Thomas Merton

Into the Dark Woods

During Lent I occasionally choose a gospel companion to guide me through the season. I slip in behind one character or another in the Passion narrative and walk with them on the road to Jerusalem. One year it was Mary of Magdala. Another, Claudia, wife of Pontius Pilate.

This year I was drawn to Mark’s “certain young man”—the one who flees naked from the violence in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (14:51-52), leaving behind his linen cloth.

Scholars vehemently disagree about who this young man was. Many deduce that it’s the writer of Mark’s gospel inserting himself into the story. Others say he is reminiscent of King David fleeing from Absalom on the the Mount of Olives. Or that he foreshadows the “young man” in a white robe who will meet the women at Jesus’ tomb.

Whoever he was, in the midst of an encounter with violence, this “certain young man” lost what thin protection he had and fled into the night, into the selva oscura, as Dante calls it, those “dark woods.” Toward what, we do not know.

AS THE HUMAN soul matures, we are confronted with moments that force us to let go of yet another thin veil of self-delusion. The “right road,” the moral high ground, sinks into a thicket of gray.

Two examples from this Lent: An American Army staff sergeant, with four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and probable concussive brain trauma, allegedly pulls 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, including nine children, out of their beds in the middle of the night and shoots them. The thin cloth of protection that allows us to believe “if we weren’t there things would be worse” slips to the ground.

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The SojoMusic Interview: Denison Witmer, 'Creating Space Where Truth Can Move'

Denison Witmer by Ethan Luck.
Denison Witmer by Ethan Luck.

Singer-songwriter Denison Witmer’s 2005 album Are you a Dreamer? was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence — his calm voice a sonic companion as I navigated the choppy waters of high school insecurities; his complex fingerpicking acoustic guitar style a mentor as I learned to play and write my own music. Witmer’s soulful voice, thoughtful lyrics and inimitable style (some critics have called it “neo-folk” a la Cat Stevens or Nick Drake), has stuck with me for years. Just a snippet of his lyrics or melody can transport me back to precisely where I was when I first heard them, a younger me dreaming of who I might become. 

When Witmer’s latest tour brought him through Washington, D.C. last month, I caught up with him backstage before his gig at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. We talked in the artist lounge and sound check stage, before venturing out for a couple of veggie wraps while exploring a variety of subjects from music and family to saints and beer. And we even managed to persuade him to play a couple of songs for us, which we’ve captured here on video for you. (You’re welcome.)

Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.

Bob Sabath at Sojourners, 1976
Bob Sabath at Sojourners, 1976

"Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success."
 - Thomas Merton

As my extended family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the market crash in 2008, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: "more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger."

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, "poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller."

When Sojourners started in 1970, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American.

We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country, and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade we lived with a common economic pot and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

Can Mindfulness Be Tweeted?

I attended a basketball game this winter at the University of Maryland, accompanied by an intern at my workplace, a man in his twenties. For much of the game, we chatted about everything from politics to how North Carolina is far superior to Duke in all the ways that really matter (on the court, of course). During the conversation, between glances at the game, my colleague maintained steady eye contact … with his smart phone.

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