Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1956, 1958, 1982.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. Not long ago, I blogged about a biography about him, Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude is from notes that Merton jotted down in 1953 and 1954, when he had “special opportunities for solitude and meditation” (page 11).
I cannot pretend to have understood everything in this book, even though its prose was not particularly difficult or complicated. Actually, the prose was pretty simple. I just did not always know what Thomas Merton was talking about. That’s how it is with some books: I have to go through certain experiences or be in a certain place or frame of mind to understand what they are saying.
Still, there was plenty in the book that ministered to me. Merton talked about how we can come to God in our poverty and our flaws, and how we can use our flaws in positive ways. That is how I try to approach life, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing: to use my flaws as a reason and an opportunity to draw closer to God. I am not talking about sinning boldly, doing evil that good may come (Romans 3:8), or sinning that grace may abound (Romans 6:1), for sin is destructive and hurtful. What I am saying is that I am a human being, not an angel. I have human needs for acceptance and validation, and I struggle with resentment and anger. Because I am extremely introverted and struggle to practice social skills, I can easily fall into the trap of feeling that I have nothing to contribute, and that there is nothing about myself that can attract people to me. Rather than continually beating up on myself for this, I can use my flaws and my poverty as an opportunity to draw nearer to God. I can come to God empty and needy, and walk away full. Or, better yet, I can come to God empty and needy, and let God stay with me continually.
Merton talks a lot about not deserving certain things—-that, even if we do not deserve love on account of anything that is in ourselves, we should still ask to be loved. Merton emphasizes the importance of gratitude, and he contrasts that with a feeling of entitlement. He may have a point. His point can be abused, as it is when some evangelicals say that God is doing us a huge favor by letting us breathe rather than snuffing us out for our sin: if we’re going to walk around with a conception of God in our minds, why focus on that, of all things? Moreover, I would not count on always receiving unconditional, undeserved love in this world. Still, I would say that everyone deserves love simply for being, and that we should appreciate our blessings rather than taking them for granted.
Merton also talked about the discipline of focusing on God in meditation, how God shows up when God wants rather than when we want, the importance of being open to what God says rather than what we want to hear, and the edification that comes when one approaches Scripture, not to be intellectually stimulated or entertained, but to find life.
How do I do on these things? Well, on focusing on God in meditation, I have done all right on that lately. I read a passage of the Book of Jubilees, comment on it, then pray for people on my church’s prayer list, which I think is focusing on God because I am asking God to manifest his goodness in people’s lives, and that cultivates within me an appreciation for God’s goodness. A lot of times, though, I do talk with God about what is going on in my life or what I watched on TV or read, and some of what I talk about may not fit into Merton’s style of disciplined prayer. It’s still what I do, though.
On God showing up when God wants, I thought about how I would not do well as a desert monk. Yeah, I would go out there feeling empty and hoping that God would show up and give me some profound revelation, while filling me up with love, joy, and peace. But I can picture myself easily becoming bored and drawing on my own limited thoughts and reservoirs, and probably even degenerating into stinking thinking—-resentment about the past and present, and fear about the future. I like my diversions—-books, TV—-so that I can fill my mind with new things. Still, I can appreciate times of quiet and solitude—-of taking a breather and simply resting, of not being complicated but being simple, or simply being. Merton talks some about this, but he seemed to be contrasting it with the sort of solitude that he is talking about. He is talking about a solitude that is permanent. And, in this case, I doubt that he is suggesting that he should never be with people, but rather that he can carry solitude wherever he goes: he can be continually centered, unperturbed, and at rest.
On being open to what God says rather than what I want to hear, I am not that good at that, to tell you the truth. The reason is that I am afraid of what God will tell me, and that I will then feel as if I have to obey God to stay on his good side. Will God tell me to be more of a people person, or to try to reconcile with some jerk whom I’d rather not interact with? Will God make me feel as if I cannot have peace with God unless I obey? And will the “voice” that I hear from God be my own negative repertoire and understanding of who God is, based on what I have heard and Scriptures I have read, rather than anything constructive, encouraging, and edifying? Still, I sense that I should be open to outside counsel, for my own repertoire is not always helpful. I can tell myself to be at peace, when that “peace” is really apathy, and I should be challenging myself. I can “challenge” myself in a manner that is abusive or that takes away my hope.
On reading the Scripture, I admit that I do so primarily for intellectual stimulation, but that does overlap with a desire to be spiritually edified. On arriving at the point where I depend on Scripture and it becomes life for my soul, that does appeal to me, and I have read Christian authors who have offered suggestions on how to do that. I have not been ready to take that plunge, though. I do not want to be like a lot of evangelicals in how they approach Scripture: suspending their critical faculties, reading into the biblical text their own beliefs and concerns rather than honestly grappling with what it says, especially when it does not mesh with their beliefs on what the Bible is and should be. I think, though, that, more often at least, I should approach Scripture from a standpoint of quiet and openness, rather than just running off my mouth interpreting it and talking God’s ear off.