The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy [BM] and his wife Beth spent an extraordinary two-and-a-half hours on May 5th, 2016, with E. Glenn Hinson [GH]. After introductions and a trading of hellos from mutual friends, we settled in Glenn’s impressive home library for a conversation that ranged far and wide – and was never less than fascinating. What follows is what transpired.
NOTE: Because of the length of this interview, we published Part One on July 6, 2016. This, Part Two, is the second and last installment. To help give Part Two context, I picked up two questions from the end of Part One.
GH: This is what Thomas Merton saw as the way we can have interfaith relationships, the way Christians can relate to Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists and people of all faiths. This is his comment that he made on his trip to Asia, and you find it in the Asian journal. It was a speech that he prepared actually about interfaith relations that was never given, but he talked about not avoiding issues that may be raised but may be pertinent to the monastic order like the Trappists. On the other hand, we must recognize that we have to go beyond words and thoughts.
GH: That is I think the same thing John Woolman saw – where we are going to do something that is beyond words. You have to have a faith that maybe a lot of people would not understand. We can talk not only on a pre-verbal, but also on a post-verbal level. We can relate to people of other faiths beyond the level of words. Merton thought monks might especially contribute there, and his meeting with the Dalai Lama was about that where they communicated beyond words or thoughts.
The Dalai Lama has spoken about it where he and Merton seemed to communicate far beyond just discussing ideas and thoughts. I think that’s in a realm where love functions; that it is beyond words and thoughts. You know it takes patience in a person’s –
I can remember one time when Martha and I were courting 60 years ago that she would say, “I was just about to think that.” There were subtleties about that that takes place. I don’t know what to say about the wars that we are in now. It tears my heart out to see this, the violence, the bombing. The level to which we have developed modern warfare which takes the lives of innocents. Every June I have to think again about Hiroshima and Nagasaki – 200,000 lives wiped out with the dropping of two bombs. I don’t know. There is something – we have to find a way beyond this. The only way I can see beyond it is love, God love, a love that is able to reach beyond words and thoughts.
BM: This would be an excellent time to ask you, Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?
GH: Well, I think we have a wonderful example in Archbishop Tutu, helping South Africans get beyond the retribution and to practice forgiveness. I have followed him teaching at the Emory University after I retired, and I could see a profound impression he made on students there. I think Dorothy Day exemplified (Was it Dorothy Day or Catherine DeHueck Dougherty?) who got ready to bed down in one of their houses for the night. A syphilitic woman came in with open sores, running sores. They didn’t have room, but Dorothy Day, I think it was, said she can sleep with me. You know, syphilis is contagious, and she could have contracted it. I have thought about that so often. She lived love. It just astonishes me how superficial I am every time I think about it. I think how far I have been from someone like that.
Martin Luther King, Jr. implemented something. He got much of it from Gandhi and you can hardly think about what Martin Luther King did in the Civil Rights Movement without thinking also of Gandhi, and Merton recognized that. You know, he wrote a little book on Gandhi [Gandhi On Non-Violence] when he wasn’t able to publish his writings about peace. And Merton was a lovely person. I wish you could have known him.
I ate and then walked out onto the front porch of that rustic, cinder-block home.
I just stood there, taking it all in.
I would have loved to have known the man who lived there.
GH: Yeah. Well, I feel so fortunate. Again, this is great to me to have known him. I think of it as happy accident, grace-filled accident that I stayed at Gethsemani. I could say quite a few other people whose lives have set an example which we can follow. Douglas Steere was a Quaker who was very involved in peace making. His model was John Woolman, and the Quaker model, the model for all Quakers is John Woolman, but thankfully today we can be kind of nondenominational about it. We can go beyond and see figures in other religious bodies who are worthy of our – whom we can learn from.
Now, one thing I think we have to recognize, no saint is perfect. Douglas Steere listed six qualities of a saint which I think are qualities which we ourselves see, and I don’t know whether I can remember them now. A saint, first of all, is graceful…grace-filled, someone whose life has been touched by the grace of God. A saint will be filled with love.
Douglas cited the example of Woolman there. Given the fact that all of us are marred in some way by something, a saint will be prayerful, constantly attentive, opening to God, allowing God to do something that you can’t do. I think we have to look at someone like Francis of Assisi. He was – Merton first wanted to become a Franciscan.
When the Franciscan mentor asked him, tell me about yourself, Merton did, which was blunt honesty. So [the mentor] said, oh, we can’t have somebody like that in the Franciscan order. That’s why he ended up in Gethsemani.
GH: But I think that’s – again, you need to read Douglas Steere. It’s a book called, On Beginning From Within, which he gives the six qualities of a saint, and I am sorry my – I am getting a little old to remember all these things.
BM: You probably remember more than I’ll ever know. This is great. I will find his books that you mentioned and I will read them.
I wanted to ask you about the New Commandment in John (John 13:34-36, ESV):
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
BM: Did you ever notice that gap between what Jesus says and Simon Peter’s response?
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?”
BM: I always thought that was the biggest gap in understanding I have ever seen in my life. A friend of mine calls it “the great lost paragraph.” Jesus said, “I have a new commandment for you – that you love one another.” And what does Simon Peter do? He says, “Where are you going?” I like to think if I had been there I would have said, “A new commandment? Love? Tell me more!” But Simon Peter missed it. Instead, he asked, “Where are you going?” I wonder, are we doing that today – missing Jesus’ commandment?
GH: We see examples of it. I remember early in my career I thought, well, maybe the church has to think of a dynamic nucleus of some kind. We have to try to be that where we are – to live where we are rather than to think it’s going to be implemented with the whole church. Of course, Southern Baptists majored on size. When I came to seminary in 1954, the Southern Baptist watchword was “a million more in ’54.”
BM: Really. Sort of like McDonald’s – billions served.
GH: Well, I thought that’s pretty ambitious. Besides that why do you want a million more superficial people like we have already?
GH: I am afraid I didn’t get really into that at that time, but a little I had – we have to be more concerned about really fulfilling that commandment which as I would see it, self-given. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” That’s John also [John 15:13].
GH: That I think is the “new” about the new commandment. Jesus gave his life, self-denial. In order to follow him, you have to deny yourself, which means take up your cross and follow. You have to have that same level of self-denial that you would be willing to give up your life like Dorothy Day did -
BM: – Like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi -
GH: – Martin Luther King did.
BM: Why is it we can only name just so many people: Saint Bernard, Thomas Merton, Douglas Steere, Martin Luther King, Gandhi? Why aren’t more people more loving? How come we can only think of a few that stand out like that?
GH: I am afraid I would describe it the way we especially are focused upon success of the corporation model, business model in America has imposed itself on the church to such an extent that we use the same measures in the church for success that businesses use. You make more money. You build more buildings. You get more people. We have blatant examples. The worst example I can think of is the Prosperity Gospel. These people who preach if you follow Jesus – no, if you follow me, you follow Jesus, you will be successful. You will be as rich as I am.
BM: You mean it doesn’t work that way? [Laughs]
GH: I retch thinking about it. That makes me sick to my stomach to think that. And you know unfortunately it’s so pervasive in the church everywhere. They fire preachers who don’t make the church get more numbers.
BM: And they fire seminary professors that are too influential? [Laughs]
GH: Yeah. They – and I have spent a lot of time trying to teach that that is wrong. We have to find another way. The Gospel is not about that. That’s not the Good News. Being a bigger business is not good news – church is CEOs and organization.
BM: I could talk to you for a week. But I don’t want to overextend my welcome. [Laughs] Here in the beginning of this book [Love At the Heart of Things] you wrote, “When he introduced Thomas Merton’s contemplative prayer he quoted a wonderful line from William Blake which is most fittingly applied to Douglas himself. ‘We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.’ He underlined how much we have to do to prepare ourselves to bear the beams of love. That love is costly.” If I may ask you, what are your beams of love?
GH: Well, ultimately I think we have to keep in mind that these beams of love are always beaming on us from God. Again, I go back to Bernard of Clairvaux, “God both loves more and before you do.” We might think of it in a different analogy as a fountain springing up from within, but Douglas underlines the learned to bear the beams of love. Our problem is how these love beams from God may come out through our lives. I think we see that again the example talked about, you know, people who have actually lived love.
Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal began their letters to one another, “Live Jesus.” I think when they said that they meant live this love that is to us the ultimate model of the love of God. The kind who lives Jesus. I have been complimented a time or two in my life from a student, I hope a discerning student who said, you are more like Jesus to me than anyone I have ever known. Now, maybe you have known someone like that. I hope so, and I think churches could be schools of love if they especially kept in mind the main thing is for us to live Jesus – then as if we really knew him, not as a memory.
A lot of liberals think you can only have a memory of Jesus. Now, I really believe resurrection. It’s not resuscitation of a corpse, but it is that person taken up into the life of God and he too participates in the life of God as we participate in and as we try to live it. Love sums it up better than anything I know. But, of course, it’s really complicated, isn’t it, as you try to think what that means. You have a lot of people who will misunderstand you. I don’t think anyone understood Dorothy Day. Jim Forest, one of Merton’s protégés, whose biography of Merton is maybe the best of Merton biographies, noted that not many understood her. I think we have to recognize how hard it is for us really to grasp what is at the heart of another person. I wrote the biography of Douglas Steere a little differently than most biographies so that people would learn from him what I have learned. That’s what I tried to do; to write it so you could learn what I have learned.
BM: It was good. It was a great read, yeah.
GH: That is sort of what I am doing now in retirement. I do have a lot of correspondence with emails, Facebook, other places of people from all over the world – India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Australia, Ethiopia. I think they are helping. We have to find a way to make the best use of our media.
BM: Well, all I can say is Merton is gone. Steere is gone, but you still carry on the message. I think you are doing a wonderful job of it, too. I mean, I have appreciated listening to you.
GH: Thank you.
BM: I can definitely feel you have a heart for this.
GH: Well, I would again urge you especially to read them, to learn from them. Unfortunately, not too much of Douglas Steere’s writing is still available. But we have more of Merton’s writings than we can use.
GH: I have tried to keep up as things have come out. I have a Merton library.
BM: [Looking around] It’s a great library. I have a lot of these books myself.
GH: But I think we also need to let them point us to others. You know, you have so many whom Merton learned from, the whole contemplative tradition, so I urge you to read in it. There is very good treatment of Western mysticism by Bernard McGinn.
BM: I don’t yet have those books, partly because they are really expensive to buy on Amazon.
GH: You’d have to spend a lot of money.
BM: I know it. There is one question I really need to ask you: Do you ever see the Protestant tradition adopting more of this contemplative/mystic study? Will they ever recover what they kind of threw away in the Reformation?
GH: Now, I thought that is dumb. You have to read the mystics. And you have Protestant theologians who were much more appreciative, Paul Tillich especially went back to Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart is the father of modern philosophy, and the mystics influenced Martin Luther. His conversion depended on the mystics, he published The German Theology in two different versions, and then he rejected the mystical tradition. That was dumb, too. But there has been a study. This is before Merton and before people like me came along to discover the mystics, The Protestant Mystics by Anne Freemantle [long out of print].
BM: I have that book. It was published in the very early 1960’s like ’62 or so.
GH: Yeah. It was early. When I was first getting to the point where I was interested in this.
BM: There haven’t really been many since, though.
GH: Well, see, every morning when I get up I thank God for Pope John XXIII because church history would have been completely different if I had taught before John XXIII. I started teaching at almost the same time he became Pope. That is another of the happy accidents in my life.
GH: I am so sorry I never met John XXIII. I was in the International Baptist Catholic conversations. We met in Rome 1988. Our hosts took us to the Scavi, the excavations under St. Peters. As you come up out of the Scavi, you come to the tomb of Pope John XXIII. It looks like a big trunk. I had the most emotional experience of my life there. I knelt down in front of that tomb to thank God for that crazy Pope who believed that he should do what he did because it changed everything.
Merton came along at the same time, you see, and these two have really changed the whole conversations between Catholics and Protestants. I was interested in ecumenism before I met Merton, and he and I grew together I think in our ecumenical growth. That’s been kind of pointed out in a study on Merton’s ecumenism by another Baptist, William Apel. I think Merton was just getting into this ecumenical perspective when I brought students to Gethsemani. He once told me, “Glenn, you could not have brought your students before that time.” I think the opening of Pope John and the beginning of ecumenical conversation was right at that point, and I grabbed the opportunity.
Again, I think my life is a miracle of grace. I just can’t think of it any other way. Something I couldn’t have planned for or could not have arranged, happened to me. This book I was thinking of is Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letters of Thomas Merton by Bill Apel. He is an American Baptist professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. He became interested in me back years ago and invited me to speak at the college. I gave four lectures in which I spoke about Thomas Merton. At that time, I was just beginning to discover something that might help a lot of people understand what Merton was trying to do.
BM: Oh, there is a whole chapter about you in here.
GH: Yeah. There is a chapter on the correspondence of Merton and me.
BM: That’s great.
GH: I told Bill that I was not an important correspondent. You have people who are really important to write about, and he’s gotten on those, so I am little embarrassed that I am included in the book, because –
GH: I thought Merton wasn’t supposed to be talking. This is a silent tradition, and I thought he wasn’t supposed to be bothered by people like me, so I was hesitant. But two weeks after I took students to Gethsemani he wrote me a card. “Glenn, I am coming to Louisville. I would like to stop and see you.” Well, he was going to come on Saturday, and we had classes on Saturday. I said, “Great! How about speaking to my students?” He gave me this answer – you will love this – this is Merton humor again. “Well, I can’t speak to groups, but if some of my friends happen to be around I can talk to them.”
BM: Really? What did he get there? What was his favorite food? What was his favorite thing to eat there?
GH: Well, you know, it was a Prohibition Speak Easy, and I think he was preserving memories of that, but he had fish. Cunningham’s had great fish. There is still a Cunningham’s, but they moved from that location to another one on the Ohio River. Shortly thereafter he sent me manuals that he put together to teach novices at Gethsemani. I read through them and it was like water off a duck’s back. I wasn’t prepared to accommodate that for my students, but I picked up ideas.
The most important idea I picked up was for a class in Classics of Christian Devotion. I began that in 1963. It was the most popular class that I ever taught. I would never started that class without Thomas Merton. His manuals are really excerpts from the saints through the ages. Students at that time – many returning from Vietnam – had questions that I couldn’t answer. I talked to some for hours. I realized that these things were over my head, but maybe there is a place that we could find some that you could deeply enough to answer these questions.
GH: So I started Classics of Christian Devotion. Augustine’s Confessions was the first one and ended with Thomas Merton’s, The Seven Storey Mountain. We included Thomas Kelly, a Testament of Devotion and the little 17th Century classic by Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, and others. I could give you several different lists that I used. What I did was to have students lead the class in a discussion of a particular classic. I had I had 23 students in my first class. The next time I offered it I had – well, the registrar caught me and told me you have to have two classes of 30 students. The next year I offered, he said you have to three classes of 30 students, and there are 157 students signed up wanting to take it.
BM: Wow! See, you are just the kind of guy they should fire, then, because you can’t have that.
GH: Yeah [laughs]. Well, it was way off. It was another Hinson lark, and I had call in – very critical of the whole thing. Fundamentalists resist spirituality. It’s too subjective, as Barth once said. It takes away from the absolutes that they need. They need an inerrant Bible, just believe the text; if the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it. That is quoting one of them.
BM: Yeah. I’ve heard that.
GH: And that was very disturbing for me to offer a class like that because, you know, they were getting good Biblical studies. But here was an introduction to the contemplative tradition. I used Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, so I in a way was picking up on more Merton than I realized. And then at the same time, Paulist Press began publishing Classics of Western Spirituality. Today there are more than a hundred volumes of them, but I used the first one that they published. That was Julian of Norwich.
GH: That was the first one they published, and again, you know, miraculous that these things happened. There isn’t anything I planned or could have envisioned. I had no idea how many students would take this class. I thought, well, I might get a handful, might get ten. But then I had 23 the first time and then it grew, just mushroomed, and it was like an atom bomb had exploded.
BM: Wow! You have made a huge impact on a lot of people.
GH: I think of it as infecting people with my heresies.
BM: Yeah, you sound pretty heretical.
GH: That’s the way I measure my success – not by how many people I have preached to or how large the crowds are or anything but that I have touched lives deep enough to get them on the journey, maybe going back to that early statement: “We ought to live each moment as if all eternity converged upon it.” In a way I guess I try to do that for students. Of course, you see why that would make a Fundamentalist nervous.
BM: Indeed. Well, I thank you very much for your time.
GH: Thank you for including me.
BM: If I have any sort of follow-up questions, could I email them to you?
GH: Oh, yeah, sure. Feel free. I can be sure I am hearing you if it’s on the computer, and I hope you feel free.
BM: Well, this whole topic is getting bigger all the time for me. It’s sort of a book I have to grow into. The more I discover even just pondering verses like (1 Corinthians 13:13) -
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- while I was at this retreat [first week of May, at Gethsemani] I am thinking, “Well, what does that mean? Greater than faith? Greater than hope? What does that look like? It says right there in black and white ‘greatest.’ But who is paying attention to it?”
BM: So, those things are spinning me off into thinking about all these other topics. And it’s getting bigger – and more important – than I realized.
GH: Yeah. Oh, sure. Well, I think Paul again hit on something that is very important. We can get along without many things in life, many things that today are thought of as necessities, but we can’t get along without faith, hope and love. Love above all, above all others. I see why you put it as the prime one, which of course to me also means God. Without God – we cannot get along without God. I have had open-heart surgery, six bypasses, and I had just miraculous recovery. Within a week I was walking like I have always walked, and when the surgery ended I felt great. When I woke up from surgery I felt great. I have had knee surgery on my left knee, but I am walking as well as I have ever walked, and I am thankful for the tremendous development in medical technology. We have to be, but on the other hand we also need to be wary of technology as Thomas Merton reminds us.
GH: We must subordinate it to a higher purpose. Somehow that is what is most needed in our society. I have learned not to make these things autonomous. That is the great problem, and that’s a big Baptist word, autonomous – autonomy of local congregations, autonomy this, that, and the other. Autonomy of the believer mostly. But we need to realize how essential faith, hope, and love are and to subordinate other things, other needs to these that are of the essence for us.
BM: You have certainly given me a lot to pursue, here. Now I need to find more books by Mr. Steere. I’ll track them down on Amazon or in libraries and read them.
GH: I am honored that you came and asked me.
BM: I am just grateful you took the time, and I thank you for your patience. It was an honor for me. Thank you so much.
[Special thanks to Saij for her transcription, and - of course - to Glenn for sharing the miracle of grace with us.]