Merton Prayer 2

¡§Thou Art Not as I Have Conceived Thee."

¡§Lord, it is nearly midnight and I am waiting for You in the darkness and the great silence. I am sorry for all my sins. Do not let me ask any more than to sit in the darkness and light no lights of my own, and be crowded with no crowds of my own thoughts to fill the emptiness of the night in which I await You."


John Wu, Jr.

In saying ¡§Thou Art Not as I Have Conceived Thee,¡¨ Merton is admitting the obvious: all words or images I could possibly invent to describe God fall far short of what He is. Not only Christians but Taoists and Buddhists would agree that words, exquisite as they may be, are no more than a ¡§finger pointing at the moon.¡¨ Sometimes the more brilliant we are with words, the greater the temptation there is to forge our own path to God rather than following the path He has forged for us since the beginning of time. I sometimes wonder if sin might not, after all, be related to the outright rejection of that path.

Somewhere in the writings of my father, John C. H. Wu, he says matter-of-factly that the whole of the Gospels is a mere footnote to the life of Jesus Christ. I was at first astounded by this assertion; in time, his words made perfect sense to me. For, if Christ indeed is Our Lord and Savior, no verbal formulations could adequately capture either His Humanity or Divinity. Perhaps because we are Christians, and in St. John's Gospel Christ is the Word, we tend to take our own shallow words about Him much too seriously; we would be wiser instead by simply letting the Living Word speak to us the way He wants us to hear Him. Sometimes, it is very necessary just to keep quiet, to let our silence merge with His Silence .

¡§I am waiting for You in the darkness and the great silence:¡¨ the neon-light brightness and the distracting noises that make up the world of human activity obscure God's presence. We cover up His earth¡X His Eden¡Xwith grime and rubbish and our mostly insignificant words and toil. Perhaps, unintentionally, we push God out of our lives; but, in doing so, we leave Him little room to reside in what after all is properly His Home. If we do not in some measure phase out the world's superficial brightness, the Light of Wisdom¡Xparadoxically, the darkness and the great silence through which God speaks¡Xwill forever remain dim in us. In order to recover Your Presence, O Lord, I know that I must once again learn to be still by desisting from useless activities that keep me from embracing You.

The exceptional quality in Thomas Merton lay in the fact that, though an indisputably great writer, he was an even great contemplative. Writing and contemplation are very different vocations; in Merton we can see the two come together in a seamless harmony. Contemplation is a heavenly gift that will always remain a secret. If we had to guess as to the nature of that secret in Merton, perhaps we may at least attribute it to a profound humility that drove the monk to love his Maker ever more deeply. By humility, I do not mean it as a mere posture but that very deep conviction that the more profoundly I enter into the life of the sacred, the less I know.

In Thoughts in Solitude, Merton writes that true humility is ¡§a very real despair; despair of myself, in order that I may hope entirely in You.¡¨ (p. 66) These words shed light on those delightful phrases, ¡§light no more lights on my own¡¨ and ¡§be crowded with no crowds of my own thoughts.¡¨ For is it not true our failure to advance morally and spiritually¡Xeven culturally and intellectually¡Xresults from our willfulness to impose our narrow truth on God's Eden? Is it not true that in becoming Man, God recovered Eden for us? Merton believed we are already living in Eden, though we do not know it for, not seeing it, we do not therefore believe it either. How can we? The root of our troubles, even as Christians, is that, though Christ has already redeemed humankind, few of us live with this conviction.

Elsewhere the monk says, ¡§Our Eden is the heart of Christ.¡¨ If we live in grace, we are indeed living in Paradise, and the world in fact ¡§passes away¡¨ for, though it is there, it no longer dominates our lives and we, in fact, finally perceive its brilliant beauty. Christ's sacrifice on the Cross has brought us back to Eden. We know we are living in an enlightened condition when we see our own ¡§dim lights¡¨ as no brighter than flickering candlelight compared to what emanates radiantly from Christ.

We see the mountain for what it truly is; we see the blade of grass for what it is; and we see ourselves and others as we are, not as mere social beings or cold statistics. And our work takes on a meaning it did not previously have.

When I pretend to have any lights of my own¡Xwhen I believe even for a second that whatever light there is in my life has its source in me, that is, that I am the maker of this light¡Xand thus crowd the spaces within me with my own lights that are reserved only for the workings of grace, I indeed reside in darkness.

I am reminded of a well-known Ch'an story: when a master met a prospective disciple, he glanced all around the student and asked, ¡§Why have you brought along such a large crowd?¡¨ At once the student was said to be enlightened. This gives us a hint of what Christ meant by ¡§the one thing necessary¡¨ during his visit to Mary and Martha. Much of our lives is filled with distractions. Christ, on the other hand, wants us to leave all distractions behind and to regain our simplicity so that we can see directly into His Heart.