Search Your Soul

Recently, I wrote some observations based on the epilogue Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk, wrote in his book, The Sign of Jonas.  The book uses the familiar Hebrew Bible prophet, Jonah, to talk about both himself and his monastic community, Gethsemani, in Kentucky.  The epilogue is dated July 4, 1952.  The piece describes the night Merton was on fire watch duties, which included walking though the monastery at night on the lookout for fires.  The special concern was the outbreak of fires in the surrounding wooded areas.
It is not unusual, however, that Merton turned this daily monastic duty into a metaphorical spiritual lesson.  Reading the rather lengthy epilogue is to accompany Merton on his night rounds throughout the monastery.  But even more than this, reading the account is to join Merton in his internal spiritual pilgrimage through his own faith journey.  I am confident Merton shared this so that we, too, could embark on our own spiritual trip of memory and expectation.
Let’s share Merton’s lead in order to see up our own search for our souls.  Merton is quite clear what is he doing and by implication, what he invites us to do.  Early in the epilogue Merton says, “The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”  First, we can unpack this and then follow Merton’s suggestion for a search for our own souls.
The fire watch is an examination of conscience.  It is interesting that Merton here uses the word, conscience.  He takes no pain in the context to explain what he means by it or why he uses the word.  Let me offer an opinion on both counts.  In the first place I believe Merton uses “conscience” here to mean the usual sense of “awareness of right and wrong.”  To elaborate, our conscience is the place, or better, space where we have some sense of God’s nature and our own true nature, at least, as God intended it to be.  To be aware of and live by our conscience is to acknowledge our role as moral beings---people who know right from wrong. 
Secondly, I wonder if Merton uses the term, conscience, in this context to mean something more than the normal moral meaning for that word, conscience?  In this context I get the sense that Merton is expanding the language of conscience to means something akin to what he normally means by the word, soul.  Pushing this further, conscience or soul is the place where we are aware of and, hopefully, in tune with God.  Merton was certainly knowledgeable and I join him, too, in realizing that he and I can be aware of our conscience or soul and still ignore it and go our own way and do our own thing. 
This is where I think Merton wants to go when he talks about using the fire watch as an “examination” of our conscience.  Periodically, I hear him telling us, we need to make a kind of “fire watch” pilgrimage in order to examine our conscience.  This is his exhortation for us to do some version of soul work.  According to Merton, there are some things that will inevitably happen in this process.  So let’s join him in our own fire watch march.
Initially he tells us, our task as watchman will suddenly appear in it true light.  Merton discovered his fire watch duty was more than circling through the monastery on the lookout for fires.  He realized he was invited metaphorically into a more spiritual trip.  That is why he says our duty will emerge in its true light.  We thought we were on the prowl for fires.  Additionally, we discover we are actually on the prowl for our own souls.
Here’s how Merton put it: the fire watch was merely a “pretext devised by God to isolate you.”  The first part of our task is to find ourselves alone.  Why do we need to be isolated?  It is in our solitariness that we have no help, no distraction, etc.  We are on our own.  In this isolation we will meet God in our nakedness.  In isolation God will come to undress us.  God does this by virtue of lamps which shine light on our dark places.  And God does this by the questions posed to us.  In isolation we have to deal with the lamps and questions.  We can’t hide in groups or our own business.
In this process God will search our soul.  We probably will have a myriad of experiences, some of which will be embarrassment, shame and some guilt.  But simultaneously, this also will be a purifying experience.  God’s light will eradicate our own darkness.  God’s questions will force our authenticity.  All this will happen in the “heart of darkness.”  No doubt, we all know life at night---the experiences of darkness---are much different than day-time living. 
What can we expect from this process of searching for our soul?  There will be some negativity---such as the shame and guilt mentioned before.  But there is much more positivity.  We noted the purifying that likely happens.  Even more importantly, we can expect that we will come closer to knowing ourselves in a true, authentic way.  We will begin to know ourselves as God created us to be and as God wants us to be.  This is a powerful experience of hope.
I appreciate Merton’s reflection on his night as a fire watch.  I appreciate mostly because of what it teaches me is necessary for my own “fire watch” time.  It is a time of isolation, examination, discovery and call to life like God most wants for me.

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