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The Golden Sequence

On Friday Esther de Waal, a Celtic and Benedictine scholar, came to Portland from England, walked with long strides all around town, and spoke in the evening about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, author, and social activist. The son of an American mother and a New Zealand father, Merton attended English public schools and spent one dissolute year at Cambridge before continuing his studies at Columbia University in New York. His journey to the Abbey of Gethsemani is described in The Seven Storey Mountain (published as Elected Silence in Britain). In the Seeds of Contemplation and Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote about contemplation as “a reservoir of spiritual vitality that pours itself out in the most telling social action.”

This, I think, is exactly right, though it is not, perhaps, what the world first thinks of contemplatives, if it thinks of them at all. Persons who have practiced contemplation describe encountering a God of justice, freedom, and compassion, and have felt encouraged to work toward justice on earth. I had never thought of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who led the struggle for Magna Carta, as a contemplative, but I recently learned that he probably composed "Veni, Sancte Spiritus", a prayer that became known as the Golden Sequence because it was so full of images of light. It is also contains images of injustice – the poor and weary whose “burning toil” receives no rest from the proud and frigid.

It’s just a thought – a golden thought – and hardly provable, but Langton’s experience in contemplation, reinforced by reading scriptures calling for justice, may have contributed to the provisions in Magna Carta that call for justice that is not sold, refused, or delayed. Magna Carta also prevents fines “so great as to destroy a man’s livelihood” and protects the people’s rights to woodlands and river banks for food and fuel. The text is here. I sometimes forget what a unique document it was.

For details on contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing, by an unknown 13th century Brit, is the classic to read.