Back when my middle-aged sons were little boys, another young mom from church handed me a copy of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and I was hooked. Here was a monk who was as likely to find God in nature as in the church, a contemplative hermit who was also a political activist, a revered symbol of faith who publicly acknowledged his doubts. Here was a fully human being who dared to share all the contradictions of his life and faith. As a parent struggling with my own spiritual life while trying to nurture a life of faith in my children, I found it profoundly reassuring to read about Merton’s struggles.
Dina and I would quote favorite passages from Merton as we tended and chased our children, often coming back to the phrase “the night spirit and dawn air” because it seemed to name the longing we both felt for a kind of peace and silence that was impossible in our chaotic lives. We were both deeply committed to our local Episcopal Church, but we also resonated with Merton’s sense of God outside the church walls. I remember how he wrote of a “morning alone in the woods. Sunrise: wet grass…meadowlark… It was hard to say Psalms. Attention would get carried away in the vast blue arc of the sky.” His words helped us to see God in the vast Colorado sky, in birds, in summer flowers, in snow, in storm, in beauty, and, always, in our children.
As an early riser, I loved Merton’s words about the “point vierge of the dawn under a sky as yet without real light,” when God in “perfect silence” wakens the birds. “Their condition asks if it is time for them to ‘be.’ He answers ‘yes.’ Then one by one they wake up, and become birds.” Because of this image, sometimes when I would watch my sleeping children wake up, I could see them “become themselves,” and I knew it as a holy moment. (Until the pandemic made it impossible to have our grandchildren with us overnight, I would do the same with them.)
Thomas Merton clearly and profoundly continues to speak to my heart, all these decades later, and not just about nature. Right now I’m co-facilitating two different Sacred Ground dialogue circles (actually, in this time of COVID, we are Zoom “squares,” not circles) on White racism. One of the writers we’ve been reading is James Baldwin – and it was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that inspired Thomas Merton to speak out on the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s.
What Merton wrote then could have been written today. Racism, he asserts, “is a White problem…[which] cannot be settled without a profound change of heart, a real shake-up and deep reaching metanoia on the part of White Christians…a question of waking up…” Living as a hermit on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Merton nevertheless reached millions of people with his powerful words. He continues to awaken and challenge us, and I continue to be grateful.
Dina and I still sometimes quote Merton to each other, although now, because we live 2000 miles apart, we do so via email or phone. Since our children have grown, we have both become connected to monastic communities relatively near to us, live under a rule of life, and undertake silent retreats every year. Merton’s influence continues to resonate in our lives.
My husband long ago became a follower of Merton as well; I think we own every book he wrote. And in 2010, we chose the Abbey of Gethsemani as our place of retreat in order to spend time in the place where Merton lived and prayed and wrote. We were greeted by a monk who said we should work on our silence. “Silence is the language of God. Learn the language.” The next morning, I wrote in my journal: “Woke at 5 a.m. and walked an hour down a country lane, full moon ahead of me, fireflies in the grass, haystacks on either side, praying morning prayer. On the way back, I climbed a hill to see a red sun rise like a coin through slotted clouds. I heard roosters and meadowlarks descended from the ones that Thomas Merton heard.” Later that week I drew pictures in my journal of the Abbey bell tower, and of the statue of the Black Madonna in the garden.
It was profoundly good to spend a week in Merton’s landscape, but I sense no call to return to Gethsemani. I loved being there, but what I still treasure most deeply are his words, and they can travel with me.
And the words for which I am perhaps most grateful aren’t about nature or politics or even silence, but about his uncertainties and doubts. The fact that he could write: “Lord, have mercy. Have mercy on my darkness, my confusion…have mercy on me in the blindness in which I hope I am seeking you” makes it okay for me to feel lost and confused, too, to feel blind as to where God is, or to wonder what I’m called to do next. As a parent – now as a grandparent – I find this hugely reassuring. We do the best we can, and sometimes we get it wrong, even terribly wrong, but God is with us in whatever mess we make. This is the heart of Thomas Merton’s most famous prayer, the one my husband has on the wall above his desk, and one that Dina and I still quote to each other as we stumble our way forward in this blessed and fraught life.
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.
[Blue Jay Image Credit: Public Domain via Pixabay]