Occasionally in my reading, I run into a sentence or even a phrase that is arresting. It can be a stunner or a surprise or something that makes me laugh out loud. It is arresting because it makes me stop. Usually when I am reading, I just push on. One sentence leads to another. It is a bit like life…one day leads to the next. But occasionally, there is an arrest.
It happened yesterday as I was reading further in the Thomas Merton journals. No doubt, by now you know that Cistercian monk who died in 1968 is one of my favorites. He was a prolific writer. That is not too surprising because there are other prolific writers. I think of James Michener or some of the science fiction writers whom I do not know. But Merton is a bit surprising when you are aware of his context.
Every other year I take some students to Kentucky where we spend a weekend at the monastery, Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk from 1941 until his death. The students and I try to fit into the monastic schedule which means beginning with worship at 3:15am and doing it another six times during the day. And when you think about Merton also having to do physical work, teach the novices (beginning monks), etc., you wonder how he had time to write so much.
The particular place I am reading in his journal is now 1963. He has now become famous and has countless visitors heading to Gethsemani to spend some time with him. That in itself is paradoxical because to be a Cistercian means you basically commit yourself to a life of solitariness and silence! But due to his fame and the abbot’s willingness, Merton was allowed a steady stream of visitors. Two Spanish families came to spend the afternoon one spring day.
Merton enjoyed them. Since he had spent so much time as a youth in Europe, he always felt “European.” These Spanish folks reinforced that. It is his reflection after they left that I found interesting. And then I hit the sentence that arrested me.
Merton muses, “How good God has made all things. And yet they are no happier than I, I am no happier than they, and for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.” (IV:313) I can smile when Merton says God makes all things good. I agree. But of course many good things screw up. Sometimes I am one of them!
The next bit in Merton’s quotation is interesting, but I am not sure how I feel about it. “They are no happier than I, I am no happier than they.” It does seem some people are much happier than others. In fact, I have known some who don’t seem to be able to be happy for any reason! I am going to have to think about this one.
And then I hit the arresting phrase: “for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.” What is this secret of acceptance, I wondered? I am intrigued by the fact that it is a secret. I know what acceptance means. I have accepted and have been accepted. But Merton must be pushing beneath this obvious level.
I can guess he means something deeper than me accepting you. Let me make a guess and use a fancy philosophical word. My guess is he is talking in existential terms. In effect this means he wonders if his mere existence is acceptable on its own…as it is.
Many of us feel acceptance based on more superficial things---like our looks---or based on what we do---please others, etc. But Merton is driving deeper. Is there anyone or anything that accepts us just as we are?
I am sure ultimately his answer is: Of course…God. That is my answer, too. If I can get beyond arrested, I will ponder further this “secret of acceptance.”