The following was delivered as a sermon for Noonday Prayers, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Oklahoma.
What do a 4th Century Italian maiden and a 20th Century Trappist monk from Kentucky have in common? That is an odd question. But, since today falls between feast days, I found myself going back and forth between Thomas Merton, whose feast day was Monday, and St. Lucy of Syracuse, whose feast day is tomorrow.
What this unlikely pair have in common – other than their abiding love of Christ – is an important theme that played through both their lives: How do we interact with people of other faiths?
For St. Lucy, interfaith relations amounted to persecution and, ultimately, martyrdom. Her story, like many of the early saints and martyrs, is woven together from fragments of history and legend. We know Lucy was born around 283 A.D. to a wealthy Roman family. Despite being born during a time of great persecution of the Christian faith, Lucy embraced Christ at a young age.
When Lucy’s father died, and her mother fell ill, the family faced ruin. To secure her future, Lucy’s mother promised her in marriage to a wealthy pagan. But, Lucy already had promised herself to Christ. Lucy prayed to St. Agatha, who had been martyred 52 years earlier. During a pilgrimage to St. Agatha’s shrine the saint appeared to Lucy, and told her because of her faith her mother would be cured, and that Lucy would be martyred.
Rather than avoid martyrdom, Lucy convinced her mother to donate her substantial dowry to the poor. When the would-be groom learned of this, he turned Lucy in to the governor for her Christian faith. The governor of Syracuse ordered Lucy to burn a sacrifice to an idol of the Roman emperor. When she refused, he sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. But, when the guards came to take Lucy away, tradition tells us they could not move her, even with the help of a team of oxen. They piled wood around Lucy to burn her alive, but it refused to light. Finally, they stabbed her to death — undefiled, and resolute in her faith in Christ.
St. Lucy’s story is inspiring. And, it’s not unlike other martyrdom accounts. From the earliest days of Christendom, there have been those who would persecute us for our faith. All the Apostles faced martyrdom — except John, who lived through his martyrdom attempt to face exile. Rather than driving people from Christ, persecution grew and sustained the early church. Even today, we draw strength from these early martyrs, from their courage and resolve in faith. And, even today, we see recurring stories of Christians being martyred for their faith.
We draw, and should draw, strength from these stories of martyrdom. But, if we’re not careful, we can be drawn into an “us vs. them” mentality that strips the Great Commission of its central message of Love. And, that is where Thomas Merton comes into our story.
In 1942, Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, a part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as Trappists — an offshoot of the Benedictine monastic movement. He spent the next 26 years, until his untimely death in 1968, as a mystic, theologian and author of more than 70 books on spirituality, pacifism, social justice and interfaith relations.
It’s his focus on interfaith relations and comparative religions that’s relevant to our topic today. In the 1950s Merton began exploring Zen Buddhism, and found among the Zen practitioners close correlations to the methods and teachings of the early Christian Desert Fathers, and to the teachings of Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross. He would go on to have an extensive dialogue with the Dalai Lama and other Hindu and Buddhist leaders from India and Vietnam.
Some have since criticized Merton for his interest in Eastern religions, alleging it detracted from his Catholicism and even his faith as a Christian. But, what Merton found in his dialogue with other faiths wasn’t a detraction from his Christian faith. It was, rather, a deepening of his own faith, and his own monastic tradition.
“I think that we have now reached a stage of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet learn, in depth, from a Hindu or Buddhist discipline or experience,” Merton wrote. “Some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life.”
Merton found a deeper experience of Christianity by expressing, without any preconditions, the love of Christ to other faiths. By looking beyond dogma and doctrine, he was able to see a shared humanity in other world faiths — a humanity that reflected and shared the love he found in Christ.
“Whatever I may have written,” Merton wrote in 1963, “I think all can be reduced in the end to this one truth, that God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another in Christ.”
Merton could look with compassion and understanding on people of other faiths — and calls us to do the same — because he saw in others not what made them different, but what we all share in common. He saw in all people, regardless of their faith, our common origin and end in God.
He tells us: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own world.”
By seeing this spark of God in everyone, Merton shone into the world the love of Christ — a love that makes no requirements, sets no demands and is offered freely to all.
Tomorrow, as I said up front, is the feast of St. Lucy. Her name means “light,” and in many countries children, especially girls, will carry candles into the dark hours of St. Lucy’s Feast, to shine the light of Christ into the darkness of this world.
We all are called to share that light. We are called to share it with the courage and perseverance of faith of St. Lucy, and with the understanding and loving compassion of Merton.
Gracious God, for the salvation of all you gave Jesus Christ as light to a world in darkness: Illumine us, with your daughter Lucy, with the light of Christ, that by the merits of his passion we may be led to eternal life; and as 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.