Merton Prayer 10 (Part 2)

ˇ§O Lord my God, where have I been sleeping? What have I been doing? How slowly I awaken once again to the barrenness of my life and its confusion. You will forgive me if it is often that wayˇXI do not mean it to be. How little faith there has been in meˇXhow inert has been my hours of solitude, how my time has been wasted. You will forgive me again if next week, too, my time is all wasted and I am once again in confusion. But at least this afternoon, sitting on a boulder among the birches, I thought with compunction of Your love and Your kingdom. And again tonight, by the gatehouse, I thought of the hope You have planted in our hearts and of the Kingdom of Heaven that I have done so little to gain for myself and for others.ˇ¨ (Dialogues with Silence, p. 103)

Commentary

John Wu Jr.

What this prayer teaches me is that the quality of oneˇ¦s spiritual life is not directly related to brilliance of mind. Rather, the key to a sound spiritual life depends largely on the way we respond to Godˇ¦s love. The very fact that He has given us life indicates the existence and profundity of that love. If it were suddenly withdrawn, we and the world are liable to vanish into nothingness. At the same time, though we are loved for no other reason than that he has chosen to love us, yet Our Lord loves each of us in a way uniquely our own. And that is the reason no authentic prayer can be a fixed formula facilely recited.

In his Journals, Merton openly questions the adequacy of his answers to his Saviorˇ¦s call, to which he struggles to keep himself open. In this prayer, he acknowledges the indifference, even dismal, state of his present life. He knows clearly he has failed to be fully awake in responding to Godˇ¦s gifts, that, in fact, spiritual and moral lassitude, so much a part of hisˇXand ourˇXnature, obstructs our connection to our Creator. This is significant, for Merton knows well, though one may appear to be fulfilling the external demands of that challenge, there is yet the danger of some personal blindness (hence, ˇ§sleepingˇ¨) that would hinder that response and make it less than authentic. While it might be true that God makes up the difference in what we lack, the critical role that we need to play is in keeping the channels of communication open by cultivating those faculties that would make dialogue with the divine possible.

Shortly before he wrote this prayer in summer, 1956, Mertonˇ¦s vocation as a contemplative monk was challenged at a conference in Minnesota by a psychiatrist who, using rather harsh words, accused him both as monk and writer of over-stressing the intellect and the cerebral over the affections. The psychiatric doctor suggested strongly that this tendency had become a dangerous impediment to Mertonˇ¦s spiritual life and vocation as priest. For a time, the unexpected attack devastated the monk.

The sensitive Mertonˇ¦s use of such words and expressionsˇXˇ§sleep,ˇ¨ ˇ§barrenness,ˇ¨ ˇ§confusion,ˇ¨ ˇ§little faith,ˇ¨ ˇ§inertness,ˇ¨ etc.ˇXI believe can be seen both as self-indictment and humble admittance that indeed he did incline towards over-intellectualization. He could very easily have responded in a polemical, defensive and arrogant manner, which would have given added fuel to the psychiatristˇ¦s analysis of his weaknesses; instead, the monk responds with this prayer, which to my mind is a fitful acknowledgement of the direction toward which he was heading. Ironically, in showing so openly his spiritual state, he gives authentic indication of the extent of his spiritual maturity. The monk would have been the first to admit that contemplative life, without a healthy dosage of ˇ§affectivity,ˇ¨ would surely bring stagnation to the soul. In a deep sense, the confrontation had been a true blessing for Thomas Merton.

The lessons we may accrue from this prayer can be quite significant. This is particularly true for those who make a living by way of the intellect or who pride themselves in the intellectual life and who may, like Merton, find themselvesˇXbecause they are great intellectualsˇXin danger of not being able to ˇ§awakenˇ¨ the deep feelings that are essential to responding to any kind of loveˇXhuman and divine.

I love the words, ˇ§You will forgive me if next week, too, my time is all wasted and I am once again in confusion,ˇ¨ for they reflect what all of us feel; at the same time, they bring into sharp relief a common brotherhood/sisterhood that we lovingly share. It is a simple confessionˇXtruly, a sigh of great reliefˇXwe make to God of the unveiled inadequacy of our intellect and will and, conversely, of our great craving we have for each other, and even more so, for divine love and understanding. How paradoxical that the ˇ§sickerˇ¨ and weaker we acknowledge we are, the more Our Lord is apt to manifest his love and the healthier we seem to be. He is indeed the one great physician and psychiatrist. But, perhaps, if we wish to be cured, we need first to realize how far we are from real health. It seems those who are psychologically the healthiest are they who believe their need for others is essentially indispensable. How useless the entire Gospels would be if, indeed, we could isolate ourselves and live as if we had the cure for all our ailments.