- Thomas Merton and the Eternal Search (newyorker.com)
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
Our job is to love our brothers (and sisters) without stopping. That is not the entire context of the Merton quote, but I believe it is the heart of the matter. So much of our love, our service, our commitment is hinged on the worthiness of the recipient. When we think in this manner we spend a large portion of our efforts judging our brothers and sisters. Christ never acted in such a way. He said: “Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” As we learn to follow the example of Jesus it lightens our burden of judgment, assessment or whatever you may call it and makes us free to love and serve.
Today’s world is certainly one of wars and rumors of wars. The greatest war that most of us have to fight is a self-inflected war of harshness and unkindness to one another. We fail to help those who are in need because we are too busy trying to find out why they are in need and too selfish to give them the simplicity of God’s love. I can only imagine what the world would really be like if we were willing to carry one another’s burden without assessing the cost, risk and worthiness of the recipient of our kindness.
Perhaps we can take a lesson from the monk when he says to us: “…love itself will render both ourselves and neighbors worthy if anything can.”
Lord help me this day to look upon my brothers and sisters as, just that, brothers and sisters. May I see them as fruits of your creation that are worthy of my love just as they are recipients of your love. In this ONE truth we find the peace and harmony that will fill the vastness of the void that lies in our souls. Amen
If we want to live as Monks, we must try to understand what the monastic life really is. We must try reach the springs from which that life flows. We must have some notion of our spiritual roots, that we may better able to sink them deep into the soil.
These are the opening words to Thomas Merton’s Introduction to Monastic Spiritually. Though the book was written for young men who were entering into a monastic vocation, it speaks to all of us who seek to live as contemplatives where we are planted. Merton points out three very important directions that all contemplative seekers must follow:
These three steps propel us in our journeys to, and with, God. The spring waters and the roots grow in their depth and breath. The result is that we are living contemplatives that seek the face of God.
If therefore we seek Jesus, the word, we must be able to see Him in the created things around us – in the hills, the fields, the flowers, the birds and animals that he has created, in the sky and the trees. We must be able to see him in nature. Nature is no obstacle to our contact with him, if we know how to use it.
Most of you who read this blog are seeking Jesus even if it is from the perspective of a doubter. Many people go through great lengths to prove the existence, or non-existence, of God. Merton writes these words to young men who were seeking to live the life of a monastic in the day when the rules were tighter than most of us can imagine. He was the novice master of a Cistercian (Strict Observance) Abbey. These young men were seeking to commit themselves to a truly other worldly life. When one approaches such a task, it is only natural for him to want an anchor to grasp. I am sure the young looked with great desire to Merton to provide this for them. He, instead, told them to look to nature, the hills, the trees, created things, and therein they could find what eluded them. The great qualifier was knowing how to use this knowledge.
For all of us the real challenge is to learn how to use the creation for the glory of God. When we see a majestic wild animal, do we see something that must be conquered, or is it a gift from God? Does God’s creation give us a glimpse of Him?
In God’s conversation with Job, He said: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
Job, like us, had many questions about God and how He interacts with us, but God challenged Job with nature. He was paralyzed by this challenge and had to admit that God was far more than he could have ever imagined. Take the time to see God in the sunset. Remember, He is the creator and sustainer of all things. God is not simply a cerebral belief: He is an active partner in your everyday life.
Prayer Thought – Lord let me see you in all that you have created. Help me to see your loving hands in all that surrounds me. Like the hands of the skillful artist, you have given me the beauty of your being. You are my Creator and God. Amen
This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light—knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love— outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish most about ourselves—the ones we are born and raised with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to maintaining and expanding this false self, this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
To be a saint means to be my true self. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I truly am and of discovering my true self, my essence or core.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like.
We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.
But we cannot make these choices with impunity.
Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.
If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.
—– From Thomas Merton
Someone will say: “You worry about birds. Why not worry about people?” I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.
——Thomas Merton from his Journals
I find Merton’s approach to creation care well worth considering. Far too often care of God’s creation is presented as an “either or choice,” but it is not so simple. We ALL share this planet that was created by God and entrusted, BY HIM, to our care. Many of us are frightened by the changes we see in our world around us. As a ”marsh dweller,” (I live in New Orleans and we are surrounded by marsh land), I find myself very disturbed by the constant loss of this land that protects from tides and hurricanes. There are various answers to the loss of wetlands, but one thread runs through them all, man messed this thing up. For us to properly worry about birds and people, we must take seriously our roles as stewards of the earth.
Stewards are never owners, but always caretakers. They are to exercise their roles for the true owner. In the case of the earth, God is the owner/creator. What is good for the land is always good for the people who dwell on that land.
How different it would be if we saw creation care as vitally linked to our spirituality. Merton makes this link in short order when he tells us that as we go down the road of moral depravity, we destroy the land entrusted to us as well. This all seems to be a part of a “don’t care” attitude that descends upon us when we are in full rebellion against God. Merton seems to propose that as we turn toward God, we will become better stewards of His creation. Now that’s something to think about.
Matthew 6:26 – Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Prayer Thought — Lord make me aware of what I consume each day. Help me to see a link between my spiritual heath and care of your creation. Amen
If we seek Jesus, the word, we must be able to see Him in the created things around us—in the hills, the fields, the flowers, the birds and animals that He created, in the sky and the trees. We must be able to see him in our contact with nature. Nature is no obstacle to our contact with Him, if we know how to use it.
— Thomas Merton
Seeing God in creation is very natural for some and most challenging for others. The early church had a real problem with pantheism- the worship of nature as God. Fear of pantheism, fostered by well-meaning Christians, tends to negate the contribution of God’s creation to our spiritual development. Merton asserts that the created earth must be a vital part of our pilgrimage.
His most important statement is that nature is not an obstacle to our contact with God if we know how to use it. An essential challenge for us today is to relate God to His creation without making His creation our god. Far too many Christians see creation care as contrary to their spirituality. There is an unmerited fear that truly seeing God in a sunset or a beautiful flower is contrary to orthodox Christianity. Next time you see something beautiful, give God the glory.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
We are caught in a bitter conflict between flesh and spirit. Jesus has delivered us from sin, but not from the weaknesses and desires of the flesh. We have to reproduce in our life the Cross of Christ so that, have died sacramentally to sin in baptism, we may also put to death sin in our flesh by restraining our evil desires and bad tendencies. This is the basis of monastic asceticism. (Or the Christian walk)
—-Thomas Merton from Basic Principles of Monastic Spirituality
There is not one among us who has not felt the tug of war caused by the conflict of flesh and spirit. This conflict of soul lives in everyone, and the battle rages with little relief. As we face this reality and own it, the conflict takes on a new aspect. The acknowledgement of our fleshly weaknesses allows us to turn to the spirit that is promised by Jesus. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.(John 14:26) Through this spirit we can achieve small victories over our desires, but we have to work at it, and be vigilant.
Merton points to a very important, and the often neglected reality of sacramental grace. Through our baptism the community lift us up so that we might die to sin. That grace is an important tool in our battle with the flesh, and one that should not be neglected. When the congregation (community) says, “-we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith-” that pledge is the communion of saints in action. We must never abandon the strength that can be garnered from the sacramental community.