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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton's Resolution

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 29, 2014
Merton's ResolutionMy chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom - still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: 'Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this (God's) love is found, and in accepting this I can give back (God's) love to (God) and give myself with it to (God).1

So wrote Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation over fifty years ago.

For Merton, the exercise of self-surrender is not merely an acquiescence to a nameless, faceless fate, nor is it the self-righteous act of the sour-faced saints of whom St. Teresa of Avila rightly complained. The ultimate goal of our surrender to God's will, according to Merton, is nothing less than full participation in the love of God, which is the life for which we were created. Our "consenting" to God's will "with joy" means that we share in our hearts the same love that is essential to God. When our hearts are filled with the love of God, we are set on the path of becoming like the God who is love.

This year we will observe the centennial of Thomas Merton, who was born on January 31, 1915. Doubtless there will be many publications, many pilgrimages and many, many conferences planned to celebrate the large, round number of 100. As we begin what some have called “The Year of Merton,” however, I suggest we do something much simpler. I suggest that we allow Merton to act as our Novice Master. Beginning with the first days of 2015, I suggest that, rather than making the usual New Year's resolutions to lose weight or exercise regularly, we resolve to share Merton's resolution.

This resolution begins with the discovery that our surrender to God's will opens the door to joy and peace, love and life. Merton never assumed that this surrender is easy, nor that God's will is obvious. Merton, himself, struggled with questions of God's will and his own vocation, recognizing that questions of vocation are closely related to choosing between our real and our false selves. As he wrote, again in New Seeds of Contemplation:

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 true face. … Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.2

In one of his most famous works, Thoughts in Solitude, Merton confesses: "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. … 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 I have that desire in all that I am doing."3 The humility of Merton's prayer, including its renunciation of his own ability even to know when and whether God is leading him at any particular moment, speaks to the core of faith, one's trust in God.

Possibly the simplest and most difficult of the lessons Merton taught, and the one which is most helpful as we pray for God to direct our steps, to know God's will, and respond to God's calling of us, concerns distinguishing between "our real and false selves." It is only the "real self" that discovers real humility. Robert Inchausti, editor of The Pocket Thomas Merton, (a singularly wonderful little resource) explains:

At the heart of Merton's spirituality is his distinction between our real and false selves. Our false selves are the identities we cultivate in order to function in society with pride and self-possession; our real selves are a deep religious mystery, known entirely only to God. The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist.4

The world around us is ready to judge our lives on its ruthless scales of success and failure, but Merton calls even the categories of success and failure into question. In one of his most remarkable (and humorous) reflections, Love and Living, he says:

A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled 'Success' wrote me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naïveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials.5

Not only does the false self submit itself to the relentless judgment of the world, it engages in the judgment of others. The urge to correct, chastise, rank and judge others is a compulsion of the false self, an expression of the spirit of the Pharisee or the Puritan, though sometimes writ small in its petty pursuit of one-upmanship, but no less corrosive to the soul for its smallness. It is none other than Jesus who calls into question the world's standards of success and even righteousness. As Merton writes:

In dying on the Cross, Christ manifested the holiness of God in apparent contradiction with itself. But in reality this manifestation was the complete denial and rejection of all human ideas of holiness and perfection. The wisdom of God became the folly of men, (God's) power manifested itself as weakness! And (God's) holiness was, in their eyes, unholy.6

Merton's resolution asks for trust in God that takes the form of "self-emptying" in place of self-assertion, even when that self-assertion is dressed up in the language of justice, righteousness and rights. Merton repeatedly speaks of "the world" which God created in love and for which Christ gave his life, but he also speaks of "the world" in an altogether different sense, warning of its false claims and false judgment and its subtle enticements of the self. "The world (in this latter sense) is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell." The person in society who is a captive to "the unquiet city" will divide every community according to his or her own lusts for self and selfish interests, whether these interests are allowed to be seen in their ruthless nakedness or are dressed in the white robes of the saint. But we cannot, Merton says, escape that city merely by fleeing into solitude, because the unquiet city will follow us into a hermit's cave. The person "who locks himself up in private with his own selfishness has put himself into a position where the evil within him will either possess him like a devil or drive him out of his head."7

Were we to make Merton's resolution our own, we might find something better than success, wealth or good health to celebrate in this New Year. We might rediscover sanctity and sanity.


1Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. Introduction by Sue Monk Kidd (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1961), 17-18.
2Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 32.
3Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: 1999, originally published 1956).
4Robert Inchausti, editor, The Pocket Thomas Merton (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), 1.
5Thomas Merton, Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 10.
6Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 62.
7Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 78-79.

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