Merton Prayer 7

¡§Thy Word is Jesus and I cry the name of Thy son and live in the love of His heart and believe, if He wills, that He will bring me the answer to my only prayer: that I may renounce everything and belong entirely to the Lord.

¡§I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me.¡¨ (Dialogues with Silence, 11, 19)


John Wu, Jr.

Does renunciation as Merton uses the word mean a rejection of life? Or, does it mean something altogether different? Perhaps he is reflecting on his life as a monk and the personal dissatisfaction with the way he has lived that life. And why must we pray in order to ¡§renounce everything¡¨ when it seems all one needs do is to apply our will to what we wish to renounce? Isn¡¦t it as easy as that? Besides, as laypersons not attached to any religious order¡Xcertainly not committed to any strict cloistered order such as the Carmelites or the Trappists, The latter of which Merton was a member¡Xneed we be concerned over this strange, seemingly outdated notion of renunciation? Isn¡¦t renunciation something leftover from the Middle Ages? Besides, unlike some religious, we have never taken the vow of poverty. As Christian laypersons living ¡§in the world¡¨ does renunciation in any way apply to us?

Merton thought so, and assuredly not because he envied our riches or material life. Though he wrote much about monasticism, we do not see in his writings two distinct sets of Christian principles, one for the religious and another for laypersons. Nor does Jesus say the religious should take after Mary and we after Martha. Each of us is given the command to live the Good News. We are given the Beatitudes and all the parables, and there are no suggestions that one way of life is holier or superior to another. There is only the message of following Christ.

Through the many centuries there have been saints from every walk of life, from lawyers to lovers of nature to those who lived in voluntary poverty, from mystics to cloistered nuns to people of practical affairs, even kings who followed their Redeemer by carrying out their kingly duties in a virtuous way. One wonders, from such diverse groups, what is the common denominator? How did they arrive from such different roads to embrace Christ? It seems the one thing they shared was not hatred for the world but a loss of taste for the worldly, not only for the material but for things in life that hinder greater intimacy with our Savior, and through that intimacy, to love God and our neighbors ever deeper.

Or, we can say saints are people who either through grace or some startling experience¡Xthe case of St. Paul is legion¡Xcome to see the harm that obstacles have in keeping us away from that holy bliss of living the Good News. It is hard to imagine living the Word of God authentically without being guided by Holy Scripture helping us avoid harmful impediments along our path. And let us hope what we renounce, though at first quite painful and not making the best sense, lead gradually to joy rather than glumness, and that, as Jesus says, unlike the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes we will try ¡§not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.¡¨

Christ, body and soul, is the fulfillment of the Word made Flesh, of word and act harmonized into a unity, a unity so perfect that one cannot speak of the one without implying the other. That is the nature of divine love. It reminds us of the famous ideal¡X¡§Knowledge and action as one¡¨¡Xas promulgated by the great Chinese Ming philosopher Wang Yang-ming. Christ perfectly fulfills this philosophical ideal and, because He is God, He raises it to the divine level: ¡§The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.¡¨ And because He is God Incarnate when we ¡§live in the love of (Christ¡¦s) heart,¡¨ He brings us to Himself and achieves for us a degree of renunciation that we are hardly able to conceive, not to mention attain.

By renunciation Merton is certainly not rejecting life nor, for that matter, material life either. In fact, no greater affirmation and glorification of human life could we possibly imagine than the extraordinarily fateful decision of God in becoming Man. And Merton follows the example of the kenotic Christ; he resolves to empty himself completely of his willful self in order to ¡§belong entirely to the Lord,¡¨ just as Jesus understood the necessity of his own emptying of divinity and absolute obedience to God the Father in order to show us the way to redemption.

This prayer pleads for union with Our Maker. It expresses the simple yet holy insight that spiritual life depends on the blending of human effort with divine grace. It also suggests that human life cannot reach fulfillment without renunciation. For what is not renounced might very well result in the distance between God and ourselves. Merton seems to say that when the gap is bridged (¡§I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me¡¨), it is then that contemplative life is possible. For we have become so poor and empty that God finds a place in us. And, our hearts have returned to that very home where Our Creator had initially traipse the Garden with us.

Those not knowing God insist He plays us like a toy, an unwilling marionette. Yet who among us touched by divine intimacy would not understand the Redeemer¡¦s delight in playing with us? Such moments make us thrill to the sublime knowledge that we no longer belong to ourselves, that we are finally Home.