Today, I am thinking with gratitude of one of my spiritual mentors and heroes in the faith, Thomas Merton, who entered the Abbey of Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky on this day, December 10th, in 1941, and then died on this same day in 1968. My life of faith has been deeply influenced by this remarkable man, so much so that it is difficult to even put into words what he has meant to me. But I want to try, because there may be some who read this who will be blessed to get to know this hero of mine. So here goes.
One way to describe Merton is as a modern-day “desert father.” And to explain what I mean by that, let me take you back in time to the 4th century. For the first three centuries of the church’s life, Christians were persecuted, and even martyred for their faith. That all changed in 313 then the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Before that, it was fairly easy for Christians to know what Jesus meant when he said: take up your cross and follow me. But what now? Now that being a Christian is legal, and even advisable? In many ways, this society in the 4th century mirrors our own.
Well, in the 4th century, a group of Christians decided that the best way to live out their Christian faith was to flee this new Christian society and go into the desert. They became known as “Desert Fathers” and “Desert Mothers” and their influence in Christianity is still significant today. Among other things, they were the first Christian monks.
But the reason they were so influential is because they were so wise in matters of our Christian faith. Perhaps because they removed themselves from all the distractions their society offered, and sat alone before God, with nothing but Scripture and their own interior life as their food for thought, they became a source of great wisdom for all Christians. People began going out into the desert in search of these wise desert fathers, who had learned so much by being still. And those who spent time with them learned a great deal.
And, again, I believe that the best way to think of Merton is as a modern-day desert father. That is what he has been to me. When you think about it, our society in the 1940s was much like the Roman Empire under Constantine. It was legal, and even advisable, to be a Christian. And our society, like theirs, was also filled with many distractions. So Merton fled to the desert. Except his ‘desert’ happened to be a Trappist monastery in a remote part of Kentucky.
Merton entered that monastery on this day, December 10, in 1941, after being rejected for military service. There, in what Merton called the four walls of his freedom, Merton stilled the waters enough to see what was below the surface, of his life and of our world. There he learned, as he himself put it, that:
Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.
And there, in that desert, people came to him looking for a word of wisdom. They traveled to meet with him, they corresponded by letter, and they read his many books. And still today, Christians of all denominations from all around the world read his books and are blessed by doing so.
I have been reading Merton on and off for a couple of decades now. I think that I was introduced to him through a book that my wife purchased when she was in college, Thoughts in Solitude. That book includes my favorite of his prayers, which will conclude this post. I have been keeping a spiritual journal electronically since 2004, and when I search for “Merton” in my journal I find more than 200 entries!
But where to even start, if you are new to Merton? Thoughts in Solitude is a good place to begin, as is New Seeds of Contemplation. If you want to learn the story of his life, there is no better place to turn than to his amazing autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, considered one of the spiritual classics of the 20th century.
Merton wrote many other books and a lot of them are probably available in your local public library. I encourage you to go and check one out, it almost doesn’t matter which, and then simply read it slowly, prayerfully, with a notebook nearby. If you are anything like me, your life will be changed. In fact, some years ago I did just that. For several months, my morning devotional time was spent with one of Merton’s books, The Sign of Jonas. I read a little, stopped and thought about what I read, journaled a little, and closed with prayer. But, again, you could easily do this with almost any of his books. You can also read much more about Merton by simply Googling him, or by going to this site: http://merton.org/
Well, let me close by sharing with you the beautiful closing words of his autobiography. But to do this, I want to first share with you how Merton died. He was attending a conference in Bangkok, Thailand with monks from other religions. It was very unusual for a cloistered monk to be doing this, but such was his importance worldwide by this time. In fact, after his death there was an obituary on the front page of the New York Times. At any rate, Merton concluded his presentation with the words, “And now, I must disappear.” And he went back to his room where he was apparently suffered a cardiac arrest due to an electric shock. The date was December 10, 1968, 27 years to the day after he “disappeared” from the world by entering the monastery in Kentucky. The burns from being electrocuted reminded many of the closing words of his autobiography. So, without further adieu, here they are. Speaking to God in prayer, Merton wrote:
“I hear You saying to me: I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way you cannot possibly understand … You will be praised and it will be like burning at the stake. You will be loved, and it will murder your heart and drive you into the desert. … And when you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing … And in that day you will possess a solitude that you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth … But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end and brought you … to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani: That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
And now, to end with Merton’s most famous prayer. It is a prayer which shows the rich fruit of his contemplative life, and an admission that the contemplative life doesn’t change our need for a Savior. If anything, perhaps, it deepens our perceived need of our Savior. This prayer is found in his book, Thoughts in Solitude:
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.Thomas Merton