Leaders like Merton embody the struggle into holiness

{mosimage}This Dec. 10 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the celebrated monk-poet Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

By the time of his death, Merton, born in Prades, France, a citizen of the United States and a monk for 27 years in the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, had an international following of enviable proportions, a publication record of staggering range and an influence by no means limited to the Catholic world. Merton was, and remains, a phenomenon, an utterly engaging figure, controversial, iconic, the paradigmatic monk for our century.

    Sober reflections on a night of change

    {mosimage}It was just after 10:15 p.m. on Nov. 4 when I began walking with my wife and brother-in-law along Michigan Avenue toward Grant Park in downtown Chicago. For much of the evening, we had been at the Hyatt Regency waiting for U.S. election results to come in. We passed the time watching members of the media position themselves for a possible interview with Sen. Barack Obama, who was reportedly in a suite with his family waiting for a concession phone call from Sen. John McCain.

    When we left the hotel, which was shortly after Sen. McCain had begun his concession speech, only the staked-out reporters, who missed their scoop, seemed to be unhappy by the news that Sen. Obama had been declared the next president of the United States and that he was already on his way to Grant Park to address a jubilant crowd of some 250,000 people.

      Great expectations

      {mosimage}The global Obama lovefest after the Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election suggests that much of the early days of President-elect Barack Obama’s tenure will be taken up with managing expectations.

      Around the world, people are comparing his election to that of John F. Kennedy’s in 1960 — the first time a Catholic became president — or the day Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison, or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And it is true, the election of an African American to the presidency is an historically momentous occasion; it marks a watershed in the long struggle to heal the deep-seated wounds of slavery and racial violence in the American psyche. It is a moment of great rejoicing.

        Faith shines through disaster

        {mosimage}They came in flashbacks — snapshots of memories from an unexpected tragedy. Before I went to the Middle East to pursue an internship there, I was told that Jordan was the safest country in the region. It was, until three years ago when Jordan had it’s own 9/11.

        Just before 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2005, triple suicide bombings rocked Amman, Jordan’s capital, including a wedding party at the Radisson SAS hotel. The attacks were blamed on al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national who became a top al Qaeda leader based in Iraq. About 57 people were killed and 100 injured in those attacks.

          As the Pope sees us

          {mosimage}Every now and again it is useful to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. Our own faults, as well as gifts, take on revealing hues when they are presented to us from a more arm’s length point of view.

          In late October that perspective was offered by Pope Benedict XVI. He was commenting on Canada in his official greetings to the new Canadian ambassador to the Vatican, Anne Leahy, when she arrived to present her official credentials.

            Love for God, neighbour, antidote to fundamentalism

            {mosimage}The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a good one for the sacred books of the West’s great religions, but not so good for those getting the Book thrown at them.

            Women in the sheikdoms and Islamic republics, for example, beat up by Qur’an-quoting police for accidentally flashing an inch of ankle, and moderate Muslims having their TV sets snatched away and destroyed by their more righteous brethren. Arabs thrown off their land by Jews obsessed by some pages in the Old Testament promising their ancestors most of the known world. These, and myriad others, have been victims of militants mouthing the same justification for wreaking holy terror: The Book told them to do it.

              Guillaume Couture: my Canadian hero

              {mosimage}When I set out to in search of my roots, one person reached across 10 generations to touch me deeply. This is what prompted me to find out more about Guillaume Couture, a man of faith, courage, a friend of Canadian martyrs Isaac Jogues and René Goupil and one of my great grandfathers.  

              On Sept. 26,  the morning Mass was offered in remembrance of Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, Fr. Isaac Jogues and their Jesuit companions. Guillaume Couture was one of the companions.  

                Remember the poor

                {mosimage}Where is Paul Martin Jr. when you need him? Oh yes, we threw him out of office in 2006. Yet while he had his problems as prime minister, his track record as finance minister still gives heft to his economic advice, especially in these turbulent times.

                Martin has kept a low profile since resigning as leader of the Liberal party. But he was in the news in late October with the release of his political memoirs, Hell or High Water. In it, he mused about the current economic crisis. He may have been boasting a bit, talking about how his government pulled federal finances out of deep deficits and put the government’s house in order. But he earned his bragging rights and one of his points was well worth remembering.

                  Gratitude is a lifestyle choice

                  {mosimage}“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:18

                  Thanksgiving has come and gone once again, but I’m still in a thankful frame of mind, for a couple of reasons. First, my American friends and relatives are gearing up for their Thanksgiving celebration this month. Second, I like the warm, fuzzy feelings of gratitude and its by-product, generosity, that Thanksgiving inspires, and I’ve been contemplating how to perpetuate them.

                    A tale of two elections

                    {mosimage}If there is such a thing as election envy, and the degree of fascination Canadians have with Sen. Barack Obama suggests there may be an element of wistfulness if not outright envy, the difference between this fall’s Canadian election and the U.S. presidential race would surely provoke it.  

                    It’s not just that the stakes are higher; being prime minister is a somewhat less exalted and demanding role than U.S. president. It is as if the response to higher stakes seems to be an elevated discourse, an appreciation that politicians shouldn’t just be about tactical considerations but should also be concerned with fundamental values. It also encompasses a notion that political decisions might actually touch on issues of who we are as well as what we might do this fiscal quarter.

                      Moral leadership

                      {mosimage}It’s probable that a majority of Canadians felt deflated by the Oct. 14 election. Nobody really won, even though the Conservatives emerged with a slightly larger minority. Instead, we lacked real leadership — the kind that people truly want to follow instead of just tolerate.

                      The resignation of Liberal Leader Stephane Dion reminds us of what real leadership requires, mainly because his own deficiencies revealed the missing ingredients. It’s true that Dion showed intelligence, integrity, boldness and creativity (in his poorly understood GreenShift). And by stepping down, he displayed a rare selflessness. But he failed at an essential task of leadership: getting others to follow.