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.

On suicide

This is one of those posts I did not envision when I started my blog, but I think I need to put it out there. It is a topic we don’t normally talk about, and I feel it is important.

In the last week I have had conversations with two unrelated people who have been faced with having to deal with the attempted suicide of someone they cared deeply about. And I have been struck again by how little we talk about suicide, and yet most of us will have to deal with it one way or another.

The first time I really encountered suicide in a personal way was several years ago. The person had been a colleague – someone for whom I had a great deal of affection and respect. We hadn’t had contact for a few years prior to her suicide, so I had no real insight into why she would have made this choice.

Her death brought the complexity of suicide into my world. I was forced to think about what death by suicide might mean in faith terms. Historically the church would not bury someone who had committed suicide on consecrated ground. And this choice certainly goes against the idea of the sanctity of life. So what then for my colleague? In considering her death I discovered in myself a sense of compassion – I did not know what had precipitated her choice, but I could not help but feel tremendous sadness that she could not see any way through.

Thinking about the meaning of suicide in processing the death of my colleague helped me a great deal, when just a few months later, one my relatives took his own life. This time the reasons for his choice were a little less opaque in retrospect. But it was no less shocking.

When we think of the meaning of suicide, it is important to remember that the reasons that people take their own lives are many and varied. These two instances certainly taught me that. There is a gamut of emotion around the way in which it is done, the reasons for it, how it is discovered and so on. But I think, as people of faith, it is important to think about what it means – how do we think God responds? I suspect God is far more understanding than some of our older traditions may suggest.

In a similar way our responses to suicide may be widely variable. In families this can be particularly evident. Two people with a similar relationship to the deceased may experience the suicide completely differently. In conversing with suicide survivors it is really important to allow them the space simply to be true to where they are emotionally.

There are no right answers and no correct responses. There is only prayer for grace and compassion.

A life of faith

What does it mean to live a life of faith? Living a life of faith is more than simply admitting allegiance to a particular belief system. It is more than regular attendance at some form of communal worship. To have any real meaning, faith must be a significant factor in life, rather than just a hobby which happens to provide a social circle. I know that many people focus on the hereafter. It is a very Christian idea that professing faith in Jesus is start of salvation. It is our entry into heaven. I understand where that thinking comes from, and certainly there was a time in my life when my faith was a bit like an insurance policy. At that stage my faith life had a fairly minimal impact on how I lived my life, and I was not sure whether God existed or not, so I figured, practising faith did not cost me terribly much but it could have very serious consequences in the hereafter so on balance I was better off continuing as I was, attending Mass on Sunday and doing a quick five minutes of prayer just before I fell asleep at night. To me, that kind of faith now seems a little pointless.

After making the Spiritual Exercises, my faith shifted from being something important but peripheral in my life, to being central. Relationship with God became my primary concern. Having practised faith in this way, supported by having a daily prayer time for more than a decade has borne wonderful fruit in my life. I have learnt an enormous amount about myself in the process, and I know that this practice has shaped and changed my interaction with others. It has changed the value system I hold within my life. Not necessarily in terms of what is important to me, but the ordering of those significant things. I have come to value my relationships with others far more than my personal achievements for example. In this way faith is shaping my daily reality. To me, this is a life of faith rather than any particular declaration or assertion of beliefs. The reason I continue to believe is that it continues to provide the best framework for my experience, and through practising my faith, my being has been enriched beyond anything I imagined possible. In this way it has a profound impact on my life on a daily basis. What happens in the hereafter will take care of itself.

What is faith to you and how does it impact your life?