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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton and the Work of God

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 17, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Work of GodIt’s 3 a.m., and Gethsemani Abbey is wrapped in a cloak of darkness as impenetrable as the silence. The forests and hills, in the midst of which it sits, lie draped in a dense fog that only adds layers to the darkness and quiet. But within its sanctuary already the monastery is stirring. Monks emerge from doors leading from their living quarters to the church. As light is admitted from the opening door, now and again, you can just make them out processing quietly to their places in the choir to stand or to sit in prayer.

By 3:15, they will all be in their places, ready for the first office of the day, Vigils.

A voice speaks: "O God, come to my assistance."

All respond: "O Lord, make haste to help me."

So begins the day. And so begins the liturgy of the hours, "the work of God," as it is called in this ancient Christian tradition, which can be traced back at least to the late fifth or early sixth century.

The monks’ day is framed by these prayers which remind us that all of life in every place, at every moment comes from the hand of God. The day is punctuated by these prayers. The first marks the end of sleep; others mark the beginning of labors, meals and rest. In a Cistercian monastery, the Trappists (whom I consider to be the Marines of contemplative prayer) have seven such services of prayer each day, plus Mass. The first service is at 3:15 a.m., the last, Compline (which I think is the most beautiful), begins at 7:30 p.m.

St. Benedict says in his "Rule":

"We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord are in every place. ... but most of all should we believe this without any shadow of doubt, when we are engaged in the work of God." [David Parry, OSB, “Chapter XIX. In Households of God: Rule of St. Benedict, with Explanations for Monks and Laypeople Today (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), p. 41.]

Anyone who has prayed the liturgy of the hours in a long retreat, I suspect, can bear witness to the way they work upon you. At their heart are the Hebrew Psalms, spoken, sung or chanted. Like drops of rain, they fall and slowly soak into the soul, hour by hour. One service of prayer following another. Drop by drop by steady drop, like a soaking rain of praise, lament and imprecation, the Psalms flow from the lips of the monks; whether a soul enters upon this work thirsty and receptive, or feels itself already quenched and resistant to the Word, the Psalms have a way of working on us, filling longings too deep for words, creating thirst that we did not want and that only God can satisfy.

Again, those who have participated in retreats will know something of what it means to pray the hours, to do the work of God, as St. Benedict used this phrase. However, we also know that the long experience of those who have taken monastic vows is something altogether different from the retreatant's experience.

We visit, however sincerely, as mere liturgical tourists or as seekers and pilgrims.

They live. They endure.

What might it mean, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year after year, to do the work of God, as do these monks (i.e., to pray the hours as a life's vocation, to steep in the Psalms and the prayers and the praise of God all the days of your life)?

A passage from the great theologian of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, comes to mind, in his description of the soul that is safe from the passions and incitements to anger, lust, envy and all that sets us at enmity with God and others. Evagrius praises the person whose "intellect is always 'with the Lord,' whose irascible part is full of meekness owing to the remembrance of God."*

"Pray without ceasing," admonishes the author of I Thessalonians (5:17). The rhythm of the liturgy of the hours, like the bells of the monastery, throughout the day, brings the monks back again and again to the remembrance of God, reinforcing the habit of praying at all times. Because this is the goal: to have God before us always.

Thomas Merton was nourished by the rhythm of the work of God in the monastic community. Yet, even in the midst of what many of us would regard as a hushed world of peace set apart from the hectic and frantic world beyond monastic walls, Merton found himself often restless, often harried, "rushing back and forth to church," yearning for a work of God that could only be performed in a more profound solitude away from the community, and free from the interruptions.**

The Cistercian communal life had set him free from the bondage he had experienced in the world which most of us know, nevertheless he longed for an even greater freedom, the freedom of the hermit, bound to the work of God in an even deeper sense. This is why, as many believe, he wrote of the ancient Desert Fathers with such empathy, why he seemed to understand so intimately the Eastern Orthodox disciplines of Hesychasm.

At the close of the introduction to his brief collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, we sense the fullness of the work of God toward which Merton's own heart inclined:

He writes:

"We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs [the Desert Fathers]. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

"We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God. This is not the place in which to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve. That is still unknown. Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown."

5:45 a.m., Lauds begins. “Ruthless in prayer;” that is a phrase that resonates with me this early in the morning, when my body rebels, my stomach turns, and I do not want to cooperate with myself (whatever that means!).

I so often hear folks these days, especially among my particular sort of Protestantism, say they are looking for a church in which they can feel at home, comfortable; or who complain of a congregation they visited that just didn't make them feel welcome. I have begun to suspect that mostly we tend to seek a religious experience or a congregation that reinforces what we prefer or that affirms what we perceive to be our strengths, that may even confirm our opinions and prejudices, but we shy away from those that challenge us or might make us grow or might cause us to confront others (potentially a real problem if God really is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth both maintained, "wholly other").

I recall my spiritual advisor, at the end of our first session, instructing me to pray a particular Psalm each day.

I said, "I don't really like that one."

He said, "That's what I suspected. That's why I want you to pray it."

We have come to treat faith as we treat everything else in this consumer's smorgasbord in which we live, as an opportunity for indulgence, self-expression or bias confirmation. You might say that choice has become the spirit of this age, especially choice that we use to reinforce our own preferences or pathologies, whether spiritual, emotional or physical. To some degree, the idea that faith is just one option among many is at the heart of this age, and the assumption is that freedom lies in the ability to exercise that option without constraint.****

What if true freedom, however, is somehow predicated on a will beyond our own? What if faith is not about making ourselves comfortable, but doing "the work of God"?

Thomas Merton seems to have struggled with a desire for release from the community in which he found himself from sometime in the 1940s. And I have to wonder whether his writings would have taken him so deep into the world of the Desert Fathers, would have led him into so intimate an encounter with the worlds of Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism, and into so many other places where he sought ever more deeply the life of God, if he had not chafed against the constraints that held him tethered to the community at Gethsemani.

Perhaps the ruthlessness of determination that Merton believes we need is to match the ruthlessness of God's love for us, a love which knows what will shape us to become all we were meant to become and called to be. A love that will bind us fast, perhaps, is the only love that sets us free.

*Gabriel Bunge, Dragon's Wine and Angel's Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness (Yonkers: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009), p. 17.
**Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (New York: HarperOne, 1999), pp. 50-54.
***Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), 23-24; see also: Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, editors, Merton and Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & The Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 263-310.
****Charles Taylor, in his magnificent study, A Secular Age, (Harvard University Press, 2007), in fact, understands the essential feature of secularity not simply as having to do with "the conditions of, experience of and search for the spiritual," but with the very fact that belief is no longer the individual's "default option," but is just one among many options from which people may choose. For a general start, see the introduction to his book, but for details, see Part IV, "Narratives of Secularization," pp. 424-535.

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