Merton Prayer 1

¡§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 am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe 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 I will 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.¡¨ (from Thoughts in Solitude)

Commentary

John Wu, Jr.

Possibly the most popular of Thomas Merton's prayers, these precious words express our basic human fear that what we are doing may not be what God wants us to do. One could meditate on each line many times and then, beginning anew, feel as though we were seeing the words for the first time. The words link our troubled hearts to Christ.

¡§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.¡¨ The prayer begins with the admission that we are lost. Though loving us, God seems to have left us adrift. These words have the feel of a contemporary Psalm. Because of my faith in God, I know there is a road for me, but with its countless twists and turns, my life confuses me and the path I walk is daunting and difficult. If I cannot even see the next turn, how can I see the end of my journey?

The next line, ¡§Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so,¡¨ is a daring confession for some of us who are full of knowledge and of ourselves. Spiritually, however, it is an important breakthrough. With our dim eyes, it is difficult to see God's plan for us and to follow His Will; especially in this age of narcissism, it is not easy to think and act authentically. As a Christian, we might say, Happy is the person whose self no longer stands in the way of what one does and says, for such a person has learned to abide by God's Will. No greater joy is there than to be jerked aware we are doing God's bidding, though haltingly and imperfectly.

Nowhere in Merton's writings does he encourage us to ¡§seek the self.¡¨ To him, alienation results from our obsession in trying to know the self as an object, whereby we make ourselves and others into foolish idols to be adored. It is here that modern psychology and Merton's idea of spirituality come into conflict. The object of the former is to establish a so-called healthy self; to Merton, the part we play in cultivating both a healthy psychology and spiritual life is to forget the self altogether. This suggestion may surprise us. He thinks if we are always pursuing the self, in time we make it more and more difficult to see God's presence in us. For we unknowingly shut God off from our lives. He is there but we don't see Him. Merton reminds us it is not we, but God, who gives us our true identity. We may have captured the self as an object to be admired but, in doing so we imprison ourselves by mistaking an inauthentic self for the true self marked indelibly by the sign of God. Ironically, it would be better not to know such a self than to confuse it for the genuine self. For the true self is the secret that God shares with us, that part of God in us that makes us wholly unique.

¡§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. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.¡¨ By meditating on the words, ¡§the desire to please You,¡¨ we enter into the deeply interpersonal, into the intimacy of a parent-child relationship. The ¡§You,¡¨ however, is not our parents but our Heavenly Father.

One can easily imagine such words coming from the heart of a filial child. But because our parents are neither divine nor all-knowing¡Xas they possess the same human frailties we do¡Xit is quite possible that our desire to please actually do not please them. How often have we been disappointed when, in our effort to please, we are rebuffed and hurt through some small misunderstanding. We should not completely blame our parents for this since their love and understanding are imperfect. God, on the other hand, understands and loves us with a perfect Love. He reads our hearts with a mercy that no human person has. It would be unreasonable to expect our parents to possess wisdom found only in God.

Since God is Love and sees clearly our desire to please¡Xthough we will always fall short of our goal to fulfill this desire¡Xwe do in fact please Him in a way that we cannot understand. To me, grace is God's way of making up for our shortcomings, and faith is believing that He, indeed, is able to do so.

The last two lines are a near-perfect reflection of the 4th verse of the Psalm of the Good Shepherd. Without awareness of God's presence, we are indeed alone; with Him, even the perils of life become the very steppingstones to Paradise. For each step taken in faith will gradually help carry us Home.