Transfigured by Grace

Christ is radically present
in the entire universe
as its ultimate fulfillment.

In creation we contemplate
a manifestation of God’s face,
of God’s presence –
and our souls are set a fire
with charity
for all of creation,
leading us to embrace
the whole world,
a world deformed by sin,
yet transfigured by grace.

Homeward Bound

Thomas Merton’s distinctive Trappist habit hid the poor and fragile man wearing it. Merton had a pilgrim’s restless, searching heart. He understood that we are all homeless until we find our home in God. Maybe that’s why he was attracted to St. Benedict Joseph Labré, the homeless saint who wandered the streets of Rome begging. In his private journals Merton frankly admits he was always in the dark, always on the road, and always in need of God’s mercy to him in all things. In his journals, he deliberately sets out to debunk his status as a spiritual guru or master, a deadly honor his readers bestowed upon him.

Merton scholar Anthony Padovano said, “He writes in his journals about his pettiness, his envy, his sexual temptations, his doubts. He wanted everyone to know that the mystical journey was profoundly human. That it wasn’t exotic. It wasn’t artificial.”

Over the last 65 years or so, Merton was and is symbolic of many lost souls, lonely, isolated people looking for something that they can’t describe, can’t put their finger on, looking for meaning, looking for redemption or recovery…basically, looking for God. Somehow, through his elegant words on a page he connects with our everyday, messy lives of flesh. In him we find a common ground where people from around the world can see, respect, and even embrace each other. In his very real shortcomings and struggles, we see our own…and realize it is OK.

In his journals, he removes his distinctive Trappist habit so we can see his self-deceits, his struggles with competing and conflicting desires, and the darkness of his heart. In the pages of his journals, we see a real flesh and blood human being striving to enter the heart of God, striving to go Home. In his failures, problems, struggles, and disappointments, we see ourselves and know we are not alone…and that even “Saint” Thomas Merton wore pants just like us. No matter what inner difficulties he faced, Merton always moved forward in hope of discovering his true self…and therein was his salvation.

We find salvation by returning to the unity in which we were created. Salvation consists of the restoration of unity with God and all of creation, a unity which has been fractured by sin,
ruptured by our living out of our inner brokenness which causes deeper disunity.

I’m not sure I’m ready to remove my outer habit, that of a globe-trotting, crusading filmmaker striving to be a prophetic voice for the poor while often either hiding or ignoring his own inner spiritual poverty, his own sinfulness, his secretly clinging to things he knows are blocking him from entering a fuller, deeper relationship with God.

A Duck in a Chicken Coop

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton wrote: “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.” [page 89] Being both a writer and monk was hard. I doubt Merton could have been a monk instead of a writer. He had to be both, even if that made his life more difficult. I think being a monk made Merton a better writer.

I think there are lots of ordinary people who feel out of place, or misplaced, or even displaced, who feel like a duck in a chicken coop. This feeling, often unexpressed, speaks to our inner longing…for something beyond what we know or have experienced. It speaks to our need to belong, to be loved and accepted. I never feel at home anywhere. I have this deep longing within me that I can’t seem to satisfy. Oddly enough, I feel somewhat at home writing this book, while simultaneously feeling I have no right to write it because I am so woefully unqualified to say anything of substance about Merton or prayer. However, I’m so powerfully drawn to Merton the searcher that I am able to muster the confidence to use my pen in order to try to understand not only the monk but his relentless search for a deeper meaning.

When Merton writes about the true or real self and the false or illusionary self, I am now better able to recognize and feel those two dimensions within me. He speaks to the deepest yearnings of my spirit, while at the same time boldly confronting the complex problems within society. Merton writes from his inner experience, and in the process helps me connect with and verbalize my own inner experience, my own inner conflicts and confusions. His individual search for God became symbolic of the universal search for God, which is why his writing touched a wide range of people, including non-Christians, on their own individual journeys.

Allow God to turn your life upside-down and inside-out. Allow God to topple your expectations. Journey beyond your comfort zone. Pursue true knowledge.

No Idea

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” And so began Thomas Merton’s most famous prayer, now printed on countless cards that often end up taped to mirrors or refrigerators. His acknowledged ignorance in the prayer resonates deeply with anyone who reads it. As the prayer continues, Merton moves hopefully forward in his darkness.

“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. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”

So many things flash before my mind as I read the words of that prayer. I have no idea of God’s will for my life, but whatever it is, I know I’ve done many things that cannot possibly be in harmony with God’s will, countless little acts of selfishness, endless moments of unloving behavior. Mine has been a messy, imperfect life, littered with missteps and mistakes.

Merton’s prayer goes on to say that if he continues to strive to do God’s will, no matter how often he fails, God will lead him down the right road, even if he knows nothing about it. Merton prays: “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.”

Oh what comfort I’ve taken from those honest words. But more than comfort, in the last few years, especially during one densely dark period of my life, I came to feel and know the truth of those words: I am never alone; God is always with me, no matter how dark, no matter how bad any situation is.

Merton knew it was in darkness that we find the Light.

“The only unhappiness,” Merton wrote, “is not to love God.” Loving God requires prayer. Prayer for Merton was a matter of awareness, an alertness to the possibilities of the hour, what he called “the grip of the present.” Most of us are stuck either in the past or the future, making the present moment lost time. We’re too busy to be present…present to each other, present to the poor, present to God.

During his 27 years behind the monastery walls, Merton learned the art of attentiveness. The monastic stability of being rooted in one place freed Merton to delve ever more deeply by reflection and prayer into the meaning of his unfolding life in the unfolding history of his times. He steadfastly honed his writing craft which became an instrument of confession and witness in a prolific outpouring of poetry, journals, letters, and books on a wide range of interests, everything from civil rights, to war, and Zen Buddhism. From his perch in a rural forest of Kentucky, Merton explored a galaxy of ideas in an effort to become a better, more God-like, human being. In the darkness of humanity, he discovered the light of God.

Merton learned that waiting for a “word” he could not speak to himself was the essence of prayer. In our age of instant communication and instant gratification, waiting has become intolerable. Stillness, poverty of spirit, keeping vigil, guarding thoughts, and fasting from one’s own selfishness were essential attributes of Merton’s practice of monastic humanism. He wrote that contemplation was “essentially a listening in silence.” And according to Merton this listening in silence should have an air of “expectancy” to it, but not an expectancy that “even anticipates a special kind of transformation.” Merton learned how to sit in the darkness…and wait—even if answers never came. And answers rarely do come.

In 1941, after being at Gethsemani for less than two weeks, a young Merton penned this prayer: “Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”

The darkness is not enough for us. Religious terrorism which threatens us today might disappear if the fundamentalists of all faiths, those willing to kill for “their” God, had the inner honesty to pray that prayer Merton penned long ago.

In honestly communicating the darkness that became his rite of passage into God’s presence, Merton gave countless readers over the last sixty years a great gift. He freely admitted the complexity and the paradoxes of his own life. Merton saw the contemplative life as a life of relationships informed by love in search of freedom.

The hallmark of Merton’s prayer life was his ability to keep vigil in silence with his heart’s eye on the horizon of the next moment. The next moment could reveal in light or in shadow the presence of the Beloved he so eagerly awaited. He kept his mind’s eye open for the unexpected epiphany. Waiting without projecting his own needs into the next moment became a dark form of hope for him. Down through the ages, mystics of all faiths understood that silence is the place where time and eternity embrace.

Like us, Merton had no idea where he was going on his journey to God. Unlike most of us, he simply followed where he thought God was leading him, trusting that if he was mistaken, God would gently give him a course correction…and all would be well in the end, no matter where he ended up. Not to know where his life was going was always to begin again in Merton’s journey to love learning and desire God. Ignorance acknowledged was a stimulus to new experience. Awareness of the darkness kept Merton sober and watchful, though never perfectly, so that he might miss a gate to the rose garden. He didn’t just see things, he saw God in everything.

It does not matter where I am going if I am not going to heaven.

The End of Isolation

“Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly, and not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.”
-Thomas Merton
New Seeds of Contemplation

On the road to God, words eventually dissolve into silence. To become more and more silent, to enter deeply into creative silence, takes courage. The wordless is foreign to us. Yet God transcends language and intellect. In silence, we are able to meet our deepest self. When we have found our authentic self, we are free to give ourselves away, to give ourselves back to God. St. Maximos the Confessor, a great saint of the Eastern Church, said: “Love and self-control free the soul from passions; spiritual reading and contemplation deliver the intellect from ignorance; and the state of prayer brings it into the presence of God Himself.”

The end of isolation is found in prayer. Through prayer, we become aware that God is present. Through prayer we become at home with the living presence with whom we can share everything. And in the presence of God we become aware of our complete dependence on the Creator. Prayer fosters within us a spirit of humility and the realization we cannot truly live without God.

The best way to approach God is to proceed in humility, simplicity, and poverty, and to enter the silence of God’s presence, and then patiently sit in prayer and wait until God elects to speak. The primary focus of prayer is to lead the mind to stillness. Prayer helps us become more aware of God’s presence. Prayer acknowledges our dependency on God. The goal of prayer is communion with God…and each other. Approach God with open hands, a searching mind, and a loving heart.

Into the Heart of Darkness

Here are two random suppositions which I think are somehow connected:

1. It has been stated that the average American spends fifteen years of his or her life in front of a television.

2. Consumerism has killed the spirit of mysticism. The rise in an interest in Tao and Zen demonstrates that people are hungry for the fruit of mysticism.

Meister Eckhart claimed that God doesn’t require long vigils, fasting, prayer, and mortification from us. [That’s a relief!] But God does require tranquility. Eckhart urges us to flee and hide from the storm of inner thoughts. Today, he would tell us to also flee the inferno of noise that engulfs modern life. We need unruffled calmness to encounter God.

I cannot learn about God. I can only unlearn the things that are keeping me from a full awareness of God. To find Christ you must make a pilgrimage to the center of your being, to the place where the human and the divine meet. The key to being a pilgrim is to remain still interiorly as you journey…otherwise you are just a wanderer. To pray is to embark on a journey without end – a journey deep into the heart of darkness, of paradox, of mystery. The journey to God is slow. Each day, we inch our way along a steep, winding road. The pace of spiritual transformation moves about as quickly as traffic in Los Angeles.

In My Nothingness

Only through humble eyes can God be seen. I am nothing; God is everything. But in my nothingness, God gives me everything. Humility helps shatter illusions. Humility is the truest form of honesty. It sees our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Humility allows God to transform our weaknesses into strengths.

Humility is a pathway to prayer. Prayer is the doorway to the heart, the center of our being, the place where we can let go, let go of pretense, pride, ego, and a host of things blocking us from the true source of life, the true source of love, God.

In the innermost chamber of the heart we see the dissonance between the Spirit of God and our spirit; it’s here we struggle to dissolve that difference. In the safety of the heart we can let go of fear and we can risk change. In the heart, conflict gives way to harmony. In the heart, what’s mine becomes God’s. In the heart, humility becomes holiness.


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