John Wu Jr.
The human frailties that Merton sees in himself reflect our ordinary human condition, which we share by virtue of our common humanity. In either creation or evolution, we belong somewhere between the beasts of the earth and angelic beings. Without God’s love and mercy our lives would essentially remain dark and confused. Though not depraved morally—for, given our natural lights and gifts, we could very likely live fruitfully—we are, nonetheless, frail creatures prone toward sinfulness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “The Gospel is the revelation of Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners…To receive this mercy, we must admit our faults.” It then quotes St. Augustine: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…If we confess our sins, (God) is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (see #1846 and #1847)
Despite not living in Paradise, we humans are consoled by the fact that what remains unchanged in us is a strong desire for the good. Even though perfect and unerring goodness is no longer part of our natural endowment, we are, in fact, far more fortunate than our first parents in that we are guided by Christ, the God Incarnate. Sinful creature that we are, the love and mercy of the Trinitarian God remains ever present to help us overcome human weakness. While we continue to grovel in our sinful state, we also live in the perpetual hope of a salvation that Christ has won for us. Besides love, there is nothing more transparent in the Gospels than hope; yet no mystery is more inexplicable than the loving relationship from which eternal hope springs.
Critics of Merton, familiar only with his early works, unfairly accuse him of having lost his childlike qualities. They point to his ever-growing secular interests that, to them, indicate signs of impiety. This prayer was written in the last decade of his life when we find him involved—even from the monastery—not only in the intense racial, social and political concerns of the day but also in monastic reforms and ecumenical projects, the latter an important part of Vatican II. Many later prayers, in fact, are full of deep devotional content. Ironically, yet not really surprisingly, the more contact he had with the world, the more he knew where his focus lay: “to be holy, to be a man of God,” above everything else.
The monk always was fully cognizant of his own limits and the necessity of re-connecting himself to the Creator whenever he found himself either drifting from his vocation or being overly swayed by earthly concerns. He refused to take his fame seriously, always asking for God’s mercy, as he does here: “Have mercy on my darkness…I do not ask for anything but such mercy, always, in everything, mercy.” Then, we find him acknowledging his own shallowness: “My life here at Gethsemani—a little solidity and very much ashes./ Almost everything is ashes. What I have prized most is ashes. What I have attended to least is, perhaps, a little solid.”
Merton juxtaposes solidity with ashes. What did he mean by “solidity”?
Everything related to “solidity” is that which “make(s) me want again to be holy, to be a man of God even though in desperateness and confusion.” These words punctuate the state of his emotions with which this prayer begins. Without our ever having been desperate and confused, we might never come to know what Merton means by “ashes”. There are many biblical paradigms for this, but the principle one that comes to mind is Saint Peter who, tested severely during Our Lord’s Passion, seems to lose everything—for he has denied Christ three times—but whose deep faith and repentance later restores him to wholeness. “Solidity” means a life lived according to the dictates of saintliness implanted in us at birth, at our creation.
Then what about “ashes”? Despite his being a contemplative, Merton shows us a realistic way with which to face our everyday struggles. He refuses to be deceived or sidetracked by the public image brought on through his success as a writer, or the way his fellow monks regard him in the monastic community. These are nothing but “ashes”. He understands there is little difference between himself and others; without exception, we are all commanded to love God and neighbors. He seems to say no earthly success, great or small, can help us overcome that mendacious ego that so proudly parades as the true self. Our true self that has always been in the mind of God is the very self that Our Creator wants for His very own, the self created and sustained since the beginning of time by a love that no earthly being can fathom, the sacred self that craves for nothing except perfect goodness.