If Thomas Merton Resisted His Calling, So Can You
By Ed Cyzewski
Editor’s Note: For the season of Lent, Ed Cyzewski has created a daily email list that shares quotes from Trappist monk and contemplative prayer author Thomas Merton. Each Friday here on ESA, Ed will share a few reflections on Merton’s wisdom for us today based on these readings.
I once read how the leader of a well-known Christian charity took his position, more or less kicking and screaming, after years of working in the corporate world.
It started when he received phone calls from several pastors who all said, “I sensed the Lord telling me that you should be the next CEO of this charity.”
He initially resisted. His inadequacies and fears tugged at him. Perhaps he even had a sense of “Why me?” However, he eventually sought God in prayer and, to no surprise, received a similar confirmation.
He knew what his calling was, and he finally moved forward into it.
There are times in my life when I would really love to have a clear sense of direction like that. Is a phone call every now and then too much to ask? There are so many needs in my community and around the world. How do people line up their gifts with the needs of the world and then know they’ve made the right choice? What appears obvious to someone on the outside of a situation may not be so clear to the person going through it.
There are so many needs in my community and around the world. How do people line up their gifts with the needs of the world and then know they’ve made the right choice?
When I read the journals, books, and letters of Thomas Merton, I see someone who struggled mightily with his calling to solitude, writing, and peace activism. He often worried about how to fit them all together, even though he eventually made a name for himself through writing about the peace and freedom he found by secluding himself in the Abbey of Gethsemani just outside Louisville, KY.
The success of his writing, itself, became a threat of sorts that Merton desperately tried to contain:
“[I have been] already guaranteed the sale of fourteen thousand copies. ‘Look out! Maybe this business is going to turn your whole life upside down for true!’ I caught myself thinking, ‘If they make it into a movie, will Gary Cooper be the hero?’ Or maybe there is no Gary Cooper anymore. Anyway, that is the kind of folly I have to look out for now. I am reduced to that.”
Merton found a sense of resolution by viewing his writing as a public gift to all, likening it to the way Jesus is a gift to all in the Mass:
“To be as good a monk as I can and to remain myself and to write about it. To put myself down on paper, in such a situation, with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing, confusing no issue: this is very hard because I am all mixed up with illusions and attachments…
One of the results of all this could well be a complete and holy transparency: living, praying, and writing in the light of the Holy Spirit, losing myself entirely by becoming public property just as Jesus is public property in the Mass. Perhaps this is an important aspect of my priesthood—my living of my Mass: to become as plain as a Host in the hands of everybody. Perhaps it is this, after all, that is to be my way of solitude.”
Even when Merton got a sense of direction for his writing, he found resistance within his order. Some of his superiors opposed his writing after he had struggled for years to find a place for it in his monastic vocation:
“I had been hoping to republish a few articles on nuclear war that had been permitted by Dom Gabriel—thinking that it was enough that he had permitted them once. Not so. The new General, Dom Ignace Gillet, dug into the files, held a meeting of Definitors, and declared that there was to be no republishing of these articles. Thus I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said in Pacem in Terris. Reason: ‘That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.’ Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. ‘The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.’ But with our cheese business and all the other ‘weeping’ functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.”
Merton was a vitally important voice within the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community who blazed paths that many of us take for granted today. Merton wrote about racism, war, poverty, and technology at a time when many Christians in America either saw no viable Christian response to these issues or failed to value the Christian traditions that could have helped them.
He knew that his life should be devoted to solitude and prayer, but he also couldn’t escape the obligation he felt to share the fruits of that solitude with others. Most importantly, he saw a world badly in need of peace and sanity when nuclear war appeared quite possible at times.
Yet when he resolved to share his calling with others, some of his superiors resisted his work.
Looking back today, we can see how vitally important Merton’s solitude, writing, and activism have proven for generations. There is no doubt that he made the right choice in running the risk of writing and advocating for peace and disarmament at a time when the majority of American Catholics had no interest in such ideas.
What was an uncertain, even tortuous way forward for Merton appears to be the obvious choice to us today. Why wouldn’t he pursue his calling to write and to advocate for peace when he could bless so many?
If a gifted writer like Merton could be assailed with so much doubt and uncertainty, then we shouldn’t expect to always have clarity and assurance, either.
If a gifted writer like Merton could be assailed with so much doubt and uncertainty, then we shouldn’t expect to always have clarity and assurance, either. We especially shouldn’t wait around for a phone call about what to do next!
Perhaps you’ll be able to pray as Merton once did:
“My Lord God, 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.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that 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. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I 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.”
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, and other books. He writes weekly at This Kinda Contemplative Life at Patheos, and he lives in Western Kentucky with his wife and children.