Questions and Answers
Thomas Merton has been read widely by spiritual seekers across the world for over 60 years. He was born in France, raised in the United States, and became a Catholic priest before entering a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky in 1941. Before he died an untimely death in 1968, he was a prolific writer on the spiritual life.
Merton believed the spiritual life is, essentially, seeking the answers to four basic questions. We all ask them – whether or not we are aware that we are doing so: 1) Who am I?; 2) Who is God?; 3) Why am I here?; and 4) What am I to do with my life? The last two are more directly related, though the answer to any one of the four will directly affect – and be affected by – how we answer the other three.
But it is these last ones - #s 3 and 4 – that can occupy so much of our attention. We want to do the right thing. We want to make choices that are pleasing to God. We want to live our lives in a way that fulfills our calling as a person of God. But how do we know we are doing that? In late Spring of this year, we spent five weeks on a sermon series about being “stuck.” Sometimes it feels that way with the big questions in life. We ask “What am I to do in this situation,” but we feel stuck because the answer isn’t forthcoming. To this, Merton gave this wisdom:
Don’t search for answers which could be given to you now. Rather, live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, even without noticing it, live your way into the answer.
When I read this recently in some of his writings on contemplation, it struck me how this was another way – albeit it very poetic – of saying “God’s time isn’t our time.” We might hear – in these words – the value of being patient. Yet his words are about even more than that. It is okay not having all the answers we wish we had right now. What is important is that we never stop asking the question in the first place. For example, if, every day, I ask the question, “God, what will you have me do with my life,” I may never get, on any single day, the answer to that question as clear as a clap of thunder ringing from the sky. Over time, however, clarity will emerge, but only if I continue to ask the question day after day. The worst thing to do is to stop asking the question at all. For then I will not have a chance of receiving whatever it is God is revealing to me that might lead me toward the very answer I seek.
The skeptic among us might say, “Sure, it’s easy for Merton to say things like ‘Just slow down and let God act on God’s time,’ or ‘Just be patient and answers will emerge.’ He was a monk after all. He didn’t live in the ‘real world’ where there are real-time pressures, demands and deadlines.” While such thoughts could be merited, I’m reminded of something a Jesuit priest told me on a retreat I took several years ago. Monks, he said, have taken it upon themselves to pray for us and to pray for the world. This is their gift to us. Free from the very pressures and demands and deadlines among which we live, they can devote themselves to this prayerful life. In thinking of Merton’s words today, we might take that a step further. The gift that monks like Merton give to the world is to call us above the constraints within which we live our lives and to remind us what matters most as God’s people. So that... when we return to the hectic nature of that life we momentarily transcended, we bring more of what matters most with us. And that which we have brought, influences more of how we live within it. Something to ponder this week.
Blessings – Michael