Thomas Merton Had It Easy

I spent a good bit of my twenties pissed off at Thomas Merton.

I was pissed off by a very specific thing in his writings. Merton writes beautifully about the need for regular time in prayer, quiet, and contemplation. He also writes scathingly about the chaos, noise, and confusion of everyday life for most people who live in cities.
(The examples he had in mind back then are, no doubt, deeply quaint now…)

I was on my Perkins internship, nearing the end of it, when I first got pissed off at Thomas Merton.

I was sitting on the top of Enchanted Rock, in the Texas Hill Country. It was my day off. I’d been reading Merton’s words on these very things…that we all needed time for renewal…that city life was too busy and often too vacuous…

I knew that, very soon, I would be leaving this quiet, calm place and returning to the big city…a place where I had always struggled to find quiet. It seemed to come naturally for me in the Hill Country, just as it seemed to come naturally for Merton at Gethsemane Monastery.

And so with some anger, I wrote in my journal about how “easy” it must be for Merton…there behind the walls of the monastery. He *had* to take the time out for renewal, self-care, and prayer. It was a part of the calling.

What about the working class guy, with a time clock job? What about the Mom with three kids? What about the worker with a two hour commute each day?

How the hell were THEY supposed to find time for self-care, prayer, reflection and renewal?!

Thomas Merton, I decided, had it easy.

It was easy for him to say the things he was saying, with a life surrounded by the trappings of prayer and reflection. It seemed to me that it was much *harder* for all the rest of us in the real world.

And so it was that twenty years later, I was on a retreat with Jim Finley, who had been a student of Merton’s decades prior. I got up the courage to talk to him about this about this very issue.

Jim listened carefully to what I had to say, and then replied, “Yes, Merton would definitely say that it’s harder…”

“Oh…” I thought to myself.

And I felt both an immediate sense of vindication, and also a sense of “So, now what?”

Yes, it IS hard to take the time out to do self-care, prayer, exercise, surrounded by a life of noise and appointments and clocks.

Do it anyway.

This morning, I had two insights as I journaled at the writing desk.

The first was that there might be a lot of folks reading these words who have the same anger toward *me* that I once had toward Merton. I take time for prayer and reflection. I have a job that, you’d assume, insists that I do that.
(But, you know what you do when you assume…)

I can sit on the back porch, as I did this morning, and watch the rain while drinking my coffee, and pray prayers of deep gratitude for life. I can spend 20 minutes journalling after that, here in the study.

These things are my spirutal tuning fork. I keep the very first tuning fork I ever had on my desk to remind me of that…

Far too many of us have lives controlled by the clock, and not the other way around. We punch in and out at work. We “fight” through traffic. (What does it mean to “fight” traffic, btw? Does traffic have an actual battle plan to defeat us?)

Some of you might hear my call to take time out for prayer, meditation and self-care…and you might be pissed off at ME, just as I once was at Thomas Merton.

“Easy for YOU…”

Actually, no, still not easy.

You see, the hidden secret is that even if you have a life that allows you the time for prayer and contemplation, it doesn’t mean that you’ll take that time. We are all —me included— addicted to our clocks, our busy-ness, the noise of our world. I mean that word “addicted” literally. We are junkies for these things.

Addicts, when they first get into recovery, sometimes find themselves bitter at the rest of the world, and assume that everyone else has it easy. Eventually, God willing, they realize that everyone else has their struggles too. And while they may have to always struggle to avoid the liquor store, or eating the whole pound cake, they realize that everybody else is also struggling with their own stuff.

In other words, comparing your own struggles with what others are going through isn’t going to get you very far.

In addition to being pissed off at Thomas Merton, I spent decades being pissed off at my Mom too. When I was really young kid, before any sisters were born, I have memories of getting ready to go shopping, or to the park, or to…who knows where…

The memory is this…I am ready to go. And Mom says, “We’ll go just as soon as I’ve finished my coffee…”

As a five-year-old, I have a very clear memory of throwing a tantrum, and feeling like I was waiting DAYS for her to hurry up and finish her damn coffee.

It was probably five minutes.

The point is, I was sitting on the back porch this morning —praying some prayers of gratitude for the morning rain— when it struck me “Oh…maybe THIS is what my Mom was doing…”

She wasn’t taking time for her coffee just to annoy the hell out of her five-year-old. (Why in God’s name would she do THAT?!)

She was modeling being tied to life and not tied to the clock.

Even in my fifties, I’m re-learning how she was never quite as dumb as I thought.

Most of us are addicted to our clocks, our noise, our screens, our busy-ness, just as much as others are addicted to crack, or a bag of Doritos, or a pint of Jager. We need to find…to MAKE…the time to breathe, pray, meditate, re-create.

YOU need to make that time….even if you have screaming kids, an angry boss, and a list of “to-dos” a mile long.

It may piss you off to hear me say this.
You may think, “easy for him to say.”

But it doesn’t make it any less true for your life.