Monday, December 10, 2012

Barth and Merton

On this day, December 10, in 1968, two great saints of the church died - one in Basel, Switzerland and the other in Bangkok, Thailand. It is interesting to imagine the two, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, waiting together at the "pearly gates" and what they might have talked about: the former one of the great Protestant theologians of the twentieth century and the latter one of the great Roman Catholic monks and guides of the spiritual life in the twentieth century.

Barth, a pastor and theologian, was the older of the two, born in 1886. The collect offered for this day in The Episcopal Church to remember him goes like this:
Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.
Merton, a contemplative and writer, was born in 1915. The collect offered for this day in The Episcopal Church to remember him goes like this:
Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and
ever. Amen.
It strikes me that the word "justice" appears in both collects. Barth, who stood against the tyranny of the Nazis, knew God's justice to be beyond human knowledge; revealed truth that (as the prayer puts it) we "apprehend God's will only by grace." For Merton, a contemplative, prayer was never about navel-gazing or spiritual narcissism, but the path to apprehend God's justice and then to speak it, and live it.

I worry that the Church, even among so-called progressives, has lost it's nerve. We have lost the prophetic edge that both Merton and Barth, in very different ways - embodied. We yearn for peace but sometimes forget that without justice there can be no peace. In this season of expectation, as we pray for peace, may we work for justice.

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