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Why Am I Here?

This is a challenging question. But it is not helpful until we have a context for the question. In other words, where is “here?” Unless we have that context, we cannot really answer the question, “why am I here?” And if we do not have a context for the question, I am confident we will provide one.

My focus on the question came with some reading in one of Thomas Merton’s Journals. I am teaching a seminar on Merton’s spirituality the next few months, so I again am immersing myself in the writings of this twentieth century monk. Merton died tragically in Thailand in 1968 when he returned to his hotel room after speaking to a gathering of Roman Catholic monks and Buddhist monks. Throughout the 1960s Merton had become significantly involved in the interfaith dialogue that characterize that age. It is amazing how much this monk who lived in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky with a vow of silence was saying to the entire world!

Merton’s life is so fascinating because he engaged his search for meaning with such gusto. His life had various phases too numerous here to mention. Oddly, a major part of the pilgrimage was from atheism to conversion to Roman Catholicism and, amazingly, entry into a Trappist monastery---one of the more severe monastic options. But Merton always had questions. In his journals and other writings he openly fiddles with these questions about meaning and purpose.

In just such an entry on November 15, 1957 (some thirteen years after joining the monastery) Merton is pondering his vocation. It is appropriate to suggest that Merton’s vocation---his “calling”---was not necessarily to the monastery so much as it was a calling to give his whole self to God. The monastery was the best place for that to unfold.

Merton says, I am also “placed in a permanent position. I am glad, I am truly happy, I am really grateful to God…and yet it raises again the unanswerable question: ‘What on earth am I doing here?’” This is vintage Merton. I can almost hear him articulate that…and I never met the man. “What on earth am I doing here?”

In the first instance, his “here” was the monastery. What on earth am I doing in this monastery! So “here” can refer to a particular place. What on earth am I doing in Cleveland, Ohio! Lord only knows. This is my particular place. But until we are dead, we have to be in some particular place.

“Here” also can refer to some particular kind of situation---maybe predicament or opportunity. Sometimes things happen---good and bad---and we cannot believe we are “here.” Most of our situations are fairly normal, routine, and they come and go without much thought. However, all such situations offer little, or no, opportunity to seek meaning and purpose.

I am convinced one of the key reasons Merton landed in a Trappist monastery was to be in situations which heightened his opportunities to seek meaning and find purpose. It was intentionality that the situation offered. Routinely in his monastery, he would be challenged with that question: “what on earth am I doing here?” “Here” was not so much Kentucky as it was “here” in my life…in this place at this time.

Instead of ducking the question, Merton dove headfirst into it. I want to do the same. It does not matter that I am in Cleveland, Ohio, or Cleveland, England. If I duck the opportunity to make sense of my life, I have become tragic. It will come to a sad ending.

I want to ask this question daily: what on earth am I doing here? And with God’s grace, may my answer come. That will be comedy…a happy ending.

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