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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Temptation: All Too Real

From time to time, I find myself returning to Thomas Merton, famous Catholic monk of last century.  In some ways I have no idea why he appeals to me so much.  At most levels, we have very little in common.  He grew up in very global ways; I was about as provincial as it gets.  He had a knack for taking risks; in most ways I think I am fairly risk-averse.  He went from communism to atheism to Catholicism to a strict monastic calling.  I have been a Quaker all my life.  And yet, he speaks deeply to me.

Part of Merton’s appeal to me is his willingness to probe his interiority, cull the superficial from the depth, and be open to growth in the Spirit…wherever that took him.  Ironically, it took this urbane, worldly guy to a strict monastery in the boonies of Kentucky.  Part of him always was looking for an escape to “better things.”  He struggled with himself and that struggle was simultaneously a struggle with God.  And he did this in print.  So fortunately, that survives after his untimely accidental death in 1968.

I like reading his journals.  In a journal entry from January 10, 1960 Merton talks about temptation.  It is well to remember that he had been in those Kentucky boondocks since 1941.  He has become famous.  He has been looking for a way out for a decade or so.  But he was never allowed to leave… to his credit he did not.  That inspires me.

But he did deal with temptation.  Let’s listen to his words.  “The reality of temptation in monastic life---and in my life!”  I smile at that.  It is easy for me to think, “Ah, the monastery…there would never be temptations there…it would be much easier to be spiritual.”  Baloney, he would say!

And then, here is Merton at his best.  “It is clear that I have been severely tempted for a long time and have not avoided sin---the obscure, easily justified sins of self---will, pride, disobedience, infidelity to duty and obligation, lack of faith.”  “Wow,” I think.  “That really nails me, too!”

Those are not sins like murder and the other biggies.  I am safe on those.  But I must also admit, like Merton, that I am severely tempted and have not avoided sin.  Now since I think I am entirely normal, I usually do not think about being “severely tempted.”  More likely, I would say, “Oh yeah, from time to time I am tempted…a little bit, anyway.”  The implication is, “Oh, it was nothing and I easily avoided it.”  Then I am free to proceed in my daily sainthood!  But no, Merton makes it hard to go this route.

I know exactly what he means by those “sins of self.”  They are the will.  I can pray, “thy will be done.”  But more often, if I am honest, it is “my will be done.”  And pride…I know that one.  And I also know others are tempted by the exact opposite sin: seeing themselves as worthless.  As a child of God, no one is worthless.

Disobedience and infidelity to duty are two sins I am quite good at doing.  Sometimes, we can be so good at our sins, they never look like sin!  If I am clever (and often I am), my disobedience looks perfectly ok.  I know I can fool people; I should never presume I have fooled God.

Merton helps me see that I will be tempted and I will sin.  That seems to be a given.  But he hung in there.  He stayed in the monastery; he stayed in the process; he stayed in the game of life till the end.  That is what I want to do.

“Lead us not into temptation.”  But I probably will be.  And no doubt, sin I will.  And when that happens, may God be gracious and I be sorry.  And then, get on with life…a saintly life which, for sure, will go through temptation and sin.

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