Thomas Merton

Today is 100 years since the birth of Thomas Merton. His writing and his thinking have been profoundly influential over a great many of us.

‘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 you 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 am 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.’

This famous prayer from his book ‘Thoughts in Solitude’ speak to me both of humility and faith. This willingness to step forward in uncertainty resonates with me.

Faith is not about certainty. It is not about knowing. And yet it is about trusting.

I have no idea where my own life is going, but I know that the only way to get anywhere is to continue to be discerning, continue to trust my discernment, and to continue to be aware that I may be wrong.

To take each step in humility and ultimately to trust not in anything I do, but in the grace of God.

Nostalgia

In the last few days I have had a beautiful series of interactions with someone I knew from school. It began with her posting a comment on my blog. I knew that she followed my blog because had commented before, but this was the first time I realised that she had a blog herself (you can find it here).

Reading her blog and my vague memories of her from school (she was several years my senior) left me feeling a little nostalgic.

Not nostalgic in the sense of wanting to go back to that time, or as the definition suggests a sentimental view of that period. But rather a sense of longing for the potential of chance encounter.

Whilst we went to the same school, as is true of so many of my generation, our lives have entirely separated. She lives in Japan, and I in South Africa. The ‘home’ that we knew growing up, no longer exists. At least it doesn’t for me.

There is such a deep resonance for me in her writing. Not only do I recognise the sense of search, but I also recognise my memory of who I thought she was. It saddens me that we have never had the chance to know one another as adults. I would have liked to have a conversation over a cup of coffee.

So I feel a sense of longing. Longing for the potential of bumping into one another as we both headed home for a season. Alas, like far too many of our peers that potential evaporated over a decade ago. I deeply miss that sense of recognition from of old.

Celebrating different phases of life

As I begin 2015 in earnest (I arrived back from the U.S. this morning) I am aware that I am in a new phase of life:

I am no longer outrageously young to be a competent spiritual director.

I am five years into my independent academic career.

I can no longer check out of my current life on a whim.

I can’t carry all my possessions (I wish I had a picture of me carrying a backpack on my back, a second one on my front, dragging a wheeled case and a racquet case as I walked from Teddington Station to my uncle’s house when I arrived in the UK in 2003).

I have a mortgage and car payments so I need a monthly income.

I have students who are studying with me – I have an obligation to them and their future.

But I also have resources I didn’t have a decade ago:

I have a fairly substantial cv – I don’t need to put everything I have ever done on it. I can be selective and still have a good record.

I have financial resources. I can choose where I want to invest those resources. I am by no means super rich, but I do have sufficient freedom to make choices.

I have a good network. I do know a lot of people in a wide range of fields, and across all continents. I personally have relationships with them – not my dad or my uncle or third cousin twice removed – these are my connections.

Perhaps most of all, I have the luxury of knowing that I have proven myself in a range of environments. I can and have brought added value to a variety of situations. I am no longer asking if I am capable – the question is where am I called today.

I have made a good life for myself. I can be proud of what I have achieved. So I can dare to ask – where am I called – with a new freedom.

And the scales fell from my eyes!

I was watching a TV show with my sister yesterday. In it, they were discussing personality types. The primary tool they used to was the scale which gives scores on five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeability and neuroticism.

In one of the ad breaks I casually commented that I thought that I scored low on neuroticism. I don’t consider myself I particularly anxious person. I certainly don’t recognise in myself the kinds of anxieties I see operating in others.

I knew I was in trouble when my sister said ‘Really? You think you score low on neuroticism!’ Her tone was distinctly quizzical.

Then she said to me -‘ When you are stressed you don’t sleep and you lose weight’. Alas – both things are true.

I do suffer from stress – but the vast majority of my stress is internal. It is both self-generated and self-destructive. It will always have some anchor in the real world, and it can usually be defused by a good conversation with a close confidant.

I don’t identify at all with the label ‘neuroticism’ but if it is the equivalent of being highly strung then I fear I must own it.

It occurs to me that so many of these things are simply a matter of perspective. We place value judgements on words or behaviours and this interferes with our perception and our capacity to embrace the truth of who we are. For me to admit that I may score quite highly on the neuroticism scale is a little uncomfortable. Likewise another person may not like to score low on openness or conscientiousness.

Nonetheless, my desire is to be able to accept myself as I am – whatever that may mean for my scores on this particularly personality test. So for today, I am embracing the idea that maybe I am more controlled by my internal stress than I would like.

Just because most people around me cannot tell when I am struggling, doesn’t mean that I am well adjusted!

Acceptance

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the journey of life is the acceptance of myself as I am.

At least this is my greatest challenge.

The seeking of authenticity means that I need to be authentic to my own inner experience. This doesn’t mean that I need to be a slave to my own selfish pettiness. And act out of that regardless of consequence.

Rather it means noticing those parts of myself I do not really like and would rather not admit to – and acknowledge them. Once I am able to acknowledge how I feel and perhaps articulate it, the power it wields diminishes. I am freed to consider my response rather than simply reacting.

And the response is also an authentic part of myself. It is no less authentic than the reaction would have been.

The stripped down self is not pretty. It is less than I would have liked in so very many ways. But it is real.

At least the glimpses I get of it feel more real, more gritty, but perhaps a little braver, and just a touch more compassionate.

Knowing my own weaknesses, my own faultlines, my own capacity to be less than generous – I am far more likely to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their hurtful actions are not as brutally pointed as I presumed. Maybe they are struggling in a way that I do not understand or do not see.

Any journey can be dressed up as a journey of the soul. But if the fruit is not a growth in humility and compassion – it is probably not headed in the right direction.

For now, I simply have to accept my poverty of spirit and trust in the grace of God.

The importance of grace

After my last post on my desire to increase my interior freedom by paying attention to the way I speak, several people commented on the dangers of setting such a goal. The main point they were trying to make was that transformation or redemption is not something we can achieve on our own. Indeed, it often only when we recognise our own powerlessness that true transformation can occur.

I thoroughly agree. Over the last few years I have become more and more convinced in the utter poverty of my own capacity to will myself to anything. And more and more awed by the action of grace.

Grace to me is the action of God. It is something I actively pray for, but not something over which I have any control whatsoever. I can’t con God by trying to behave better, or by bargaining, or by any of the subtle manipulations that we use in every day relationships. No, I have to stand before God in the nakedness of my need.

Nonetheless, by attending to my word, I hope it will change some of the lazy habits of communication. That in paying attention, I will become more aware of my acute need for grace.

Ultimately, I pray that in God’s good time that the grace of transformation may enter once again. So that I will be impeccable in my word.

Perhaps as the year begins to get underway, it may be worthwhile to ask – what grace do you seek this year?

Increasing interior freedom

For a while now I have been thinking about interior freedom. It has been on my mind since I was in a large auditorium in Santa Fe being addressed by Roshi Joan Halifax.

The quality of her presence pervaded the entire space. The peacefulness of her being was palpable. It occurred to me then, that the key just might be interior freedom.

More recently, reading some of Cynthia Bourgeault’s work I am finding the same compelling draw to something beyond that which I currently know. And again I find myself thinking of interior freedom.

Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements suggests that one of element in the quest for personal freedom is to ‘be impeccable with your word’. This means:

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of the word in the direction of truth and love.

It is a powerful formula. One which will be challenging, daily.

My own particular challenge is to risk voicing what I need. Even today I found myself stumbling. I found myself struggling to articulate a need which I knew was unlikely to be burdensome in any significant way. But still, to speak a need in the midst of the living of this day was not easy.

For me then, I suppose I need to add an additional clause – something like ‘to dare to speak my own need.’

Not because I expect it to be met, but because I need to learn to own that truth.