¡§Have mercy on my darkness, my weakness, my confusion. Have mercy on my infidelity, my cowardice, my turning about in circles, my wandering, my evasions.¡§I do not ask anything but such mercy, always, in everything, mercy. My life here in Gethsemani¡Xa little solidity and very much ashes.¡§Almost everything is ashes. What I have prized most is ashes. What I have attended t least is, perhaps, a little solid.¡§Lord have mercy. Guide me, make me want again to be holy, to be a man of God even though in desperateness and confusion. (Dialogues with Silence, p. 121)
John Wu, Jr.
On a wet, rainy summer night in August 1960, prior to writing this prayer, Merton tells us in his Journal there was ¡§much lightning and thunder,¡¨ with ¡§lightning striking close to the monastery.¡¨ The monk¡¦s deep spirituality was counterbalanced by his profound love of nature, which, in his writings, he often regarded as sacred ciphers or even epiphanies of God¡¦s presence. It is not that this made him a poet of nature; rather, he became a writer and person of great spiritual and poetic sensitivities who saw in nature earthly pointers to its divine source.
Merton wrote lovingly of the Kentucky knobs and knolls, trees and sunlight, birds and little animals that scurried about the monastic grounds. Later, he was allowed to move down the road from the monastery into a little cinder block home, which he called his hermitage. The modest structure was originally intended for interfaith meetings and its natural setting in the woods brought him ever closer to God¡¦s creation. He tells us, however, that he did not much like snakes, slithering creatures that paid him unwelcome visits to the woodshed by the side of his home.
One can well imagine the kind of night this was, an evening summer storm with lightning breaking into the solid darkness, electric bolts cutting the sky in half followed by angry thunder that broke the deep silence of the night. Rather similar to what my wife, Terry, and I too experience on stormy summer nights in Pingdengli, a farming community some 350 meters above sea level on the eastern end of Yangming Mountain. And with each lightning and thunder, there is the ever-deepening darkness and profound calm that steal into the night. It is the kind of light-giving darkness and stillness so reflective of the prayerful and contemplative community life which Merton and the monks believed sustained their every breath; it is our Creator reminding us of the Light that only He could bring forth from the darkness that once enveloped His universe and that continues to mark those lives that choose to remain unmoved by both nature and grace.
To contemplatives, darkness and silence have always been God¡¦s natural abode from which His Presence is most deeply-felt and heard. This is ironic to lay folks who crave for the glitter of the world (¡§ashes¡¨ in the prayer) and the dense, senseless noise of crowds. Hence, the ¡§darkness¡¨ that Merton speaks of is surely not, say, the darkness of a John of the Cross when he speaks of the Dark Night of the Soul. It is, rather, the darkness of the glittering world that parades as false light, symbolized by the lightning that passes our way in a flash, is suspended in the sky for an instant, then just as quickly re-enters into that darkness from whence it comes.
Yet, without the thunderbolt and its blinding light, we could hardly comprehend just how unfathomably deep the Night truly is and how our souls are so intimately connected to that Night, which is the abode of the Lord; at the same time, without the thunderous, ear-popping clap that follows each lightning, we might never enter into the recesses of Silence, where our heavenly Father most lovingly and tenderly speaks to our restless hearts, each longing for the Sacred Heart. From nature, we learn all the subtleties of existence and, with God¡¦s help, we learn of the beauty of nature¡¦s economy, of how its contrasting elements go so well hand in hand by leading us ever deeper into the very heart of the Trinity. As St. Augustine so wisely tells us, we shall be restless until our hearts rest in God, for we were made, above all else, to give pleasure to God.
What Merton mentions at the beginning of his prayer¡Xdarkness, weakness, confusion, infidelity, cowardice, the turning about in circles, wandering, evasions¡Xare human frailties that, perhaps, will always remain with us as heavy baggage to stifle our moral and spiritual progress. The greatness of being a Christian is the reality of God¡¦s mercy in His inability not to love. Mercy teaches us the salient lesson that God cannot not love. God may seem to withhold His love from us, but even this withholding is His way of showing His love. The deep mystery is that, despite all my failings, God has chosen me for His divine purpose. To paraphrase Psalm 8: ¡§Who am I that You should remember me? You crown me with glory and honor and give me the works of Your hands.¡¨ Hence, all our frailties, even the ¡§ashes¡¨ that keep us earthbound, are meant to make us holy. (July 1, 2007)
(to be continued in next issue: 543)