November 2015

What do Pope Francis, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene have in common?

Like Pope Francis, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene were individuals whose sheer complexity equipped them to address the often contradictory world we live in, in order to find God in it, writes Joanna Thyer.

BY Joanna Thyer

The writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the famous British writer, Graham Greene, and our current pope, Pope Francis, have a lot in common. Merton died in 1968 – from accidental electrocution whilst touring in Thailand, and Greene died peacefully in 1991. Both men were converts to Catholicism. Like Pope Francis, Merton engaged in interfaith dialogue. What these three men have in common, however, is that their works reveal them to be visionaries and mystics with a faith message for the world, a message that does not shy away from naming and engaging with the darkness around us.

Graham Greene led an eclectic life, and embraced and dialogued with the complex world around him. After his conversion to Catholicism in the 1920s, he was commissioned to go to Mexico to report on religious persecution there which resulted in him writing one of his famous novels, The Power and the Glory. He was adept at characterising the flawed broken priest or individual who could still bring Christ to others, despite his brokenness. The internal struggle of the soul to find and receive grace was amongst the issues that consumed him. As he so well depicted in another work, The Heart of the Matter, he understood the paradox of how a person’s conscience and love of God, could also lead them to disaster.

Greene confronted and explored the world of international politics, espionage and the world of corruption, (he worked for MI6 at one stage). He took a stand on moral issues – he allegedly quit the American Academy of Arts and Letters over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

A serial adulterer and womaniser, he explored flawed and complex interpersonal relationships in his writing, such as in his famous work, The End of the Affair. He was by his own admission, a man who struggled with his own sins whilst balancing a passionate faith. Able to deepen and challenge his own religious and spiritual beliefs amidst a rich and tumultuous life, his flawed and complex nature both informed his writing, and furthered his faith as a devout Catholic.

Both Merton and Greene struggled with the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the struggle between the human soul, desire and what God’s direction and actions in a person’s life and the world around them, meant. Merton was also flawed, and allegedly quite headstrong in his inner and outer battles, and in his relationship with his monastic community. Books about Merton have been written saying he was not as ‘holy’ as he seemed and his personal diaries also talk about the love affair he had with a nurse for a while during his time as a monk in the 1960s. Yet these revelations are indications of a multi-faceted individual whose humanity fuelled his wisdom. Like Greene, Merton’s life experience and the wisdom he imparted to the world, enriched his faith. This is an example to all of us.

Like Pope Francis, Merton saw the great wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu traditions, or metaphorically how ‘the sun sets in the East’. Whilst some have critiqued this perceived duality in Merton towards the end of his life, it reveals the depth of his quest to follow where God was leading him. Ironically, only days before his death in Bangkok, Merton had an epiphany whilst reflecting on the beauty of Eastern spiritual experience. In contemplating the ‘dharmahaya’ where ‘everything is emptiness and everything is compassion’ he reflected: “I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise”.

In his book Church of Mercy, Pope Francis advises us to read the signs of God in our lives, be guided by the Spirit, and go beyond our comfort zone. Pope Francis’ washing of a female Muslim prisoner’s feet early in his pontificate is a dramatic example of how actions speak louder than words. The subtext of that action could readily be understood as demonstrating how Christ’s love really works. He has not played it safe. He understands the world he is in, and does not separate himself from it. His message is a metaphor for an individual’s spiritual life. He does not want a closed Church, but an open one, and emphasises that “a bruised Church is better than an ill Church”.

Like Pope Francis, Greene and Merton were individuals whose sheer complexity equipped them to address the often contradictory world we live in, in order to find God in it. The lives of such people do not make them saints, yet they do exemplify their status as mystics who contribute to the spiritual development of others.

At a time when religious persecution is rife, when extremists on either side have hijacked and distorted many religious beliefs, in a violent, chaotic and often uncertain world, the lives of people like Pope Francis, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene have a message for us: to embrace the brokenness in the world and in our own lives and find love and God in it. Their message seems to embody what Graham Greene once famously said, “When we are not sure, we are alive”.

Joanna Thyer

Joanna Thyer is the author of the 2018 Lenten booklet, "Listening to the Wisdom of the Desert" (Garratt Publishing, 2017) and also "12 Steps to Spiritual Freedom" (Loyola Press, 2014). Both books are available from Garratt Publishing and major book stores. Joanna is also a university multi-faith chaplaincy coordinator and a coordinator of a community program for people living with HIV-AIDS.

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