In his 2015 address to Congress, Pope Francis acknowledged four Americans who he called “representatives of the American people.” He hailed Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as examples of women and men who, throughout the history of our country, shaped fundamental values that still endure – in the spirit of the American people. “Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
This year, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose journey of faith took him from the academic towers of Columbia University in New York City to the monastery walls of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. For many, Merton is the most influential Catholic of the twentieth century. The impact of his life’s story and those spiritual writings that emanated from his conversion extend to a worldwide community. Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, for example, is a classic, and I recommend it for your spiritual reading this Christmas season.
One of my favorite quotes of Merton’s, which captures a very Ignatian approach to the celebration of Christmas, represents our ultimate source of hope as Christians. Merton states, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” Like us, Merton lived in a world that was in transition. The middle of the last century was a time of upheaval in many aspects of our culture, but Merton slowly came to believe, as Pope Francis alluded in his speech, that God could be found even in the most difficult places.
Isn’t this all very much like the story of those long ago who experienced God in their lives, and who were thus propelled to search for Him in the manager of Bethlehem? The story of the shepherds is your story, and it’s mine:
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’” (Luke 2)
In the spirit of Thomas Merton, and in countless women and men who have gone before us, may this holy season of Christmas be a time of searching for God. And may you find Him in the joy of your families and the gifts you share, as well as in those places of your life or in those people where it might not always be so obvious.
Rev. Robert E. Reiser, S.J.
Fr. Reiser assumed the presidency of McQuaid Jesuit July 1, 2014, becoming the school’s 13th president. A native of Buffalo, Fr. Reiser attended Canisius High School and earned his bachelor of science in Accounting from Canisius College. Following his undergraduate studies, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1986. Along with teaching, Fr. Reiser has served many roles throughout his career, including director of Campus Ministry at Canisius High School, director of Vocations for the Society of Jesus in New York City, and president of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.