Conversion: Learning to Live
Every so often I run into a quotation that stops me in my tracks. That happened yesterday when I was finishing one of Thomas Merton’s books. Periodically, I teach a seminar on Merton’s spirituality. I have done this multiple times. I like Merton and I suspect I will get something new every time I teach that seminar. Often I have read the book before, but somehow a particular quotation never hit me like it does the current time through the material.
Merton was a Catholic monk who died tragically in 1968. He wrote a great deal and was ironically very famous even as a silent monk in a monastery in the hills of Kentucky. So even though he could not speak that much in his monastery and would have to get the abbot’s permission even to receive a visitor he “spoke” to millions of people around the globe through his writings. The voice that had chosen the silent path spoke in volumes!
Merton’s story is very familiar to me. After a rather tumultuous youth and an atheistic phase through college years, Merton hit rock bottom in his pointless search for life’s meaning. He began a spiritual quest and that finally landed him in the Roman Catholic Church. He is very clear about his conversion process. But it did not stop there. That process continues to lead him right into the Trapppist monastery 45 minutes from Louisville in those Kentucky knobs. So the highly educated global citizen landed as a monastic hick in the South.
I was reading near the end of what, arguably, is my favorite Merton Book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Published in 1965 near the end of his life, Merton has become a critique of the culture in which he found himself. It was the ‘60s---Vietnam, racial issues, feminist awakening, etc. I hit a paragraph where Merton referenced his conversion and my eyes lite up.
Merton comments, “God was not for me a working hypothesis, to fill in the gaps left open by a scientific world view. Nor was He a God enthroned somewhere in outer space. Nor did I ever feel any particular ‘need’ for superficial religious routines merely to keep myself happy. I would even say that, like most modern men, I have not been much moved by the concept of ‘getting into heaven’ after muddling through this present life.” Those lines of Merton are Merton at his best, in my mind. He is so eloquent and, yet, so matter of fact.
I resonate with Merton’s quip that God was not a working hypothesis for him. God was not some reasonable idea in which Merton chose to believe. Merton bluntly said he did not feel any need to be involved in religious routine. This is funny to me coming from a monk who had been “going to church services” at the monastery seven times a day for nearly a quarter of a century! And I most enjoyed Merton saying that he did not become religious in order to get into heaven!
Merton was not worried about getting into heaven. He was more worried about getting into a real present life. That is what he converted to get. Again listen to Merton’s words. “On the contrary, my conversion to Catholicism began with the realization of the presence of God in this present life, in the world, and in myself, and that my task as a Christian is to live in full and vital awareness of this ground of my being and of the world’s being…When I entered the Church I came seeking God, the living God, and not just ‘the consolation of religion.’”
That’s the key, I thought. Merton converted not to get into heaven, but to get into a real, genuine, and vibrant life in this world and in this present time. That is where he sought God. He sought the living God, as he says. That is a very different God than some reasonable idea of God. I can manipulate ideas of God. I can make that God anything I want God to be.
But the real God---the living God---will be Who that God already is and will be. That God Merton found and that God changed his life forever. That is the God I, too, want to meet and greet. I do that with some trepidation. I don’t want to be called to a monastery in some unimaginable place. Probably, Merton did not intend that either.
I suspect the living God will call me (and anyone else who seeks and finds that living God) into unimaginable places. I am convinced that living God will call you and me into an educational experience. We will learn to live. Let me explain.
To live is not simple. There is a range to living. Imagine the range is something like survival on one hand and thriving on the other hand. Most of us are somewhere in between. In my theology it is God---the living God---who teaches us how to thrive in our present lives. That usually calls for a re-ordering of priorities, re-commitments, and re-newing. This is what conversion means. Only the living God can create thriving women and men who learn to live abundant lives.