Merton Prayer 16 (Part 1)

ˇ§What can I say about the emptiness and freedom into whose door I entered for that half-minute, which was enough for a lifetime, because it was a new life altogether? There is nothing with which to compare it. I could call it nothingness, but it is an infinitely fruitful freedom, to lack all things and to lack my self in the fresh air of that happiness that seems to be above all modes of being. Donˇ¦t let me build any more walls around it, or I will shut myself out.

ˇ§It seems to me that I shall never desire anything but this pure love of You which is You loving Yourself, not only in my soul, but in all my faculties so that they are empty and lost and finished and done with and nothing is left but liberty.ˇ¨ (Entering the Silence, 127; Dialogues with Silence, 47, 49)


John Wu Jr.

What strikes me deepest about these words is its matter-of-factness, with no overt intensity of feeling. Mertonˇ¦s understatement characterizes much of his spiritual writings. The monk has just experienced something quite out of the ordinary that lasts only for a very short time yet, ˇ§enough for a lifetime.ˇ¨ In a Journal entry dated October 25, 1947, the then young monk writes, ˇ§after Communion for about thirty seconds, I suddenly knew what St. Bernard talks about and St. John of the Cross talks about when they say ˇĄPure Love.ˇ¦ˇ¨ His reading of these great mystics serves as the backdrop for what he tries to convey in this prayer when he proclaims his vocation as a journey into ˇ§a new life altogether,ˇ¨ when he leaves the worn-out Adam behind him. It is an experience in which ˇ§there is nothing with which to compare.ˇ¨

Since it is entirely novel, Merton is only able to describe it as ˇ§emptinessˇ¨ and ˇ§nothingnessˇ¨. These two words are far more than what they can positively convey; at the same time, they are a humble way of confessing there are no words to express this ˇ§infinitely fruitful freedomˇ¨ and ˇ§happiness that seems to be above all modes of being.ˇ¨ Merton has just had an experience of a transcendent order that he understands as normative: the extraordinary suddenly turns ordinary. What is interesting is that this wholly newˇXyet millennialˇXfreedom and happiness ˇ§lack all things andˇKlack my self.ˇ¨ This is significant for it goes against the grain of how we normally live our lives until, most unexpectedly, we meet up with those precious seconds whenˇXlike St. Paul on his way to DamascusˇXwe are struck by some piercing light, made blind and thrown from the horse. Unprepared, we are suddenly jerked from our half-awake, half-asleep consciousness into a wholly new dimension of life that begins to color everything around.

The words, ˇ§to lack all things and to lack my self,ˇ¨ is not a lamentation nor a sad refrain coming from the mouth of one living in destitute; it is a great sigh of relief when some luminosity informs the soul, enlightening it with the knowledge that our many possessions, obsessions with self, and personal desires and passions lose their appeal become an impediment to freedom. Christ the Physician has come to aid our troubled souls and the only remedy to cure our illness is to shock us into belief.

Why does Merton say that what he has tasted ˇ§is a new life altogether,ˇ¨ and what does he mean by ˇ§the fresh air of happinessˇ¨? ˇ§New lifeˇ¨ and ˇ§fresh airˇ¨ are in contrast to ˇ§all thingsˇ¨ and ˇ§the selfˇ¨. The former bespeak of everything that Christ the Savior, the New Man, promises us in the GospelsˇXeverlasting life, the eternal waters of life, all of Godˇ¦s gifts; the latter represent the life of the old Adam that is full of willfulness, of human arrogance, of the finite world that tricks us into believing that what is corruptible can pass for the incorruptible. Because of sin that obscure truth, we resist even the most genuineˇXthe love and sacrifice of Christ. We crave for things that, even before we can enjoy them, are gone and forgotten overnight.

ˇ§Donˇ¦t let me build any more walls around it, or I will shut myself out.ˇ¨ The ˇ§wallsˇ¨ we build represent all things that keep Godˇ¦s love and our neighborˇ¦s genuine love and affection armˇ¦s length from ourselves. Sometimes, while even realizing the futility of that false love whose source is not in God, we pursue it nonetheless. Such walls keep us from savoring the great treasures of life, from our daily breadˇXthe manna of Heaven, or, is it not, God Himself?ˇXgiven to us so abundantly by the Divine Heart.. We donˇ¦t see ˇ§our daily breadˇ¨ because we have either never learned or have forgotten to distinguish divine gifts from human shackles. We donˇ¦t see their difference because our faculties are so clogged with meaningless thoughts and feelings that there is hardly any room for ˇ§the one thing necessary,ˇ¨ that is, ˇ§Godˇ¦s pure loveˇ¨ˇXfree from dross and comes in a whisper. Indeed, with the world too much with us, our souls are not at liberty to follow Godˇ¦s will.

Emptiness and freedom are not acquired through great effort but are by-products of that ˇ§new lifeˇ¨ when we abandon the old life of self-made walls and blind alleys. And freedom is fruitful when, lacking all things and even the self, they are no longer impediments in living the new life of Godˇ¦s freedom. Merton once wrote: ˇ§I will travel to You, Lord, through a thousand blind alleys. /You want to bring me to You through stone walls.ˇ¨ There are, after all, walls and stone walls. The walls we build imprison us, the stone walls are erected by God. We bang our heads against them until his Mercy finally brings them down and, even while on earth, He blesses us by letting us share in His Kingdom. Our walls, on the other hand, lead us nowhere fast.