Chris McDonnell: On the Margin

Somewhere in the writings of Thomas Merton, he describes the monk as being a person on the margin, an interesting place to be when writing or commenting on the nature of our changing society.

Christians are so often caught between a rock and a hard place, living our lives in a society, yet having to be careful that we don’t just accept societal values without careful thought and good judgement.  

Fragmentation in the West proceeds at a pace. We see it in the breakup up of political parties where smaller groups are emerging representing a narrow platform of opinion. We see it in a society where often those who are already poor, get poorer and those who have wealth increase their considerable fortunes. We see it when smaller parts of a Nation seek independence, pursuing an ethnic or language based identity.

And where is the Christian Church in this, often chaotic, diversity?

In seeking to be a pilgrim Church, offering Gospel values for our lives, it is no good turning our backs and caring only for ourselves.

The issues that face our communities, in whatever country or continent, are ours too. Our voice is significant, our voice needs to be heard. Yet you cannot be understood if the language you use is archaic and has therefore no meaning for those we address. And your lifestyle has to match the message you give.

We will not be listened to if we duck the crucial issues of our times; if such matters go un-addressed by the Christian people.    

That may well involve asking ourselves some difficult questions first, before we attempt an exchange of views with others, being honest about where we are and the historic journey that has brought us to this point. That path has not been without mistakes among many successes, it is peopled by both saints and sinners.    

There is a need to be honest with ourselves. It is no good hiding difficult issues under a cloak of secrecy when they should be addressed openly for the good of the Church and the mission entrusted to it by the Lord.    

Merton’s comment applies in some respect to every Christian. We are on the edge looking in, our value system is Gospel-inspired. Yet just as Jesus did, we need to be involved with others to share with them the Gospel of the Lord.  A beach, littered with broken wood from shore-side trees, is eventually cleared by a succession of tides.

As Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets:

“…The sea is the land’s edge also,

the granite into which it reaches,

the beaches where it tosses 

its hints of earlier and other creation.”

The Dry Salvages

I wrote this piece in 1997, one of a number of reflections on Thomas Merton’s life in the Hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.                    

Words at the Margin

It is not much fun to live the spiritual life

with the spiritual equipment of an artist.

                            – ENTERING THE SILENCE  

 Blue denimed


 White clothed


Priest man


                whose words   

once woven from the debris

of our experience


       still beyond the shores

                of an adopted land.

Poet priest



 the margin of our existence.                                


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