Return To Merton Roots

My time away at the Trappist monastery re-minded me of my deep connection with Thomas Merton.

When I first visited the monastery while in college, I found myself drawn to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s reflection on his visitation and eventual entry into monastic life as a Trappist monk at Gethsemane, located outside of Louisville, Kentucky. His literary style was my initial attraction but it was his transparency in writing about his soul, wrestling with vocation, that hooked me. I began to read voraciously his works on contemplative prayer, the monastic life, his valuing the insights of other traditions of faith, and his ethical connection to social issues surrounding race, war, and poverty. Merton became a home base for me as I tried to figure out my own South of God background as well as explore new ways of connecting to the Holy.

On one particular retreat at the monastery, I found a piece of gray paper on the nightstand by my bed. It was in every room in the monastery’s guest house, though I had never seen it before. It was a passage from Merton, a passage that grabbed my soul. It reappeared to me on this recent trip, oddly through social media. It comes from his writings in his journals in 1953-54, with 1954 as the year of my birth. Like any classic passage, it proves timeless and changes its face to meet the dawn of new circumstances.

“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.” Thoughts in Solitude, p. 79

This passage has grabbed my heart, soul, and mind every time I have come across it. Some soulfully strategic monk placed this by the bed of every person who happened to be visiting the guest house, wisely discerning that it might be the word of encouragement, a moment of grace, a pregnant push that might assist a pilgrim who was traveling and found lodging in this house of prayer.

It has been that for me.

At one point in my journey, it normalized my sense of wonder at the very mystery that I was experiencing as a young man, trying to figure out who the hell I was in the messiness of life.

One particular day, it called me to go further, and dive deeper into the ocean of mystery that both beckoned and evaded me, reassuring me that God would be there regardless of my wanderings.

It was there and was read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested that night before my ordination to the priesthood, emphasizing the process that I had been engaged in.

Merton spoke across time and space to me in moments of decision, of crisis, of failure with kind, compassionate words of reassurance, of grace, something that in the words of St. Ringo “don’t come easy”.

And most recently, the words shook me to a recognition of my mixed motivations in my life. I did want to please God in what I did, but I lacked the “purity of heart” that Merton articulates, for there is a significant portion of “me”, spelled EGO in the mix. To face one’s impurity, comingled with pure love, has been my fate, leaving me breathless and clueless at times. Presently, it leaves me wondering what is next in this journey. And in that incisive moment that cuts like a knife, I am leaning into the grace that is promised, that the Divine Presence will be with me.

When you read this pregnant passage from Merton, what grabs you? Where does it meet you at this time in your life? Reading the passage slowly, not rushing through it, but savoring the words, the phrases, can lead to a deeper meditation on your life and soul. Classically, it is referred to as lectio divina, diving reading, used by monks for centuries as they chanted the 150 Psalms in common prayer and in their time of solitary devotion. What might this passage be prompting you to reflect upon?

I hope you will take the time to pause, to read, to meditate, and reflect. Try it on. Think of it as playfully engaging the text to see what gifts might emerge. I would love to hear what arises out of this encounter with Merton’s wisdom and spirit. Blessings. +

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