By: Chaplain Mike
One of the books I will be reading and meditating upon during my sabbatical is Thomas Merton’s Thoughts In Solitude.
A well-known passage from this book has been called, “The Merton Prayer” (see below). This prayer acknowledges that, despite our human tendency to think we know what life is about and how we can manage it, we really have no clue. As the Jews say, “Man plans; God laughs.”
“The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” (Prov 16:9)
In the chapter following this prayer, Merton writes,“In our age everything has to be a ‘problem.’ Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.
“…Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.”
Merton suggests that it is learning to live in “silence” that enables us to live at peace with the contradictions that lie within us. The contradictions remain, but they cease to be a problem for us.
The prayer that precedes this counsel expresses the peace that comes from knowing and trusting in God’s presence in a life with so many unknowns and irresolvable conflicts.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
This quote is from Thomas Merton. It sums up why we walk the Camino. What we feel as we are walking the Camino,
"When I get out there I am delivered from the feeling that it is important for me to be anything, and thus I am free to be more happy about the one thing that matters, which is not a thing but God."
This is from a letter that Thomas Merton wrote to Jay Laughlin of New Directions Press on January 7, 1950. Here is the full quote:
"I have been running about in the woods quite a bit. It has been raining a lot, but I especially like the woods in the rain. When I get out there I am delivered from the feeling that it is important for me to be anything, and thus I am free to be more happy about the one thing that matters, which is not a thing but God. I am appalled by the structures we build between ourselves and Him — half the time in His honor."
As we walk the Camino or as we walk this pilgrimage of life let us remember these words. Words to meditate on, words to remember what truly is the most important thing… God!
by Daniel P. Horan, OFM
“No one can really embrace the Christian asceticism mapped out in the New Testament unless he [or she] has some idea of the positive, constructive function of self-denial. The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return … The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. The Christian dies, not merely in order to die but in order to live. And when he [or she] takes up his cross to follow Christ, the Christian realizes, or at least believes, that he is not going to die to anything but death. The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The Cross is the sign of life. It is the trellis upon which grows the Mystical Vine whose life is infinite joy and whose branches we are. If we want to share the life of that Vine, we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning.” — Thomas Merton
Merton’s call for us to follow the asceticism of Christian evangelical life is not simply an arbitrary practice that is an end in itself, but must always be seen in the broader context of Gospel living. As Merton points out, the penitential practices of lent are not to be self-serving, but should be oriented toward freeing us up to be more focused on the important things in life. “The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life.”
There are a few things that I particularly find worth considering in Merton’s reflection here. One thing is the sense of death to self that Merton presents in association with Christian self-denial. It is the Pauline notion of “dying to one’s self” in order to be more focused on living as a member of the Body of Christ, as part of the Vine Merton describes here. St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), so too, Merton reminds us, are we called to live not for ourselves but as a member of Christ’s body.
The notion of being part of the Vine along the trellis poetically suggests that we don’t do this alone and in our own, arbitrary way. We have to look to God’s very self-revelation in Christ and in the historical manifestation of God’s disclosure in scripture. Here is the locus of our unity and communal support in living more fully the Christian life. Here is the trellis upon which the whole Body of Christ grows and supports one another as part of the Vine.
During this season of lent, we are challenged to pause and reflect on how we go about our everyday lives. Are we aware of our intimate connection to the rest of the Body of Christ? Do we try to life for ourselves alone, away from the Vine, apart from the branches, off the trellis of community where the Pilgrim People of God strive to flourish together? Perhaps we can follow the example of Merton and Paul, seeking in our daily lives — in big and little ways — to die to our own self-centeredness, our own priorities and concerns, and those things which constitute our own frivolous desires rather than the true and inherent aspiration we have deep within to be at home with one another and the rest of creation in Christ.