To be Free
Once again, I have an opportunity to do a presentation on my old monk friend, Thomas Merton. In some circles I have become known as “the guy who knows Merton.” That is only partly true. I have read quite a bit of Merton’s works and have included him in some of what I teach. For many years I have been attracted to Merton because I find that he was a guy who seriously quested for meaning and purpose in life and found it in God. And for much of his early life, that discovery of God was certainly not expected.
It didn’t matter to me that Merton turned out not only to discover God in his life, but that discovery took him to the hills of Kentucky and joining the fairly strict monastery at Gethsemani. As a Quaker I knew almost nothing about Catholicism and absolutely nothing about monastics and monasteries. In fact, I likely would have told you I had no interest in any of that stuff. Of course, I was young and those were the days right before Vatican II.
Vatican II changed the Catholic Church and some additional years of life inevitably changed me. My college days coincided with the Vietnam era. Life became more serious when faced with the possibility of going half way around the world and having someone shoot at me! I realized I did not know how to think about life and how to make sense out of my own life. The 1960s were tumultuous times and my interior life reflected that turmoil.
I encountered Merton for the first time in that decade of the 1960s. Merton was writing some things against the war and violence. Merton was in league with Martin Luther King in seeing some relationship to the violence that gripped our society’s response to the racial issues that flared in that same decade. If you throw in the emerging feminist movement, one gets a good sense of the context for my becoming a functioning adult in a world that was anything but the world in which I grew up.
So every time I go back to read something in Merton, I find words again that speak to my condition. So many times now, I go back to words that I have read many times. Words don’t have to be novel to remind us of truth and lead us to new truths. That’s why I welcome chances to speak about Merton. It is always an opportunity for me to remember how I was helped into maturity and to some wisdom and be thankful for a chance to offer that help to others.
One of the key moments in Merton’s spiritual pilgrimage was his entry into the monastery in Kentucky. He had visited Gethsemani more than once. And in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes the time of decision-making that spanned his first visit and his decision to ask the monks there to receive him into membership. I cite his words after he walked through the door of the monastery to take his place with the monks.
Merton says that now “I belonged to God, not to myself: and to belong to Him is to be free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it…” I am sure this was not his immediate spark of wisdom as he walked through the monastic portal. Surely, this comes from a little reflection. But the truth is linked to joining the group that God wanted him to be.
Merton’s “yes” to God led to freedom. It is an ironic move. Some of us “in the world” would think that Merton gave up everything that made him free to join a group where he had to be obedient to God and to an abbot. It would seem to many of us that he gave up his freedom. Of course, he did give up his right to do whatever he pleased. He agreed to eat what they placed in front of him, to do whatever job in the monastery the abbot decided he would do and to attend multiple worship services for years to come. That does not seem like freedom to most of us!
Merton knew the ironic truth that ultimately our true freedom lies in God rather than our little selves. To belong to God is ultimately to belong to the only thing worth belonging to. To belong to God is to be free of all earthly worries, anxieties and sorrows. That is such a huge claim many folks would find this literally unbelievable. But it is because we don’t understand the depth of Merton’s claim.
Merton is not saying he has nothing about which to worry. But his worries are temporary and petty. Of course, he has anxieties, as we see when we read his journals and see his concern about chronic health issues. And there are sorrows when a brother monk dies, when King is assassinated, etc. But these concerns are bracketed by the grace and mercy of God.
Merton is not in bondage to his small self and its ultimately petty worries. He is free because he is God’s beloved son. He does not have to worry where he is going, because he is already home. Merton learned what it meant to be free. I trust his wisdom and insight. I appreciate his help to my own journey to be free.