentalism is the psychological illusion that one has cornered the market on truth, or in the Pope's words, "the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners." Without direct reference to either ISIS or the Tea Party, he chastened both: "... we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind." Where fundamentalism cleaves the world into two camps -- the saved and the unsaved -- Francis sees one human family, sinners all.
Fourth, Pope Francis is a radical. That's a loaded term, but shouldn't be. "Radish" and "radical" come from the Latin radix, literally meaning "root." A radical wants to get to the root of the problem, not just treat the symptoms. "The love of money is the root of all sorts of evils," recognized Jesus. "The same mind-set [that] stands in the way of making radical [emphasis added] decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty," writes the Pope in Laudato Si'. Greed covers a multitude of sins.
The brilliance of the Pope's message was not, however, in what he said, but in those he chose as iconic Americans. An icon, like a picture, is worth 1000 words. When you think about it, Francis could have chosen Thomas Jefferson or Will Rogers or Henry Ford or Clara Barton or Thomas Edison or FDR or Rosa Parks or Neil Armstrong or Steve Jobs or even -- God forbid -- Donald Trump. There's no shortage of American "success" stories. Or heroes.
Instead, he chose Abraham Lincoln, great emancipator; Martin Luther King, civil rights martyr; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers movement; and Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk.
What have these four in common? Each championed a cause greater than self: the dream of a better, more just, and/or more inclusive society. And each was, in a sense, radical. Again, in Francis' profoundly simple words:
Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.
Of the four, Merton may be the least well known and the most tactical of the Pope's choices.
Self-righteous and cock-sure in early life, Merton was imprisoned by his fundamentalism. "Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness," Francis quotes from Merton. To grow in spirit, Merton had to expand his circle of compassion. He rose to the occasion. In later life, Merton engaged in extensive dialogue with the leading lights of many other faiths: Baptist, Quaker, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim among them. Much of this dialogue is preserved beautifully in Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letter of Thomas Merton (Orbis, 2006).
This essay begins with an excerpt from one such letter, from Merton to the prominent Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Like Francis, Merton appeals to our better angels, beseeching us to grow our individual and collective circles of compassion. How? By recovering the "ancient and original wisdom" that, in our hubris and greed, we have forgotten.
And what might that essential wisdom be? "Do unto others" (Jesus). "No man is an island" (John Donne). "We are all relatives" (Lakota).
Will America, like Merton, rise to the occasion? asks Francis by parable. Will we, like Merton confess our self-righteousness, expand the circle of compassion, and work for the common good? Or will we succumb to greed, racism, inequality, and addictions to war and fossil fuel, to our own demise and possibly that of the entire world.
(The author is grateful to Bruce Busching for insights on the meaning of "radical" and Doug Hendren for editorial suggestions.)