Others We Love, Part 5

Seven Storey Mountain

I honestly think I heard of Thomas Merton (1915–1968) via my mystic-friendly mother before I could walk. The son of two artists, Merton experienced a disrupted childhood; his mother, Ruth, died when he was six, and his father, Owen, 10 years later. Admission to England’s prestigious Cambridge University ended in disgrace: excessive drinking and womanizing led his guardian to enroll him in college in the United States instead. There more wholesome influences prevailed: friends, thoughtful professors, spiritual reading, and renewed relationships with his grandparents and brother. The once-agnostic Merton became a Catholic in 1938. In 1941 he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani to become a Trappist monk and live a life of prayer, work, and contemplation. From that rural Kentucky hillside, he wrote 70 books on spirituality and social justice before dying on a trip to Asia—27 years to the day from his entry into Gethsemani. Some call one of his first books, Seven Storey Mountain (1948), the most compelling story of a conversion since Augustine.

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I have stood on Gethsemani’s windswept hillside often and remembered Merton’s testimony that God speaks most profoundly when we have nothing left to say. —Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Beyond Ourselves 

Daughter of a rural Appalachian Presbyterian minister, Catherine Marshall (1914–1983) gained celebrity through A Man Called Peter, a biography of her husband, a United States Senate chaplain—later made into a successful Hollywood film. An enthusiast of evangelical and medieval devotional works, Marshall frankly acknowledged that Beyond Ourselves, her 1961 devotional book, simply restated Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian Secret of a Happy Life (1875) in non-Victorian prose. 

In Beyond Ourselves Marshall asked the hard questions that confront Christians. Why does God allow evil? Is prayer efficacious? Is divine healing possible? Is there divine guidance? Marshall rejected humanism, materialism, and other middle-class cure-alls, pointing to an “unselfish God” who promises everyone willing to die to self a meaningful life of service filled with joy. Frustrated by Christians who spiritualized God’s love into moralism and by a society of consumers “frantically scrambling to get ours while there is anything yet to take,” Marshall emphasized the new birth, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit in the language of a modern age. —William Kostlevy  

“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

On April 3, 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) began a massive campaign of nonviolent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12 (Good Friday) he was among 50 people arrested for defying a city order against the protests.

While in jail King read a “Call to Unity,” published by eight white Birmingham clergy in the local newspaper, criticizing “outsiders” such as himself and other protesters for not working within the legal system. In response King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He drew on authorities all the way back to the biblical prophets and the apostle Paul to justify his willingness to “carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

Using Augustine and Aquinas, King argued that human law derives authority from natural law and that an unjust law is not truly a law at all. His stirring call for nonviolent action to implement divine justice on earth proved an inspiration to those on all sides of contentious issues, from pro-life to gay rights movements. —Edwin Woodruff Tait

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

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[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

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