Thomas Merton at 100 and His Still Perfect Ecological Theology 0

Thomas Merton and the 33 year-old Dalai Lama, 1968.

Thomas Merton and the 33 year-old Dalai Lama.  From the Thomas Merton Center: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton met in November 1968 in Dharamsala, India where the Dalai Lama was living in exile. . . In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama described Merton’s visit as one of his ‘happiest memories of this time.’” For more follow this link.

I am a Roman Catholic. Like many, I have struggled with the dilemma of marrying ecological and spiritual principles. It is possible to coax instructive interpretations from the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But it is a largely unsatisfying effort. This leaves us with the writings of the scholars, philosophers and mystics that followed.

I turn to Thomas Merton, who would be 100 today. He was the Cistercian Trappist monk who attained unusual fame for his bestselling 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and in the 1960s for his writings on peace, civil rights, violence, nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam War and more.

Merton also blended his personal Christianity and love of nature into a seamless whole, an ecological theology that was the forerunner of the religion and environment movement that would only find fruition decades after his death.


Abbey of Gethsemani. Via

I came to Merton’s teachings twenty years ago, thanks to a Franciscan friar friend at the Graymoor monastery in Garrison, NY. Knowing of my work, he gave me an audio-tape of a lecture Merton delivered in the early 1960s to novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani outside Louisville, Kentucky.  He said if I listened carefully I would hear what I was seeking.

This is what Merton, the novice master, told his novices:

Some people think creation happened back in the beginning only.  Creation is taking place now. At every minute. At every second. Creation never stops. It is going on all the time

And later this:

In nature, every single moment every single thing around you is doing the will of God perfectly. Everything is in perfect obedience to the will of God. This makes things very simple for you, because it leaves one little spot for you to fit into and if you fit into it you are keeping the will of God too

It is a perfect ecological theology. It advises us that we have a special place in the order of things, and if we find that place order will remain. But one need not employ the vocabulary of “God” or “Creation” to grasp its profundity. The life cycles of the planet never end. We have a choice. We can be passive beneficiaries, voyeurs, exploiters, saboteurs, or honest participants. If we choose the latter, we will perfectly carry on the work of Earth as well.

Merton influenced a generation of Roman Catholics to look at their religion with fresh eyes, and introduced many to the ancient Christian roots of meditation and contemplative prayer. He was a committed advocate for peace, and a prolific author of books on Christian thought and discernment, deep theology, Eastern religion, the desert fathers and more. He was a published poet. Posthumously, seven volumes of personal journals were released, along with a large collection of correspondence, much of it with some of the great thinkers of the day. Merton’s influence carries on still. His books all remain in print. Countless workshops and seminars are offered each year. Centers are dedicated to his teachings. See links below.

In his later years, Merton assiduously pursued the harmonization of Western and Eastern religions. It was at a Bangkok conference on the subject that he died of accidental causes on December 10, 1968.

Merton and the Env_DeignanIn her beautiful collection, When the Trees Say Nothing, my friend Sister Kathleen Deignan of Iona College sifted through Merton’s works for his reflections on nature. She writes in her beautiful introduction:

What he heard in the murmurings of wilderness were “the sweet songs of living things” whose choirs he joined as a solitary monk offering a psalm of glory and thanksgiving on behalf of humankind. In time his own center became “the teeming heart of natural families” as his unique subjectivity opened to the cosmos in wonder and awe, sounding a silent interval of praise in the rapturous hymn of creation.

Turn to a random page in Merton’s voluminous personal journals and you are likely to find the day’s reflection led by a poetic recounting of a scene from the woods near his hermitage at Gethsemane, and set off by a contrasting juxtaposition, in the Eastern poetic style.

In Merton’s entry of January 31, 1968, his final year on Earth, the beauty of the rural Kentucky hills collide with the cacophony of nearby Fort Knox, a disturbing irony that regularly punctuated the journals and life of this man of peace:

Clear, thin new moon appearing and disappearing between slow slate blue clouds — and the living black skeletons of the trees against the evening sky. More artillery than usual whumping at Knox. It is my fifty-third birthday.

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Iona Spirituality Institute

International Thomas Merton Society.

The Thomas Merton Center.




Senate Passes Symbolic Keystone Pipeline Bill 0

Keystone pipeline protest, August 22, 2011. By chesapeakeclimate (8/22/11Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Keystone pipeline protest, August 22, 2011. By chesapeakeclimate (8/22/11Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Senate sponsors will deny it, the passage of a bill to force the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would deliver petroleum from the tar sands of Canada to a port in the Gulf of Mexico, was largely symbolic. President Obama has repeatedly promised he would veto the measure and promised again following the Senate vote. The House passed a similar bill November 14.

However, it is not certain whether the president’s resolve is based on constitutional or environmental reasons.

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Obama, who currently retains authority to approve or deny the permitting of the pipeline because it crosses an international border, is expected to veto the bill because it would remove his executive authority to make the final decision.

But pressure is mounting on him from both sides to at last make that decision, which has been pending since he first took office.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he was waiting for all reviews and processes to be completed before he made a final decision. In 2013, Mr. Obama said that his verdict on the pipeline would be based on whether or not its construction would worsen climate change. But an 11-volume State Department environmental review of the proposed pipeline, released last year, concluded that its construction would not significantly increase the rate of planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

For the full Times article follow this link.

Keystone Jobs by Pat Bagley 0

Keystone Jobs by Ed Begley. Via Cagle Cartoons

Keystone Jobs by Pat Bagley. Via Cagle Cartoons

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Patrick “Pat” Bagley is an American editorial cartoonist and journalist for The Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah. His cartoons have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian of London, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times. He has produced more than 10,000 cartoons for the Tribune.

Pat is also an illustrator and author of independent political cartoons and children’s books. His liberal political stance contrasts with the conservative state of Utah, and has influenced several books of political cartoons and humor. Bagley’s 2002 book Dinosaurs of Utah and Dino Destinations was nominated for the Utah Children’s Book of the Year. Bagley was the recipient of the 2007 Torch of Freedom Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. Bagley was awarded the 2009 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning by a unanimous panel of judges, made up of Garry Trudeau, Jules Feiffer and John Sherffius, representing the Herb Block Foundation.

More on Pat Bagley at the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists.

See more of Pat Bagley’s work at Cagle Cartoons.

Water Poverty in the New Mexican High Desert 0

The United Nations reports that more than 800 million people suffer from a lack of safe and adequate water. Its declaration on the human right to water states:

The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses.

smith lake

Lake Smith. Video capture, via Navajo Water Access Project

But the findings that bolster the U.N. declaration appear to leave out those U.S. residents who are among the world’s waterless, such as the American homeless, about whom we reported on January 14, and New Mexican Navajos, for whom water is an unaffordable luxury.

The Navajo Water Access Project (see video that follows) reports from the high desert of New Mexico, where it has launched a fund raising drive to address water and winter poverty:

It gets cold on the Navajo Reservation, where nearly 40% of people don’t have running water. Most people need blankets to stay warm. This winter, help us bring clean water to 250 American homes. Buy a Pendleton blanket for you or a loved one, and you’ll make a $100+ donation to the Navajo Water Project. We’ll send another blanket to an American family in need of extra warmth. (To buy and donate follow this link.)

Last year, U.S. Catholic reported:

Most families in Lake Smith, New Mexico don’t have a tap or a toilet at home. Life without clean water looks much the same as it did in 1868, when Navajo families were first settled on this reservation, the nation’s largest. Infrastructure didn’t develop naturally here, and pervasive poverty has kept these homes off the grid for generations.

Learn more from this video:


Reverend King, the Inescapable Network of Mutuality and the Foundering of Environmentalism 0

James Gustave Speth: If there is a model it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It had a dream.

The dream of modern American environmentalism was founded on the dream of the American civil rights movement. You would not know it today.


Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  Marion S. Trikosko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In his April 16, 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. evoked the intrinsically ecological quality of justice:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Reverend King’s Birmingham admonition and the strains of his oratory reverberated in the environmental writings and speeches of the early 1970s, when American environmentalism was constructed around the cornerstone of justice for all.

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, Earth Day founder and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson addressed a standing room only, Denver, Colorado audience. He echoed Reverend King:

Earth Day can–and it must–lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society… the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions.

Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is
 a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.


Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.

On that same day, in Philadelphia, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie addressed an audience of 50,000 at Fairmount Park’s Belmont Plateau. He was eloquent in his warning that social and environmental justice should not be separated:

The whole society that we seek is one in which all men live in brotherhood with each other and with their environment. It is a society where each member of it knows that he has an opportunity to fulfill his greatest potential.


We have seen the destructiveness of poverty, and declared a war on it.

We have seen the ravages of hunger, and declared a war on it.

We have seen the costs of crime, and declared a war on it.

And now we have awakened to the pollution of our environment, and we have declared another war.

We have fought too many losing battles in these wars to continue this piece-meal approach to creating a whole society.

Angels by the riverIn his masterful memoir, Angels by the River, which we will discuss further in a future post, pioneer environmentalist James Gustave “Gus” Speth writes that the civil rights movement was integral to his personal and political formation. It inspired him in 1970 to help launch a new era of environmental jurisprudence through the co-founding of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the planet’s most successful, and effective, environmental organizations.

But Speth’s reflections on the progress of American environmentalism carry a sober warning:

Our environmental organizations have continued to grow in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill. The prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet.


In launching NRDC we set out to change the system. But we didn’t. We improved the system in places, made it safer, better. But in doing so we became part of the system. It changed us.

In addition to losing ground in the battle to save the environment, America is losing the battle against poverty, homelessness and hunger, issues in which most environmental organizations are marginally involved at best, as we have said often in these pages. Ed Muskie warned of this outcome. He called for an “environmental revolution” that “will turn the nation around,” that will also attack the scourge of poverty and the injustice of unequal opportunity.

The only strategy that makes sense is a total strategy to protect the total environment. . .  If we use our awareness that the total environment determines the quality of life, we can make those decisions which can save our nation from becoming a class-ridden and strife-torn wasteland.

Speth finds the remedy to our present day dilemma in the founding vision of American environmentalism — emulation of the civil rights movement:

If there is a model within American memory for what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It had grievances, it knew what was causing them, and it also knew that the existing order had no legitimacy and that, acting together, people could redress those grievances. It was confrontational and disobedient, but it was nonviolent. It had a dream.

Here Speth also renews Senator Muskie’s call of almost 45 years ago. At the conclusion of his 1970 Earth Day speech, Muskie summarized his dream of a “whole society” by citing Reverend King directly:

Martin Luther King once said that “Through our scientific and technological genius we have made of this world a neighborhood. Now through our moral and spiritual genius we must make of it a brotherhood.”

For Martin Luther King, every day was an Earth Day — a day to work toward his commitment to a whole society. It is that commitment we must keep.


Homeless and Waterless in America 0

Lava Mae Delivers Dignity One Shower at a Time

dolores park

Homeless man in Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco. Photo John Cronin

More than 2 million residents of the United States experience homelessness during the year. For them, access to water and basic hygiene is non-existent or a rare luxury, not the fundamental human right the United Nations declared.

“In January 2013, 610,042 people were homeless on a given night,” according to a “point in time” survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Advocates consider such statistics conservative. In cities throughout the U.S., the plight of our homeless fellow Americans is made cruelly conspicuous by the water-fueled landscapes in which they camp, such as Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco or Park Avenue in New York City.

Lava Mae is a non-profit organization in San Francisco “started by private citizens who believe that access to showers and toilets shouldn’t be a luxury.” Lava Mae outfitted a former transit bus as a bathing facility that makes scheduled stops at specific locations during the week. Lava Mae is Spanish for “wash me.” The slogan on the back of its bus reads, “Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.”

The video below describes Lava Mae’s innovative solution to this pervasive shame of American life.

Je Suis Charlie 0

Political cartoons hold an honored place at EarthDesk. Our weekly feature, EarthDesk Sunday, has presented the works of cartoonists from around the globe more than fifty times in the last 18 months. On January 7, masked gunmen armed with assault weapons attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical journal, and murdered eight staff members, four of them cartoonists, a maintenance worker, a visitor and two police officers.

Cartoonists the world over responded with an outpouring of inspired and powerful art. (See BuzzFeed and Adam Zyglis is the cartoonist for the Buffalo News, a three-time contributor to our pages, and a fellow New Yorker. “To honor their memory,” he wrote to us, “Cartoonists everywhere must continue to create and express freely, without fear.” Below is his beautifully drawn response to the massacre, followed by the thoughts he shared with EarthDesk via email.

Free Speech by Adam Zyglis. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

Free Speech by Adam Zyglis. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

Here is the text of Adam Zyglis’ email exchange with EarthDesk:

I am still in shock and disbelief from this horrific assault on free speech. It is an all-out affront to our American values and way of life. I was just in Paris this past October for an editorial cartooning festival, and for an event called Cartooning for Peace. I met with several French cartoonists, but unfortunately I never had the privilege to meet any of the fallen in person. However, I knew several of them through their powerful work. There is a void in the world of satire today, but their work will live on. To honor their memory, cartoonists everywhere must continue to create and express freely, without fear. Today, my heart is still in France.

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zyglis_smAdam Zyglis is the staff editorial cartoonist for The Buffalo News, his hometown daily newspaper. He accepted the position fresh out of college, after winning 3 national awards as a college cartoonist. In 2004, he graduated summa cum laude from Canisius College with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics.

His work is internationally syndicated through Cagle Cartoons and has appeared in publications such as USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and MAD Magazine. After 2 years as a professional he won 3rd Place in the 2007 National Headliner Awards. Learn more about Adam at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. See more of his work at Cagle Cartoons. More

UN: Water is a Human Right. Detroit: Not if You’re Poor 0

The United Nations says water is a fundamental human right. In 2014, Detroit decided differently. The city shut off water to 17,000 residents who could not pay their water bills. The government-recognized poverty rate in Detroit is 38%. United Way says the real rate is 67%.

Circle of Blue ranked the Detroit debacle as one of the top ten water stories of 2014. We agree. Here is an excerpt, followed by a link to the full story.

Detroit-Shutoff-Banner_cropThe U.S. government spends more than $450 million each year to provide water and sanitation to poor and vulnerable populations around the world. It’s the first rule of international development, and it brings health, education, and prosperity.

Yet in Detroit — a city under emergency management that is reeling from decades of deindustrialization and neighborhood decay — the poorest are losing access to water.

Roughly 17,000 residences since March have had their water shut off because of overdue bills. Meantime, residents are pushing back, taking water from fire hydrants to drink, cook, bathe, and flush their toilets, and community leaders have organized emergency water deliveries.

For full Circle of Blue story follow this link.

2015 Is the 30th Anniversary of America’s Greatest Environmental Failure 0

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” ~ 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, Section 101(a)(1)


EarthDesk Returns January 6, 2015 0

January 6