I find Thomas Merton’s journals both inspiring and intimidating. They inspire me by opening all my senses to the world in front of me, and especially to the natural world. They intimidate me because they make me feel like a shallow, half-hearted Christian. I do not have the focus nor the courage of Thomas Merton.
But in his journals, Merton is always complaining of the same thing about himself! One of his most famous confessions goes like this:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that is I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
On September 1, 1949, Merton was a young monk seeking sainthood in a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky. I was just an infant not yet ready to explore the world of a 100-acre dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania.
For Merton, the question was, “How can writing help me in my quest for sainthood?” Putting down on paper what he has become as he evolves spiritually is his goal: “It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation.”
To be as good a monk as I can be, and to remain myself, and to write about it: to put myself down on paper, in such a situation, with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing, confusing no issue: this is very hard because I am all mixed up in illusions and attachments. These, too, will have to be put down. But without exaggeration, repetition, useless emphasis. To be frank without being boring: it is a kind of crucifixion. Not a very dramatic or painful one. But it requires much honesty that is beyond my nature. It must come somehow from the Holy Spirit.
A complete and holy transparency; living, praying, and writing in the light of the Holy Spirit, losing myself entirely by becoming public property just as Jesus is public property in the Mass. Perhaps this is an important aspect of my priesthood–my living of my Mass: to become as plain as a Host in the hands of everybody. Perhaps it is this, after all, that is to be my way to solitude. One of the strangest ways to far devised, but it is the way of the Word of God.
Now that’s intimidating–the memoirist compared to Jesus!
To write is to make oneself public and transparent and yet through this means will come both solitude and the best chance Merton sees for sainthood.
Wow. Does anyone else find this both exhilarating and daunting? Can writing a memoir be an act of purgation? Should it be? Merton at his best comes very close to this goal. So honest. So real. So humble. So enraged by the right things. So kind. So eager to learn.