Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts on Thomas Merton

If there has been one pivotal encounter that stands above all others in the formation of my Christian faith, it might well be walking into Half Price Books in Round Rock, Texas, seeing this book called Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom - The Journal of Thomas Merton, Vol. 6, buying said book, and beginning a love affair with the writings of someone that is such a kindred spirit. Merton is rascally; he’s earthy, moody and mischievous. In so many ways he reminds me of myself. I know that some of those words may not be the attributes you, my friends, would use to describe me, but it is how I see myself. And so, when I read Merton I see the best things about myself…and the worst. I see things that need refinement and things that need to be pruned. 

That said I am not delusional enough to think that I have in some way obtained the same knowledge of my friend here. I also don’t identify with his calling to remove myself from the world. I totally have the desire at times to run off and become a monk, but I don’t see how that fits in with other gifts and callings in my life. So though I see Merton as kindred, I do not see him as identical. I don’t strive to be like Merton. I do however learn from him what pit falls may lay ahead of me because we have a similar bent. I also try to glean from him some good solid points of influence.

It’s kind of like a baseball player. Let’s say a tall, lanky pitcher with a strange wind-up comes along. He has this amazing ability. He looks up one day and Randy Johnson is on the TV screen. He identifies with Johnson. He sees similar mechanics, similar form. He is not Johnson, but he can learn from Johnson’s history to see what works, what doesn’t and what would make him prone to injury. Even studying Johnson’s form and injury history, understanding what mechanics made Johnson successful will not translate into an identical career path. It may make the young baseball player better, but it will not make him into Randy Johnson.

If you and I are friends on Facebook, or even Twitter, you may have seen me reference many quotes from Merton, particularly this famous prayer of his:

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 that 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 will I 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.

The vulnerability of that prayer, the honesty of it just resonates with my soul. I know the desires of my heart. I know how whimsical and flippant I can be at times. I know that I can be passionately moved for a few weeks and then move on to another cause a few weeks later. That is how I live. I am not the most steady person or the most consistent. But as Merton prays, the desire of my heart is to be faithful. And when I get caught up in the logistics of faithfulness to the point that I am overwhelmed, I can go back to relying on God to see the desire of my heart. To see that I want to be faithful with every fiber of my being.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Mumford and Sons lyrics:

But I'll still believe though there's cracks you'll see,
When I'm on my knees I'll still believe,
And when I've hit the ground, neither lost nor found,
If you'll believe in me I'll still believe
(from “Holland Road” on the album Babel)

I am one of those guys who though I understand myself to be found eternally secure because of the finished work of Jesus, often find myself “neither lost nor found.” I can understand anyone who makes a theological argument against that thought, but hear me out for a second. I am not saying that I am actually “blown and tossed by the wind” like James writes in the first chapter of his letter. I am saying that at times I do feel as such. So, this is less about the power of Jesus, and more about the experience of being human. I experience these turbulent emotions and insecurities that swirl around me. And I rest assured that I will find peace and security. Sometimes I experience that in the here and now…sometimes I get swept out to sea and have to ask Jesus to rebuke the storm.

What Merton has been for me is a guide to say, “Even still…trust God. Learn to be your true self before God and man. God, friends and family can take your insecurity. They can take your irrational thoughts and help you be formed into the true nature that you are recovering.” And that is a message I need.

As I have often said before one of my biggest weaknesses is I am a perfectionist that cannot seem to get it right. I am often down on myself for the miniscule mistake in the midst of a triumph. “But it wasn’t perfect. I hit a wrong chord. I said the wrong word.” Those thoughts surround me…they probably always will. And Merton’s life shows that is the case. Merton shows me that I will probably always be fascinated by ideas on the fringe. I may tamper in the mud when living streams lay just ahead. But…it is okay; God is God, and I am just a man. He will lead me out of the miry clay and onto the paths of life everlasting.

Okay…that’s enough for now. Go read some Merton. I recommend Dialogues with Silence: Prayers & Drawings. It is pretty accessible and you could finish it in an hour at Barnes and Noble or some other such place. That way you can see if you like this dude before you commit to buying his work! Also, go listen to Mumford…and try to convince him to do his Birmingham concert a couple of days early so I can see him and still hang out with the monks!

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