CRAWFORD | Lincoln, Merton among those Pope holds up in message - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Lincoln, Merton among those Pope holds up in message to Congress

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Statues of Abraham Lincoln, on the Louisville waterfront, and Thomas Merton, at Bellarmine University. Statues of Abraham Lincoln, on the Louisville waterfront, and Thomas Merton, at Bellarmine University.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The lead story of this week, for those who value historical context, was the visit of Pope Francis to Congress. It was the first time the Bishop of Rome has appeared in those hallowed American halls.

He came appealing to the highest calling of those seated before him, and used some lofty American examples to punctuate his points. It's to two of those examples that I want to turn, for just a few minutes, because they are close to home for those of us in Louisville.

Pope Francis held up Thomas Merton as an example of the contemplative life. The Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, where he lived, is a short drive from the city. The Thomas Merton Center is located at Bellarmine University. And he held up Abraham Lincoln as a protector of liberty, and the author of a "new birth of Freedom" in America. His birthplace is a short drive down Interstate 65 to Hodgenville. His boyhood home is a short trip into southern Indiana.

How curious that, in an historic address to the U.S. Congress by the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, two of the handful of people cited would have ties to this relatively small place.

It's worth spending a moment to think about these two men. Kentucky, certainly, can't lay full claim to either. Lincoln was only born here. He grew up in Indiana, and grew to prominence in Illinois. Kentucky never embraced him during his lifetime. It rejected him, harshly, on Election days. After his assassination, it was out-of-town northerners who fought to try to preserve his birthplace.

And yet, Lincoln maintained a fondness for Kentucky. He went to great pains to keep it in the crumbling union. "I hope to have God on my side," he was reported to have said early in the Civil War, "but I must have Kentucky."

Mark Twain, in an attempt to generate support for saving Lincoln's birthplace, wrote, "It was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm, halfway between the Lakes and the Gulf. The association there had substance in it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such an origin that should save it. No wintry New England Brahmin could have done it, or any torrid cotton planter. . . . This man, sprung from Southern poor whites, born on a Kentucky farm and transplanted to an Illinois village, this man, in whose heart knowledge and charity left no room for malice, was marked by Providence as the one to 'bind up the Nation's wounds.'"

In urging the Congress to focus on unity, Pope Francis held out Lincoln's efforts on behalf of all. His most-pointed remark in that section, in fact, was one printed in his speech but left out of his actual address to Congress. His advisers said he lost his place while reading the speech. It's a shame. It carried a valuable message.

"If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance," he said. "Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort."

The sad truth is that most in that body listening are not at the service of the people Pope Francis called, "the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day's work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and --one step at a time -- to build a better life for their families." No, the politicians who sat and listened represent the moneyed interests who put them into power. Lobbyists. Corporations. The wealthy. Instead of dining with leaders from Congress on Thursday, the Pope ate with the homeless. It was a wise choice. Sadly, he probably came closer to gaining legitimate insight into the nation's concerns with them.

Far from the seats of political power, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who lived in the monastery at Gethsemani for 27 years. He came there after studying at Cambridge and Columbia, and became perhaps the best-known Catholic writer in the world, the author of more than 70 books. His works are still vital and illuminating. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold in the millions, in a multitude of languages.

He has always interested me, because he lived a life for many years not so different from any of us. He grew up the son of an artist. He was born in France, but traveled extensively. He studied, went to school, joined a fraternity, even contemplated a career in newspapers. But he found life empty, and began his spiritual seeking.

At Gethsemani and in the surrounding woods, he found the clarity which has inspired millions.

Pope Francis called him, "above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."

He praised and commended to Congress Merton's contemplative spirit, his openness to dialogue and his desire to sow peace.

Merton wrote of his early months at Gethsemani, working in the hills outside Bardstown, "How sweet it is, out in the fields, at the end of the long summer afternoons! The sun is no longer raging at you, and the woods are beginning to throw long blue shadows over the stubble fields where the golden shocks are standing. The sky is cool, and you can see the pale half-moon smiling over the monastery in the distance. Perhaps a clean smell of pine comes down to you, out of the woods, on the breeze, and mingles with the richness of the fields and of the harvest. And when the undermaster claps his hands for the end of work, and you drop your arms and take off your hat to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, in the stillness you realize how the whole valley is alive with the singing of crickets, a constant universal treble going up to God out of the fields, rising like the incense of an evening prayer to the pure sky."

We've long passed the time when people with a close connection to the land hold high places in our government or literature. That's not particularly a good thing.

It's perhaps a bit of vain provincial pride that compels me to bring these men and their connections to this place up at all. It's completely coincidental, of course, and not in keeping with the Pope's larger points to Congress.

But we can do worse things than pause to consider their example. To revisit, say, Lincoln's time at  Farmington, or Merton's reflection that, “there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” 

We may not be great men like these. But we can walk where they walked. We can try to embrace their example.

I'm glad the Pope tried to introduce the antiquated notions of dialogue, unity and the promotion of peace and contemplation to a Congress that seems at times to forget them. I can think of no group of people who would be better served to stop, and honestly think about what they are doing, than members of Congress.

I hope, at least, the spirit of Thursday's remarks will resonate, but I doubt it will. Within hours, they were squabbling again, on the brink of shutting down the government over another disagreement.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton described his experience with Dante's Inferno while at Cambridge, praising the work but acknowledging, "not one of his ideas took firm root in my mind, which was both too coarse and too lazy to absorb anything so clean."

It sounds familiar. But we can always hope.

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