October 22: Merton & Springsteen on Wisdom (29 A)

“I have called you by name…I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:1. 4-6.

I’m honored to speak at Mass today — to our Santa Catalina high school students, and the Moms and Dads on this Parent’s Weekend.

Thanks for being present here – it means so much to our staff and faculty, and most of all, to our most gifted young women.

So my initial remarks will be more directed to our students, and later I’ll have some words tailored to our parents.

This often-quoted phrase of Jesus: “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” we know one thing — this line is a biblical showstopper.

Jesus is telling his critics to “cut it out” and has the precise words to do it. Most of us don’t have such powers with words or an immediate come back in the middle of an argument.

When you find yourself having words with someone, maybe in the heat of an argument, the French do have a phrase to describe this feeling. In French, it’s called: “esprit de’ l escalier,” literally meaning the “spirit of the staircase.”

More precisely, these are the words or phrases that come to us too late, and only when we get to at the bottom of the staircase. It’s on the ground floor when we realize what should have been said all along.

For us, however, we need wisdom and understanding to find the apt phrase or come backline.

The great American writer and monk Thomas Merton may be of some assistance in this regard.

He once wrote: “Wisdom knows, God in ourselves, and ourselves in God.” Having the correct response requires substantial discernment, calling on wisdom, the wisdom of God, and ourselves in God.

When we hear the words spoken by God — in the first reading from Isaiah: “I am the Lord there is no other” the intent is that religious leaders in Jesus’s time feared the worship of false gods.

In his time, Thomas Merton, in the 1950s and ’60s, feared the false idols of growing arsenals of nuclear weapons and the rise of global militarism.

Today, we’re only beginning to discern another false idol — that of a social media affecting our relationships and global politics. More to the point, you may have a long list of “friends” on Facebook, but not know the names of your fellow students sitting next to you in class  — or you may know an individual who has felt the effects of stinging online retorts, the result of cyberbullying.

“Wisdom knows God in ourselves and ourselves in God,” and that’s why we’re here, long-term. It takes time to be responsive, thoughtful, mature, and wise.

That’s why it’s called: “education” — to draw out of ourselves the very right words, the exact words to match the situation.

So now, let’s turn to our parents for another dose of wisdom, the kind of understanding that comes when a parent asks: “Am I doing the right thing?”

Not so long ago, I had a terrible cold and found myself in bed for three days, so what to do? I read the entire Bruce Springsteen autobiography cover to cover. The title of which is, what else? “Born to Run.” It’s 510 pages or so.


Here a little of my biography, which intersects with Bruce’s, and this may help.

I’m from New Jersey and lived most of my youth on the Jersey Shore. So the boardwalk in Asbury Park, the local rock and roll clubs, were familiar to me and very nostalgic. For example, I didn’t know that “Born to Run,” the song was composed by Springsteen in Long Branch, my shore town. Wow!

Springsteen grew up in Freehold, the county seat of Monmouth County. His home was next door to the Catholic Church, where he attended Saint Rose’s Grammar school.

While the story is about music, his climb to celebrity, it’s also about the conflicts with his father. His dad had never really connected with a steady job, nor connected emotionally with his children, for that matter.

When Bruce was in his late teens, his father and mother left New Jersey for San Mateo, California, and leaving behind Bruce and his sister in New Jersey. This fact alone, I find incomprehensible, but it’s his life story.

Now you would think the opposite, that the “rock star in the making” would have jettisoned himself from New Jersey, to go west. So this says plenty about their family relationship.

After years of psychotherapy and medication for depression, Springsteen reveals that he could not do much for his father, although they were reconciled in the end, he could be a better dad to his children.

Bruce tells of an evening of how he drove the fabled New Jersey “Highway 9” with his son Evan to a local club, “The Starland” to hear Evan’s favorite group, “The Riverboat Gamblers.”

In meeting with the band backstage, Evan noticed one of the band members had Springsteen’s image tattooed on his forearm.

Whenever people on the street stopped him and asked for an autograph, Springsteen would tell his three kids, that he was the “Barney” for adults. And would oblige his fans with his signature.

Here, Springsteen writes most movingly: “When my kids first came to our shows, they were small. And after some early shock and awe, they usually fell promptly asleep or drifted back to their video games, happy to leave Mom and Pop to do their work and come home. At the end of the day, as parents, you are their audience.”

All of this is a way of saying, be a better dad and mom to your children. Carefully listen to our young women and men, their stories, their hopes, and even their dreams. Know their friends, their music, and forward their lives in bonds of love, tenderness, and mercy.

Most of all, Mom and Dad find the words of tenderness, mercy, and love – in our home, long before you go out, close the doors, or go down the long staircase, to the ground floors in our lives.

After all,” wisdom knows God in ourselves and ourselves in God.”

thomas merton 2


Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.

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