¡§Tribulation detaches us from the things of nothingness in which we spend ourselves and die. Therefore, tribulation gives us life and we love it, not out of love for death, but out of love for life.
Let me then withdraw all my love for scattered, vain things --the desire to be read and praised as a writer, to be a successful teacher praised by my students, or to live at ease in some beautiful place¡Xand let me place everything in Thee, where it will take root and live, instead of being spent in barrenness."
John Wu, Jr.
A truly rich prayer, these words reflect the depth of Merton's writings and prayerful life. As members of a contemplative religious community, Merton and his fellow monks were immersed daily in the reading, praying, and the living out of the Psalms. This prayer points to the great paradoxical truths endemic to living the rich spiritual life. It is a path forever unique and unpredictable for the object of our adoration is Himself wholly dynamic and whose divine will goes its own way. Yet we are not to idolize such a life. They are simply diverse ways developed and traveled by holy men and women before us in an effort to support our way in becoming ever more conscious of God's presence both in us and the seemingly fractured world we are always trying to understand and reconcile ourselves to.
To me, what is important in one's understanding of life and especially one's way of praying is that we must always allow God to be in the driver's seat, that it is He who is praying through us; it is He who determines the direction of where I am to go. Hence, my willfulness will hinder both my relationship with Him and the created world.
At first glance, this prayer is difficult to grasp. It speaks of how vitally necessary tribulation is in our gradual understanding of life, suggesting that sorrows, rather than something negative and difficult to bear, might in fact serve as a great boon to us. The words, ¡§Let me then withdraw all my love for scattered, vain things,¡¨ evoke the spirit of a contemporary psalm as Merton confesses to the futility of his own worldliness, as an impediment to what God wants for and from him as a monk. These are themes found throughout the original Psalms, the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes.
Much of what we cherish and possess are often of a fleeting nature, and much to our sorrow, our happiness too is short-lived. Happy therefore are those who learn that everything they possess is on loan to them, and that nothing earthly lasts. These include our joys and sorrows, which¡Xalong with our spiritual life¡Xare given to us for our edification and sanctity. The great irony and consolation of earthly things is that they can all be used to bring us back to a share of the divine life, a regaining of Paradise.
Tribulation can deepen our feeling for life and lead us back to our true self. It can also, in time, sensitize us to discern the false from the genuine, and the shallow, temporary feelings of well-being¡Xof which Merton calls ¡§the things of nothingness¡¨ and ¡§scattered, vain things¡¨¡Xfrom authentic joy. Furthermore, sufferings and trials can take us into ever deeper sympathy and connectedness with others in their daily trials. Rather than living in continued separateness, our lives¡Xmore fully expanded and integrated¡Xcan then be directed towards a greater harmony with our neighbors who, though strangers to us, are, as we are told by Jesus, truly our brothers and sisters. Tribulation drives us to helplessness, whereby we throw up our arms and admit our impotence. At such times, though much distressed, we may be most vulnerable to God's grace and intervention. The Bible and the writings of holy men and women are full of such moments.
With the above in mind, Merton's ironic words take on a significance hitherto hidden: ¡§tribulation gives us life and we love it, not out of love for death, but out of love for life.¡¨
Merton's prayer evokes the following words of the Psalter: ¡§People flock to their teeming idols./ Never shall I pour libations to them!/ You will teach me the path of life,/ unbounded joy in your presence¡K¡¨ (Ps. 16:4, 11) The monk reminds us, in an age of runaway technology when we pride ourselves in having overcome superstition, idolatry of every shape and form controls us more than ever. In rejecting the One Living God, we are so eager to fill up our emptiness that, in our quiet desperation, we are inclined to accept any person, idea or thing as an object of worship.
The words ¡§vain¡¨ and ¡§vanity¡¨ should immediately connect us to the striking words that begin Ecclesiastes: ¡§Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!¡¨ There is no way for us to avoid ¡§scattered, vain things,¡¨ and it would be most unnatural to avoid what is ¡§of the earth,¡¨ for everything comes from God. Things of the earth only become problematic and lose their value when we give them a status beyond what they are meant to mean and serve.
In an age when we are senselessly bombarded with information and so much unnecessary merchandise flood the market to keep national (and now, global) economies afloat, we seem once again to have become adoring fans of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Diversions and pleasures so clutter our lives that we find it difficult to determine our real essential needs. Besides the ubiquitous malls, there are also the shopping channels that flood the airwaves. Like Pavlov's dog conditioned to eat whenever a bell is heard, we do not seem able to fight off bargains, convinced that ¡§we need it!¡¨ when in fact most needs are artificially induced.
Most of us live in cities yet, spiritually, we languish in barren deserts of the soul where few things can ¡§take root and live.¡¨ Merton loved and wrote of a different Desert where hermits, having nothing, ¡§were in every way more free¡¨ and conformed only to ¡§the secret, hidden, inscrutable will of God.¡¨ (see The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 6)