I have returned to reading some of Thomas Merton’s journals. As you may know, Merton is one of my favorites. He was a monk at a monastery in the middle of nowhere Kentucky. Oddly enough, he was in a monastic tradition that valued and practiced significant silence. He was a man of few words in the monastery and yet was a man of prolific words in writing!
There are seven big volumes that make up the journals of Merton. I find them fascinating. It is both a pleasure and profound to read the thoughts of this monk as he lives his life in a situation very different than mine. And yet, the themes of his life are amazingly similar to mine. His life was a quest for meaning and purpose. He desired deeply to learn to love. He knew (sometimes only opaquely) that life only finally mattered if God somehow were involved in his life. I share all theses themes.
As I was reading along yesterday, I hit upon a great phrase that stopped me in my tracks. The entry was December 22, 1964. By now Merton is living in his own hermitage nearly a mile away from the monastery. So he has vast amounts of time to himself and his reflections. The context of the passage had to do with God’s will. At that point Merton says that he wants “to learn slowly, patiently, the tempo of such obedience.”
The tempo of obedience…I was arrested by that phrase. It clearly struck a deep chord in me, but I was not sure why or how. It was as if there was a profound truth in that phrase, but I would have been unable in the moment to say how it was true. It was something upon which I needed to ponder. It was like having an onion in my hand. I need to peel back some layers to get at the kernel of truth for my own life.
I am pretty sure the kernel of truth in Merton’s phrase is the notion of “obedience.” It would be easy to suggest that was the key to the life and ministry of Jesus. Perhaps in the deepest way possible, Jesus knew and incarnated the will of God into his life. I suspect the plan is no different for any follower of Jesus. And I also am confident that obedience is not just a Christian thing. I would be sure Jews and Muslims have their own version of obedience.
So the “onion” to be peeled here is the idea that obedience has “tempo.” That is the novel idea for me. Before hitting that phrase, I would have simply understood obedience to be obedience…a kind of straight-lined thing. But when I ponder it, I begin to see that obedience does probably have a tempo. The dictionary defines tempo as the rate of motion or activity. So it makes sense that obedience has various rates of motion. As I reflect on my own life, there are times of more intense obedience.
Obviously, I have not been to the cross, as Jesus did. But we all have our own lesser crosses along life’s way. Those are the places where we can seek God’s will and endeavor to do it. Our own crosses to bear often call for more intense obedient activity. I remember one of those phases in my life back in the 1960s and my involvement in the peace movement as we all struggled with the Vietnam issue.
Of course, there are other phases of life where the tempo of obedience seems fairly easy and constant. It is obedience on cruise control. We may be in a job we know God would have us do. We may be in the spiritual grove and God’s will (and, hence, our obedience) is nothing more than continuing in that groove. Nothing more is needed. No special effort is demanded.
No doubt, the real issue is being able to sense what the tempo of obedience should be and going with it. The trick is to be sensitive to when the tempo begins to change and to alter our obedience to fit the changing tempo. We all will experience changing tempos. Inevitably we all will face a crisis or two. And major changes in our lives probably will change the tempo of obedience.
I like this idea and will need to think more about it.