This trip was different from the beginning. As I approached the Abbey I felt like a runner at the end of a long distance marathon. It took every last bit of strength I had to arrive and I felt like I practically stumbled across the finish line. Then I collapsed in the peace. It was only 11:15am and I was exhausted, worn out, hungry, tired. Did I mention I was tired? I slept for the hour before lunch, then returned to my room and slept until dinner. Then I returned to my room and slept until 5:00am when my alarm went off. I had decided that, although it was clear I was exhausted, I didn’t want to sleep through the entire weekend and I always enjoy my time worshipping with the monks. So I showered, worshipped, prayed, had breakfast, returned to my room, and this time, stayed awake.
I don’t think I’ve ever arrived at the Abbey feeling quite as broken as I feel this time. Coming here has always helped me to see just how much stress I’m living under as I do my best to live every day serving my Lord and standing up under my own sin and feeling the effects of the sin of others. But this time I’m truly spent. Having a moment to stop and think clearly has allowed me to see just how hard this past year has been physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Thoughts on Thomas Merton’s Thoughts
I read a book I found in my room called “Thoughts in Solitude” written by Thomas Merton. I’ll preface this by saying I have found Merton to be, in general, a bit too esoteric for my liking. But, I did find some thoughts I enjoyed which sparked some thoughts of my own which I thought I would share.
“This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.”
This struck a chord with me because the total desperation and despair I see all around me both in my neighbors, and even my children, seems to envelope them and cause them to completely shut down. It’s as if they have “consented” to allow despair to overtake them and they exist day to day comfortably enveloped in despair but no longer living. It’s this very despair and surrender that I pray against and try to argue against. It’s this despair that I try to fight with words of encouragement and reinforcement when I see my friends or family succumbing to it. But it seems so pervasive through every aspect of life that it’s become a never-ending battle. But it is encouraging to be reminded that Christ is by my side fighting it for me if I will just remember to invite Him to the fight.
“Temperament does not predestine one man to sanctity and another to reprobation. All temperaments can serve as the material for ruin or for salvation. We must learn to see that our temperament is a gift of God, a talent with which we must trade until He comes. It does not matter how poor or how difficult a temperament we may be endowed with. If we make good use of what we have, if we make it serve our good desires, we can do better than another who merely serves his temperament instead of making it serve him.”
“A temperamentally angry man may be more inclined to anger than another. But as long as he remains sane he is still free not to be angry. His inclination to anger is simply a force in his character which can be turned to good or evil, according to his desires. If he desires what is evil, his temper will become a weapon of evil against other men and even against his own soul. If he desires what is good his temper can become the controlled instrument for fighting the evil that is in himself and helping other men to overcome the obstacles which they meet in the world. He remains free to desire either good or evil.”
I have struggled with bouts of anger all of my life. Most folks who know me find that hard to believe, but that’s only because I chose many years ago that I wanted to do good, not evil. I’ve always struggled trying to reconcile the anger in me with my desire to serve God. There’s a part of me that thought it would go away after I gave my life to Christ. And although it hasn’t gone away, it has certainly changed. It has become a strength that I can call on to overcome. A strength that helps me persevere when I might give up. It no longer controls me, but I control it. It aids me in being a better servant and has given me resolve when I have felt weak.
“What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?”
This question truly convicted me. I often struggle with my prayer life. I wonder if I pray enough, or about the “right” things. I find ways to couch my prayers with words like “your will be done” which, in my heart, often means “I don’t actually expect you to do anything, I’m just praying because I’m supposed to”. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to me that I would doubt Christ’s direct involvement in my life since I can see clearly the many times and places and ways he has saved me from my own self destruction. On the other hand, I still harbor these doubts of whether I’m doing His will or my own.
“…we cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins. We do not really know how to forgive until we know what it is to be forgiven.”
I can’t begin to put into words how powerful and important I think this is. We have all heard of (or seen) the person who claims to follow Christ but has no compassion for the downtrodden or the person lost in their own sin. I have always wondered if such a person has been willing to publicly acknowledge their own sin and be forgiven by the person they wronged. I suspect not. It’s a truly humbling and terrifying experience. I have seen people who get angry at their own sin and then become just as angry or more so at the sin of others. But this is not beneficial nor what we are commanded to do by our Lord (for those who claim to belong to Christ, that is). Instead, we must accept Christ’s forgiveness for our own sin but we must also ask for and, most importantly, accept forgiveness from the person (or persons) who were affected by that sin. For those who say some sins (particularly the ones they commit) can affect only the sinner, you’re wrong. Sin always affects those around us whether they know the cause or not. Then, and only then, will that person be able to truly forgive when they are wronged by the sin of others. And please keep in mind, nobody can sin against you, they can only sin against God. If someone steals your car, the fact that they stole YOUR car is irrelevant. The fact that they stole anything is a direct sin against God, the creator of the universe. His claim doesn’t just trump yours, it eliminates yours. But it would be right for that person to ask for your forgiveness because their sin affected you.
“What one of us, O Lord, can speak of poverty without shame? We who have taken vows of poverty in the monastery: are we really poor? Do we know what it is to love poverty? Have we even stopped to think, for a moment, why poverty is to be loved? Yet you, O lord, came into the world to be poor among the poor, because it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. And we, with our vow, we are content with the fact that we legally possess nothing, and that for everything we have, we must ask someone else’s permission? Is this poverty? Can a man who has lost his job and who has no money with which to pay his bills, and who sees his wife and children getting thin, and who feels fear and anger eating out his heart – can he get the things he desperately needs merely by asking for them? Let him try. And yet we, who can have many things we don’t need and many more which are scandalous for us to have – we are poor, because we have them with permission! Poverty means need. To make a vow of poverty and never go without anything, never have to need something without getting it, is to try to mock the Living God.”
This isn’t really relevant to me as I have never taken a vow of poverty (although I have experienced it). But I thought it was extremely insightful to how the vow of poverty really works with monks in the church. After all, they are supported by the larger church and by whatever incomes they earn (this Abbey makes and sells fudge). Realistically, they would never be allowed to truly go without while under the care of the Catholic Church. So, is it truly poverty when it’s really just a matter of being supplied all your needs but not owning anything?
And of course, that makes me think about generational poverty that is supported by safety nets designed to ensure those who can’t support themselves are taken care of. They too have many things they don’t need and some things which are “scandalous” for them to have based on the “permission” of the government. And a person reliant on the government would be no more likely to go against that government than a monk would go against the Church. Somewhere in all of this is a perverted parallel, I think. The Church is funded by the voluntary gifts of those who give to the Lord. Whereas the government is funded by the involuntary taxation of everyone. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day. J
“Books that speak like God speak with too much authority to entertain us. Those that speak like good men hold us by their human charm; we grow by finding ourselves in them. They teach us to know ourselves better by recognizing ourselves in another. Books that speak like the noise of the multitudes reduce us to despair by the sheer weight of their emptiness. They entertain us like the lights of the city streets at night, by hopes they cannot fulfil.”
This really stood out to me because I find I can read until I collapse if it’s about politics or technology or even just some good fiction. But I find I tire too quickly of reading the word of God and I don’t reach for it as often as I want to. Instead I find myself enticed to more “interesting” reading than the Word of God. It’s a sad statement to be sure, but an honest one. Hopefully in confessing it I can ask for the Grace of God to change it.
On Sunday morning I attended the morning teaching. I almost didn’t because the topic was listed as being about our inheritance and, to be honest, I wasn’t overly interested in the topic. That’s not to say that I’m not interested in the eternal life and communion with God I will receive when my work here is done. I guess really I was just a bit gun-shy about where the topic would lead. Anyway, the topic ended up being more about Mary instead. I have to say it was very interesting. I’m not saying that I necessarily accept everything that was said at face value (there were many extra biblical references and a couple of mystics involved in the teaching), but it was helpful to understand much of what I see in the Catholic tradition about her. One thing I really appreciated that the monk said was that they don’t worship Mary, they love her (that has been a concern of mine). And that, in their opinion, she wouldn’t accept worship anyway, but instead turn anyone toward Christ.
Another thing the monk said that I truly appreciated was that although there are many ancient texts available to read about Christ, the apostles, Mary, etc. (that is, extra biblical references) everything you need for salvation is in the canonized bible. What I appreciate about that statement is the acknowledgement that we can disagree about certain points of theology and still agree that we are brothers and sisters in Christ so long as we can agree that Christ was who he said he was, the Word made flesh, and that he came on purpose to take the punishment due each one of us for our sins against God, and that those who believe receive his Holy Spirit and are saved. Outside that, we can agree to disagree or simply wait to ask Him ourselves.
Speaking of Extra Biblical References…
Don’t get the idea that I think anything not in the Bible is wrong. In fact, in general, I’m a big fan of extra biblical references because they have typically backed up what can be found in the Bible. OK, I’m going to do it. I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Let’s talk about Bill Nye and the whole implication that you can’t trust anything that was “translated from some ancient language into American English” and therefore can’t trust the Bible.
Now, Mr. Nye is a fan of peer review and scientific process. So are scholars of old texts. In fact, there are a large number of ancient texts which refer directly to events in the book of Genesis. You know, that book that you have been led to believe is full of fairy tales? For instance, in Genesis 10 there is a description of the areas that the descendants of Noah began to settle. One of those areas was in northern Syria where we also find what are called the “Ebla Tablets”. These are a collection of “thousands of commercial, legal, literary, and epistolary texts that describe the cultural vitality and political power of a pre-patriarchal civilization in northern Syria.”(NIV Study Bible) The dating of these texts puts them about 2400 B.C. and would then be describing the culture of the descendants of Noah’s son Shem before the birth of Abraham (in 2166B.C.), which begins the era of the Patriarchs.
Then there is the Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur. A Sumerian poem dated at about 2050 B.C. which “mourns the destruction of the city of Ur at the hands of the Elamites” (NIV Study Bible). For those who didn’t check out Genesis 10, Elam is also one of the descendants of Noah who settled in Mesopotamia, which stretched kind of from Northern Syria to the Persian Gulf.
Are you bored yet? If so, you’re not alone. My brain turns to mush when I study history too. And that’s the point. The book of Genesis and the next 4 books that Moses wrote are history books, not fanciful entertainment for children. Is there some poetry in there? Absolutely. A little creative license on genealogies? Thankfully, very likely. In fact, it is believed by scholars that he intentionally left out an unknown number of generations when he wrote the genealogies. That’s not to say he didn’t have them, he just didn’t need to reproduce them here. Anyone who has read through the Pentateuch may beg to differ (because the genealogies are really long), but there you have it. This is why extra biblical sources are so important, they can help us confirm timelines. And more importantly, not only do they help us date events in the Bible, they confirm the events recorded in the Bible. Another thing to keep in mind. If you don’t think God Himself was involved in writing and preserving at least the Pentateuch, let alone the whole Bible, consider this: Moses somehow managed to write the history of the Universe (as it pertained to God and His chosen people) in the desert wilderness, up to the date of his death. Oh, and about the last 1000 years of it matches up with extra biblical records. As we discover other ancient texts, since archeologists continue looking for them, perhaps we’ll find more extra biblical material to corroborate dates, events, and people recorded in the history of the Bible texts.