“The ABC’s of Thomas Merton, A Monk at the Heart of the World” by Gregory & Elizabeth Ryan

“It’s as easy as A, B, C!”

Challenge: How to take the information found on our shelves and shelves—and shelves!—of books by and about Thomas Merton, and make it all understandable to a young audience.

As a youngster, I had heard about a “mysterious” Trappist monk who lived an austere life of silence, prayer and work in a monastery far removed from the rest of the world. As an adult, I first came upon Merton in a serious way in 1971 when I was working as a nursing assistant at The New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, near Princeton. I was serving as a civilian conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. During the initial four-weeks of training, I befriended a fellow who was also a CO. I soon learned that he was a radical philosopher, through and through. He was also a professed atheist. He knew I was a Catholic, but that did not get in the way of our having many lively discussions during our lunch-breaks. His small room on the hospital grounds was crammed full of books. More, he admitted, than he could ever read. But one day, he handed me two books that changed my life: The Man in the Sycamore Tree, Edward Rice’s “entertainment-biography” of his friend Thomas Merton, and The Sign of Jonas, one of Merton’s most celebrated monastic journals. More than 40 years later, much like Richard’s small room, our house is crammed full of Merton books. Unlike Richard’s, however, they’ve all been read. And re-read. And re-read.

Once having been “bitten” by the Merton bug, I looked for magazine and journal articles about Merton. I wrote to many of those authors who were in what I would call the “first generation” of Merton scholars, who very generously answered my questions, or sent me photocopies of their work. Most importantly, I befriended Dr. Robert E. Daggy, Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine College (now University), who very soon became “Bob.” Merton enthusiasts of my age (late-60’s) know how generous Bob was both with his knowledge and with his friendship. The first thing I published on Merton was in the 1970’s and was a result of Bob’s invitation to contribute something to “The Merton Seasonal” which he edited. The very short piece compared Thomas Merton with Dom John Main OSB, my meditation teacher. (Learn more at www.WCCM.org). Over the years, I’ve published other Merton-related articles in The Seasonal and other journals.

One day, in the 1980’s, while I was sitting in the car waiting for our older daughter, who was having her piano lesson, it occurred to me that Merton had published not only The Asian Journal but Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Titles from A to Z. Hmmmm…. Click! I was off to the races.

Being a second grade teacher for many years, I had a small pad with me. I started to make a few notes and some rough sketches for what was important in the life of Thomas Merton, starting with “A is for Abbot, B is for Benedict….” and so on. When we got home, I shared the sketches and the texts with my wife, Liz, who is a very talented artist. She thought it was a great idea. And so did Caitlin, our young pianist. Our other daughter, Abbey, who today is also an artist, was a tad too young at the time. She was in her room, busily making her own pictures.

Liz and I soon had a fully illustrated manuscript ready and sent it out to publishers. This was in the days of postal mail. You could only submit your work to one publisher at a time. Weeks would go by between submissions. After a good number of thoughtful rejections and one very hard nibble—which unfortunately got away—we put the project on the shelf, where it sat for many years. We took it down for time to time to show friends and family. They all repeated a familiar refrain, “This is good. You should try again!”

In the summer of 2015, Abbey and her partner were visiting for a weekend. In the middle of a long walk down Memory Lane, the subject of the book came up again. Liz went to her studio and took the manuscript down from the shelf and we listened to Abbey and Leigh as they flipped through the manuscript. They liked it! “This is good. You should try again!” Click! (By the way, Caitlin and Abbey both have “Merton” for their middle names.)

I spent the next few weeks scanning the text and the color illustrations. Skills I did not have the first time around. Nobody did; there were no personal computers. The text needed some additional tweaking, but the paintings were still perfect, thanks to Liz’s artistry. We settled on a lay-out and “saved” the now-digitized book as a PDF file.

As luck would have it, one day I came across an ad in the National Catholic Reporter for the re-issue of Anthony Padovano’s excellent book on Merton. I sent an email inquiry to the publisher about our ABCs of Thomas Merton, A Monk at the Heart of the World. In just a few moments, my inbox had the reply: “Let’s see it.” After some nail-biting while PDF files were Drop-boxed back and forth, the verdict came back. “We love it!” The only problem was, they had not yet published any children’s books. But they might start. They didn’t. (Insert big “sad-face” here.)

Fortunately, that editor did not give up on us. He was just embarking on a new position at this publisher, after recently coming from a position at Paraclete Press. But he believed in the book and he said he would send it on to Paraclete. He was sure they would like it. And they did! I’m sure it didn’t hurt, either, that we had included with our submission what some might call “glowing endorsements” from more than half a dozen of today’s leaders in Merton studies, contemplative prayer, and pastoral care who had previewed a PDF file of the illustrated manuscript.

Staffed by a creative and talented monastic community, Paraclete Press has been a perfect fit for our book. We could not be happier.

When I tell this story to people, I always tell them not to give up. If they have a good idea, keep at it—no matter what others might think.

As I look back on this publishing journey, I can see how, as some may say, the stars had to be aligned just so to make it happen. Me, I would say it all happened in God’s own good time.

Note: You can take a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the book here and view Paraclete Press’s wonderful video here!

– Gregory and Elizabeth Ryan

Happy Mother’s Day!

Gifts for Mother’s Day (4)A Mothers Love and Witness are Powerful!

By Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author of Feeding Your Family’s Soul and A Catholic Woman’s Book of Prayers

When we think of a mother’s love we might get a warm and fuzzy kind of feeling inside, reminiscing childhood memories. Truth be told though, as warm and cozy as a mother’s love truly is, mothers indeed possess an incomparable inner strength that is utterly edifying. Her vocation is extremely important in raising little saints to heaven even though our culture, which values the size of a paycheck over anything else, does not revere the sometimes monotonous tasks of a mother and pushes women to pursue careers outside the home rather than get “tied down” to a sometimes thankless job.

I am exceedingly thankful for my vocation of motherhood, as well as the very interesting life that God has given me—filled with endless heart-warming joys and sprinkled with struggles and challenges too. I constantly pray that I can be the hands and feet of Jesus—to be His humble instrument to inspire faith in others—first in my family where He has placed me to be a wife and mother of five on earth and three in heaven, as well as a grandmother. After all, my spiritual mother Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, someone I was blessed to know personally for almost ten years has often preached “Love begins at home.”

Beyond my family, because our Lord has given me the task of writing and speaking to inspire faith in others, I expand my reach by His grace and go out to meet countless people at my events who openly share their hearts with me and ask me for prayers for a myriad of needs. My book signing events are not merely a time to sign books, but rather an opportunity for much grace in the amazing encounters that God sets up. I’ll share a few encounters with you.

One time after giving a keynote speech to a parish in Kansas, a very long line of people who wanted to purchase autographed copies of my books formed at my book table. The first woman in line came to me with many tears, telling me that her mother had just passed away. My heart immediately went out to comfort her in her intense sorrow. She continued to bury her head into my chest as my arms reached around her in compassion. She laid her head against me a few times during our conversation—she needed love and empathy. She needed to feel Christ’s loving arms around her.

Before we parted, she gave me a copy of her mother’s obituary and placed her head against my heart again while many tears flowed.

A week or so after I returned home to Connecticut, I received an email from her. I will share it with you because I feel it is a very inspiring story of a mother’s powerful love and shining witness to her family and beyond.

Hi Donna,
Do you remember me? I met you last week. I bought your book and asked you to pray for my Mom that passed away on. You told me that my Mom is in heaven now when I told you that my Mom died on her sleeping at age 87 years old.

You put the Miraculous Medal close to yours. I am so blessed to receive it from you. The next day, on Monday I put the medal to my Mom’s hands in her casket and told her about your story. I was so surprised they opened the casket again when I visited her. But I kept your medal now. My mom was cremated last Wednesday.

Thank you for comforting me and making me strong.

After meeting you, I realized that I am so blessed because God gave me a wonderful Mother that had a very strong faith. My mother was not rich, she did not leave money, but she left the important things, such as her example that shows me that we have to trust in God and pray all the times. It is more valuable than everything else. You made me so proud about my Mom.

She was baptized when she was 5th grade, being the only one in her in her family who was Catholic. After years, she made sure that all of her family (9 siblings), became Catholic and her parents too, and also my Dad. Now all of my aunts, cousins, nephews, uncles are Catholic because of my Mom. It is pity that I just realized this after my Mom is gone.

How wonderful she is. She never complained if she had a problem. She always prayed. We were so poor when I was a kid in Indonesia, living in a small house, not tile, only dirt. I have 4 siblings, my Dad was jobless, so my Mom worked hard to make dresses for our neighbors to get money, but she put all her kids through Catholic school and we were baptized as babies.

She taught her kids to be good Catholics. Now, we (3 of her kids) are living in USA. God always has better plans than we can ever imagine.

It is nice to meet you and thank you for opening my mind that my Mom is not ordinary people. God loves her and I believe that she is happy now in her new place in heaven. She is so blessed.

This woman was suddenly given the grace after her mother’s death to understand the amazing things that her mother had accomplished as a very simple yet faithful woman who worked hard to get her family to heaven. “Small things with great love” as Mother Teresa, a great spiritual mother to our world has always preached. She often spoke about the fact that God calls us to simply be wholeheartedly faithful to our duties in life. That is really our ticket to heaven, and just as importantly, it opens wide the gate for others because of our Christian witness. I am deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to give that woman a blessed Miraculous Medal—Mary’s medal. Mary truly mothers us through her sacramental. Mother Mary always points us to her Son. “Do whatever he tells you,” as she told the wine stewards. Mary will grant many graces to us for the asking. Let’s not be hesitant to ask her.

God Gives Us Strength to Endure

That night I was also blessed to meet a woman waiting in the same line of people waiting to approach my book table. She drew nearer and knelt down next to my table. She presented a photo of her handsome son to me. On the other side though, was a printed eulogy. He was only thirteen years old when he passed away in an accident just twelve weeks prior. I gazed at the photo of that smiling child and the woman was beaming with a mother’s love as she tenderly told me all about her beautiful son who surely went straight to heaven. This woman proceeded to tell me that God had granted her much grace and after some time she would accept the tragedy of her son’s death. I witnessed strength personified in that woman kneeling at my book table. Such love, such grace. Mothers are strong. Mothers are heroic.

Another woman came forward to tell me all about a little baby with brain cancer. That’s right—a baby—with brain cancer! Her thoughts were not on her own needs. She pleaded for prayers from me for little Adele, her friend’s baby girl who was undergoing chemotherapy at a tender age. She told me all about Adele’s mother’s dire need for prayers that Adele might be healed. Sometimes a mother’s heart seems encircled with piercing thorns when she experiences the depth of this type of pain.

Mothers Can Be a Channel of Grace

We start first in our own homes to serve our families. When we are out and about with our family’s activities we have the occasion to share our faith with others through caring words and kind gestures, not hesitating to get “God” and “prayer” into our conversations—even with complete strangers. We never know how much someone will be impacted by those words and Christ’s love shining from our eyes. This was shown to me in such an amazing way one ordinary morning out at the school bus stop. I tell this story often because I like to encourage others that by God’s amazing grace, our simple words and care can work miracles in someone’s heart—someone needing God’s love!

When my daughter Mary-Catherine was about three years old she insisted upon wearing a pretty dress to the school bus stop one morning. After seeing her older siblings go off to school on the school bus, my neighbor remarked that Mary-Catherine looked pretty in her dress.

I replied, “It’s really her Church dress but she desperately wanted to wear it this morning.”

My neighbor began to cry and then she sobbed! I asked if I could give her a hug. She immediately accepted my hug. I had no idea why she suddenly got upset, but I knew I needed to try to comfort her. She then opened up about the promise she made to her father on his death bed, eight years prior. She told her father that she would be sure to have her son baptized. Eight years had passed and he was still not baptized. She cried some more and I told her that it was not too late! She expressed her concern about getting yelled at by the priest for waiting so long. I reassured her that the priest would welcome her with open arms and I offered to call our parish priest ahead of her phone call to him to help pave the way. She thought it was a good plan.

Soon after, my neighbor’s son was baptized and my neighbor went to Confession and was back in the graces of the Church! She then helped out in the parish office while her son took his faith formation lessons to make his First Holy Communion. God is amazing! That one word, “Church” that I mentioned in describing my daughter’s dress had awakened the memory in my neighbor’s heart about her important promise to her father.

Mothers are the Hands and Feet of Jesus!

Mothers everywhere are involved in innumerable ways in the care of their families and of others. All women are spiritual mothers and can mother those that God has put in their lives. Their faithful witness shines among us. God calls every single one of us to open our hearts to His grace and to strive to be Christ’s hands and feet in our darkened world. A simple smile, a listening ear, a warm hug of comfort can soothe someone’s deep pain and open up an amazing channel of grace!

Saint Teresa of Avila encouraged us to go forth and bring Christ’s love to others. She said:

“Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”

Happy Mother’s Day to every woman!

19217 Feeding-Your-Familys-SoulFeeding-Your-Familys-Soul-DVD

“Who will stay with us?”

Today’s guest blogger is Laura Alary, author of Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter

I am getting ready to go out. It is only for the day, but I require a lot of gear. By the front door, my youngest daughter prances around a pile of bags, investigating and wondering aloud. A frown creases her forehead as the questions pour out:

“Where are you going? How long will you be gone? Who will stay with us?”

There is something oddly familiar about her words. Then I remember. My mind flits to that moment in the gospel of John when Jesus, reclining in the lamplight around a table with his closest friends, breaks the news to them that he will soon be leaving. Their questions are those of children afraid to be left alone:

“Where are you going? When are you coming back? Who will stay with us?”

Among other things, Pentecost is a response to these anxious questions. But we rarely celebrate it that way. Observing Pentecost—especially with children—often owes more to the book of Acts than to the gospel of John. Acts describes the joyful chaos, the crowds of people, the palimpsest of voices and languages, the wind and fire. The scene is loud and noisy and oriented outward. The disciples burst from behind locked doors and rush into the streets; the message travels outward from Jerusalem and spreads out across the face of the earth.

Acts is Pentecost for extroverts.

Our celebrations frequently mirror these extroverted qualities. We throw a party, complete with balloons, streamers, pinwheels, bubbles, bright colours, birthday cake and candles. And why not? Parties are fun. So are gifts. Children can certainly relate to them, and to the thrill of waiting for something new and exciting. And what better excuse for a party than the birth of a new kind of family with its all its varied and abundant gifts?

But sometimes important things get lost amid the cake and wrapping paper.

The Gospel of John gives us a very different account of the gift of the Spirit. This other version—I like to think of it as the introverted version—happens in a locked room, in an atmosphere thick with worry. The disciples have retreated there because they are terrified and have no idea what to do or where to go. Their worst fears have come to pass. They are all alone and there is no one to help.

Into this fearful place, Jesus comes. His words are few. Be at peace, he tells his friends. Receive the Holy Spirit. Then he breathes on them, and something mysterious begins to stir in them, the way it did when God breathed life into the muddy nostrils of those first earth creatures in the ancient story of the beginning. The disciples can feel they are not alone. And somehow that makes all the difference.

In her lovely book about Pentecost, The Day When God Made Church, Rebekah McLeod Hutto describes the gift of words in all their wonderful variety: “Some with LOUD sounds, some with quiet whispers, words like drumbeats, words that tiptoe through the air.” How true. It is not only the loud and bold words that matter. The gentle and quiet ones do too.

I love you.
I am with you.
You are not alone.

Such words are a precious gift to children who, like the disciples, know the fear of being left alone, the sensation of feeling small and powerless, the anxiety of not knowing what lies ahead. Their connection to the story of Pentecost runs deep.

How can we help children explore this connection? Perhaps by making some space for silence in the middle of all the noise and hilarity. Perhaps by wondering together about different kinds of words and what they do. Which words build up? Which ones tear down? Are there times when it is better to be quiet? To speak out? How can we use our words to bring peace? To encourage? To spread kindness?

Maybe Pentecost is the time to get out the crayons and beads and fabric and play together with some new forms of prayer, especially those practices which nurture awareness of the divine presence in and around us. Praying in colour, centering prayer, praying with beads, making prayer flags—there are so many ways to practise paying attention so we can look on the world with wonder and see the movement of the Spirit.

These things might not make for a rollicking party. But they do bring peace to anxious hearts, encourage those with gentler voices, stir kindness and confidence, and open young and old to a clearer way of seeing.

And there is always room for cake and balloons.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 12.28.33 PMMake-Room

Guest blog from Jerusalem Jackson Greer!

This month something amazing is happening.

My second book is being published and brought into the world.

Which is pretty amazing. Maybe even more amazing than when my first book was published.

You see, At Home in this Life; Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises, is not the book I set out to write 4 years ago.

The book I imagined and pitched to my publisher back then, was a little more fluffy, a little less messy. That book was a cheerful little ditty about how to pair monastic practices with domestic chores in cute Pinterest-ways.

But then life happened. Things came apart, plans fell through, dreams unraveled.

And instead of just being cute inspiration for adorable crafts and yummy recipes, the ancient monastic spiritual teachings of steadfastness, transformation, listening, and Sabbath became my life rafts.

They, along with the verses of Jeremiah 29:1-14, became the scaffolding on which I was able to rebuild a life of hope and promise. A life rooted in the goodness of God, the grace of Christ, and the passion of the Holy Spirit.

And the beautiful thing about these practices is that they are not only life rafts. They are also anchors and row boats.

In addition to their life-raft skills, they also hold me fast to one place when what I need most is to stay and learn the lessons that life has for me when it would be so much easier to run away, and they keep me moving and growing in the midst of the most mundane ordinary parts of life when I would much rather be lazy and stagnate.

Using these tools, I have learned how to be present to life I have, growing in gratefulness and faithfulness (imperfectly!) in the process. But as the little poster from my childhood said, “be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Which is why I have to keep practicing.

In order to really live into the wholeness that God has for us, we – me, you, everyone – has to keep showing up – to the table, to each other, to our lives. We have to keep practicing spiritual disciplines (after all to be a disciple is to be someone who is teachable, not someone who has all the answers,) day in and day out.

Which is where A Rule of Life comes in.

This idea – that there are certain spiritual practices that are able to both anchor, rescue and propel us forward – essentially helping us remain present to our life no matter the circumstances, helping shape and form us in the image of God – is not a new idea – it is one that comes from the monastic tradition and is called A Rule of Life.

“A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. A Rule establishes a rhythm for life in which is helpful for being formed by the Spirit, a rhythm that reflects a love for God and respect for how God has made us.”

– C.S. Lewis Institute

The cool thing is that A Rule of Life can be established for a community (a monastery, a family, a church) and for an individual. It can be adjusted and modified over the course of a lifetime, it can grow and change as we grow and change.

Different people have different ways of creating A Rule of Life and there are many books and theories on the subject, but I have found what works for me, and what I think what might work for a lot of us, is a pattern based largely on the experiences I write about in At Home in this Life. It is a simple four-part rhythm inspired by St. Benedict’s teachings and Jeremiah 29:1-14.

A pattern that can help us remain present to the life we have, watering the grass beneath our feet, growing deep roots right where we have been planted. A pattern that can help is NOTICE the goodness of God in our everyday lives.

Over the next month, as part of the At Home in this Life book launch celebration, I thought I would unpack this process and idea a little bit here on the blog. Over the next few weeks I am going to look at what each of the four overarching themes (or “vows” as they are called in the Benedictine tradition) that I think help frame an easy-to-use, but completely trans-formative Rule of Life. One that helps me dig into the Spiritual Practice of Being Present, and I think might help you too.

Here is a free worksheet I have created that you can use over the course of the next few weeks to begin creating your own Rule, as we go through the process together, looking at the four guiding themes – Steadfastness, Transformation, Listening and Sabbath – and how we can use other spiritual disciplines to really experience and practice each one to the fullest, making ourselves at home in this amazing, beautiful, chaotic, messy, glorious life!

Won’t you join me?