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Just Say No

The title of this inspirational message might seem like an advertisement for some kind of drug treatment program or a stop smoking campaign. Or perhaps more likely, it sounds like an early teenage admonition to refrain from sex. And indeed, it could be all of the above, since they are all legitimate and worthwhile campaigns.

I actually got the idea from the words of the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. I have quoted Merton enough that folks know how much I like him. Part of the appeal of Merton, I’m sure, is that part of his life overlapped my own life. Merton lived into the 1960s, which was the decade of so much of my own personal and spiritual formation. When Merton tragically died in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968, I was already in graduate school studying theology. Merton was the most unlikely person to have become a strict Catholic monk.

He had spent his early years living in France, England and the USA. He was a bright, curious young guy who had little sense of himself or his place. Moving around and staying with parents, grandparents and others gave him a sense of the world, but little sense of his personal identity. He went through phases: atheistic, communistic, religious phases and more. His life was a quest---a quest for meaning, for identity and for belonging. Ironically, he chose finally to pursue that quest in a fairly strict monastic setting in the hills of Kentucky.

Above all, Merton was a writer. His writings are transparent. You can read his works and, especially, his journals and watch him “working out life.” He kept growing and changing. I like that part of him. I find him inspiring---not in the way that I want to be like him, but in an area that I do want to be like him. I want to be like him in the sense that I, too, want to grow in significant ways.

Merton chose a monastery that prized a great deal of silence and solitude. I value these, as well. I think they are important components of any spiritual journey. If I am not silent---at least some of the time---I never hear any music in my mind except the elevator music of the world. I never hear the Divine melodies. If I am not alone---at least some of the time---I never can find my true self. I want to be like Merton in that quest.

One would think Merton chose the optimum place for that quest. But that means we don’t know monasteries! Actually Merton found too many meaningless requests for his time and effort. He sensed too many demands from monks and non-monks alike. As he became famous, it got worse. It sounds like an oxymoron to talk about a “busy monk,” but that describes precisely Merton’s problem.

It is just such a context in one of his journals in January 1961, that I hit these poignant words. Merton says, “To be freed from involvements---on all sides.”

And then it gets better. Merton adds, “To know when, how and to whom to say no! Considerable notes and difficulties. Not to want to hurt people certainly, but not being too anxious to placate them.” I wince at how true that is.

It makes me ponder all my involvements. Most of them are good involvements. They are all legal and some are even laudable. But do I need them? Are they helping me with the central aim of my life: to live and to love? And to ponder even more closely that challenging words of Merton is a real chore. Do I know when, how and to whom to say no? I fear my answer is no…no, I don’t know when. No, I don’t know how. And no, I don’t know to whom I should say no.

And I fear that if I have insufficient time of silence and solitude, then I will never figure this out. And if I never figure this out, I will not experience any spiritual growth. Instead I will be captive in my context. And it really is not my context; it is my social context. All the people and the sounds/noise of my world are my context.

Again, the people in my social context are not bad. In fact, most of them are good and some are already enrolled in the sainthood program! And the sounds of my social context are not awful. Some are actually quite sweet. But they fill my space and that leaves no room for grace.

The answer? Just say no. “No” is the road to freedom. It frees me from the captivity of my context. “No” is different than “never.” If I tell someone or something “no,” it does not mean I can’t come back to it and re-engage. Just say no. Give myself a chance and a choice.

Just say no. Choose some silence and solitude so, in turn, I can grow spiritually and deepen service.

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