“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.