On Thursday evening, May 22, I will begin a talk on Thomas Merton at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne called “Old Man Merton” with the story of an ambitious musician who always felt depressed whenever he remembered that, “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for ten years!” And when Thomas Merton got to be my age he had been dead for almost fifteen years! We don't know who he would have been or what he would have done, so when it comes using him as a model of ageing well, we have only our own projections to deal with and those projects are known to have pitfalls.
But in one of my favourite poems, Merton writes,“The pathway dies, the journey has begun.” So if Thomas Merton is no longer on the living map his spirit can still enliven the unknown territory we must come to inhabit. For the life of Thomas Merton in the 21st Century is a story we must write within our own lives: the unfinished story of Old Man Merton must turn into the life of Old Man Me.
This is apt. As of today I have thirteen months and one day until I turn seventy. I am now a retired gentle-person, senior citizen, a man of a certain age. How do I dance with disease, diminution, and death, and with days that are also open, if I really look, to almost anything? There can be time for visions and revisions, time to write, take naps, serve my neighbour, love God and respond to love as if I had all the time in the world.
It’s still a rich and wide choice. Tennis may be off the list but from here I can take on a daily practice of writing, meditation and all sorts of ministry, while generally sharing the burdens and glories of the journey with others. I can stretch every morning, do centering prayer twice a day, tai chi at noon, tea at three and weekly mass at seven in the evening: visit the poor, sick and lonely, comfort my people — but then the question is both with what and how? Where is the particular Good News to share at this point in time in this specific cultural and geographical place, and what does a whole life look like here and now? What would Thomas Merton say or do?
Because I deeply despair of the church in its present shape in the Australian bush, and I’m still surprised by what I find here. It is neither the church not the culture that formed me and my ministry. Because for most of my past parish life in Northern California and central Melbourne I was part of somewhat post-modern gathered congregations where people showed up because they really wanted to. These were enclaves located in a larger cultural and intellectual environment where being a Christian was seen as socially suspect, if not only dated and dowdy, and people often outed themselves with a shy smile, “I know it’s surprising, but I get quite a lot out of church.”
That was the world where I lived and prayed, learned and taught, worked and grew, where the old and established cultural cachet and accretions of being a Christian had fallen out of the nest. The congregations I knew had turned another corner; where the old attendees had died or dispersed and most of the new people came from somewhere else than the established pattern; from marriages that failed, careers that weren’t as expected, vocations re-visioned and visions renewed. They were like returnees from long trips overseas when the itinerary took then further than the expected destination. People at Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne showed up on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights because they had deep and personal experiences of God or love or loss; an encounter that set them on a search with their time in church a necessary part of a particular and crucial pilgrimage.
It made for different type of congregations; people on their own way, not there because a great grandmother had given a window or an uncle baptised before the war, not there because of a lingering expectation that the family would always attend in due season and on important occasions. In these post-Christendom communities the traditional expectations have echoed like old background music then faded away to leave a new silence open to be filled with other voices and choices by a newly re-focussed community of prayer, celebration and discernment.
But now I have retired in country Victoria, Australia, where the remnant of the institutional church still carries much traditional cultural weight, albeit with an ever smaller circle attending services. It is still a place where a number of parishioners come with inherited convictions of family tradition and lengthy associations, known and acknowledged in the larger existing communities for good or ill. This tradition can offer a rich web of associations, to be sure, but it is one that is quickly running out of steam and what worries me is that I can see no shared vision of community, no newly packaged kerygma, to take its place. And that leaves me wondering where to go and what to do.
For the life I live, the faith and ministry I practice as a Christian, as well as a priest of the Anglican Church, will happen here. And at this point I am not sure what direction this self-offering will take, who and how I should serve as I worship God. So I am in a time of personal and professional discernment, but this is nothing new: my whole life and ministry has followed wandering ways into pilgrimage; often with a destination in sight, sometimes intuitively going after a slight hunch or the hint of a vision, occasionally turning around when dumb or graceful luck opened a door or excluded an option. With that history I am not ultimately uncomfortable with ambiguous beginnings or endings either. I actually have more trouble with the middle.
In any case, after my post-retirement summer vacation, I want to take time to consider and share the current questions and answers, initial ideas and tentative explorations on my own future work (as well as those of others), on some possible new missions and revised ministries that might make a difference for the church that waits to happen. This also means looking at the ministry I’ve done in the past, as a chaplain and occasional teacher in higher education, with a short stint in aged care, as well as several years as the chaplain to a diocesan Bishop. This has been work I loved and I give thanks for as I lay it down, but that pathway has died and a new journey begun. So that is also what it means to be “Post-Chaplinesque.” I hope you’ll be with me on the journey.