Thomas Merton: Our Struggles are in God

Thomas Merton from Episcopal Diocese of Western MA on Vimeo.

Thomas Merton, monk, contemplative, writer, prophet of social justice. In another one of these video reflections I told you he is on my personal Mount Rushmore. This pectoral cross, given to me two years ago at my consecration, is modeled on a cross Merton drew in one of his notebooks.

In the Episcopal Church we honor Thomas Merton on December 10, the day he died while visiting Buddhist monks in Thailand. It was 27 years to the day that he entered the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. In those 27 years Merton wrote over seventy books, and even more essays and reviews. But Merton knew he could never exhaust the Mystery that is God because as he said “with God we are necessarily in over our head.”

Merton’s earliest books were filled with intense introspection. But that introspection broadened out to look at the world around us. Merton’s life of prayer led him to passionate involvement in the civil rights movement, the protest of the Vietnam War and calling for an end to the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to make a retreat with Merton after his trip to Memphis – where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Out of all those thousands of published pages, ranging in topics from the issues of the day to the insights that Zen has for Christians, there is one paragraph that I hear quoted over and over again in sermons and retreat talks. It seems to be a favorite prayer of so many:

“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 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 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 struggles alone. Amen.”

Why is that quote so popular? Because we all struggle sometimes. We have all said at some time, “I have no idea where I am going.” But Merton does not merely describe human experience, he places it in a greater reality. With the God who is “ever with me.” Merton took to heart the insights of Theresa of Avila who said the summit of life is to “find God in ourselves and ourselves in God.” Our struggles are not apart from God. They are in God.

That prayer has been important to me often. But it is not my favorite Merton quote. It won’t surprise you who know me as the bishop who is walking the diocese, inviting us to take our faith to the street, that my favorite Merton writing is his description of a mystical vision that overtakes him, not in the monastery chapel, but on a street corner on March 19, 1958.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. The illusion that by taking monastic vows we became a different species of being, ‘pseudo angels’.

“I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of the race in which God became incarnate. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach. The core of their reality, the person each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

The key spiritual moment in the complex and multi-faceted life of Thomas Merton happened on the corner of Fourth and Walnut. May we all have such an experience and find our God who already lives in us.

Let’s end with the prayer the Church gives us for this day. “Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence. Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”