Thomas Merton in his hermitage at Gethsemani
Trappist Abbey - Tennessee
Ever the Teacher
During these last five days 25 spiritual directors in the Archdiocese of New York have been spiritual companions to 30 participants in an on-line discernment retreat. The retreat was sponsored by the Religious Vocation Office of the Archdiocese under the direction of Sr. Deanne Sabetta, SND. I had the previlege of providing accompaniment to two women seriously committed to discerning God's will for their lives. It is not difficult to imagine their inspiration and their love for God. It is also possible to imagine their fears and uncertainty.
On this last day of the retreat, I offered each woman the following prayer written by Thomas Merton.
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 have that desire in all that I am doing. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although 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 fear not, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen
Today marks the 42nd anniversary of Thomas Merton's death by accidental electrocution in Thailand, where he was participating in a meeting of representatives of the contemplative tradition from Western and Eastern faiths or philosophies. Just an hour or two before his death he had spoken to the group and ended his remarks with the words, "And now I will disappear." It is an irony that the mortal remains of this man, who had begun to feel the necessity of speaking out about the barbarism of war in relation to the conflict in Vietnam, was returned to the United States in a plane which also carried the bodies of American soldiers being returned to their families.
Merton was educated at Columbia University and always felt destined to teach and to write. He did not think that he would do either at the monastery he entered in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But God and his Abbot had other plans for him. Within ten years his autobiography Seven Storey Mountain would be a monumental best seller in the secular world. He would write many other books which today continue to influence those who wish to follow the way of contemplative prayer and see, as Merton did, that the way to God is also the way to the true self. For fifteen years he would serve in the second most important position in any monastery, that of novice master, the monk entrusted with the training of its newest members. Most of his talks to novices and some talks given to his community were recorded and are still available from Credence. An outstanding segment for me in these recordings is Merton reading to the novices a letter he'd received from a friend who was present at the funeral of Martin Luther King. I love his humor, his manner with these young men and the wisdom and scholarship he shared with them and now with us via technological magic.
Merton remains not only a guide to contemplative monks and nuns but to all who are seriously persuing the contemplative path. He knew his imperfections and sinfulness and wrote about them. He wanted simplicity but lived a complicated life. He wanted to be alone with the Alone but needed to tell people about it. Yet his brilliance, his desire for God, his gifts as a communicator, the quality of his intellect and the depth of his spirituality keep me enthralled and inspired.