The Only Unhappiness

“The only unhappiness,” Thomas Merton wrote, “is not to love God.” Loving God requires prayer. Prayer for Merton was a matter of awareness, of being alert 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.

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.” 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. Merton knew far too well that 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.

So much of life is contradiction and chaos. Only in stillness and prayer can harmony emerge from the confusion. I pray the emptiness and darkness that still occasionally consumes my inner life does not overcome me, does not prompt me to seek the false light of the world and all its empty promises and illusions. My past experience has taught me that whenever the light of God truly penetrates my disordered inner being, I’m able to see clearly how far I am from God, how great the contrast is between who God is and who I am. God is as large as the expanding universe and as intimate as the cells in our bodies. Thank God.

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