Pope Francis’ Exhortation and Merton

Bird Flying In_1As I ponder the new Exhortation from Pope Francis, I feel as if a new day has dawned once again. My mind flits back to John XXIII and his speech to open the Vatican Council over 50 years ago. My mind slow forwards laboriously through the painful roll back of hope under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis, in his own words, has “the smell of the sheep” and we, Christians and all people of good will, recognize him as our shepherd in these difficult times. Francis warns us that “sourpusses” [May be the first ever appearance of this word in a papal writing] cannot spread the joy of the Gospel. Like Paul, he exhorts us to rejoice always as we carry the message of Christ’s love to one another. This is a far cry from the evangelism of the conquistadors. This is about humans in heart-to-heart communion.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the Exhortation:

1.The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

2.The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many will fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the Risen Christ.

 3.I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unflinchingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus:

“Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in thousands of ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.”

How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire us more than his life, which impels us onwards! (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html)

Wow!!! I am continuing to read Higgin’s book, Thomas Merton on Prayer. What I am reading makes me wonder whether Francis has read and studied Merton. Not that he had to because all mystics come to the some truth.

I am gaining a better understanding of hat Merton meant about the true self and false self. The false self is about survival and Bishop Spong on his around the world pilgrimage observed and reported on animal behavior, all of which is directed toward survival—survival of the fittest. Obviously, our residual reptilian brain impels us to do whatever is necessary to survive; however, the call of the Risen Christ invites us to transcend our survival instincts. The image of God deep within us is the true self which enables us to the transcend instinct.

Merton has two stages. The emptiness Francis describes is the alienation which Merton describes. At some point in our life, we move from first half survival to second half transcendence. We are becoming more than what we are. For Francis, we are gifted with the love of God in Christ; this fuels our desire to share the love of God with all others. Ditto Merton. The transcendence of the true self moves us toward communion with all others—no exceptions. Merton warns that this is not an easy task. When we come to abyss of emptiness and nakedness, Francis and Merton urge us to fall headlong into the darkness so we can emerge on the other side filled with God’s mercy and compassion. When we know we are empty, God can then fill our emptiness with abundance which we can share with others.

Filled with abundance, we can truly “Rejoice always!”