Five Lenten Meditations (and a Prayer) from Thomas Merton

Given Our Own Intense Solitude of Late, Merton Is the Perfect Lenten Read

Ben Self / 3.16.21

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Merton’s slender 1956 volume Thoughts in Solitude, a hodgepodge of his reflections from one of the periods at Gethsemani that he was allowed to spend in relative isolation. It’s not Merton’s best writing — many of the ideas are better fleshed out elsewhere — and there are times when he seems to vacillate wildly between law and gospel. But given our own intense solitude of late, it seemed to me the right sort of thing to read as we progress through Lent, and he does deliver some stirring insights for the journey.

Along with Advent, Lent is often understood as one of the two “desert” seasons in the Christian calendar, and Merton frames his time in solitude as a season in the desert. He explains,

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. […] The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness […]

Much of the rest of the book is spent developing that basic theme of learning to love God in the wilderness — of deepening our humility and dependence on God — often suggested as a basic function of the Lenten season itself. “The desert is the home of despair,” Merton writes. And yet, even as we face that despair in ourselves, we find that it can be trampled down “under hope in the Cross.” With that, here are some of the most Lent-resonant passages from the book:

1. On learning to love our “poverty”:

There is no true spiritual life outside the love of Christ. We have a spiritual life only because we are loved by Him. The spiritual life consists in receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and His charity […]

If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to Him in all our poverty, all our weakness, all our spiritual wretchedness and infirmity. Indeed, when we understand the true nature of His love for us, we will prefer to come to Him poor and helpless. We will never be ashamed of our distress. Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy. We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that His power is made perfect in our infirmity. […]

We must love our own poverty as Jesus loves it. It is so valuable to Him that He died on the Cross to present our poverty to His Father, and endow us with the riches of His own infinite mercy.

We must [also] love the poverty of others as Jesus loves it. We must see them with the eyes of His own compassion.

2. On the source of our hope:

[A Christian] lives, above all, in the hope of a world to come.

Hope is the secret of true asceticism. It denies our own judgments and desires and rejects the world in its present state, not because either we or the world are evil, but because we are not in a condition to make the best of our own or the world’s goodness. But we rejoice in hope. We enjoy created things in hope. We enjoy them not as they are in themselves but as they are in Christ — full of promise. For the goodness of all things is a witness to the goodness of God and His goodness is a guarantee of His fidelity to His promises. […]

My Lord, I have no hope but in Your Cross. You, by your humility, and sufferings and death, have delivered me from all vain hope. You have killed the vanity of the present life in Yourself, and have given me all that is eternal in rising from the dead. […]

My hope is in what the eye has never seen. Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards. […] Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability, or human resources.

3. On the two opposite kinds of self-love:

It is not enough to turn away in disgust from my illusions and faults and mistakes, to separate myself from them as if they were not, and as if I were someone other than myself. This kind of self-annihilation is only a worse illusion, it is a pretended humility which, by saying “I am nothing” I mean in effect “I wish I were not what I am.” […]

To love our “nothingness,” we must repudiate nothing that is our own, nothing that we have, nothing that we are. We must see and admit that it is all ours […]

To love our nothingness we must love everything in us that the proud man loves when he loves himself. But we must love it all for exactly the opposite reason. […] [T]he proud man loves himself because he thinks he is worthy of love and respect and veneration for his own sake. […] Because he thinks he is more worthy to be honored and loved and reverenced than all other men.

The humble man also loves himself, and seeks to be loved and honored, not because love and honor are due to him but because they are not due to him. He seeks to be loved by the mercy of God. He begs to be loved and helped by the liberality of his fellow men. Knowing that he has nothing he also knows that he needs everything […]

The proud man loves his own illusion and self-sufficiency. The spiritually poor man loves his very self-insufficiency […] [and] desires to be filled to overflowing with the kindness and mercy of God.

4. On spiritual poverty as the door to freedom:

[The spiritual life] is not a matter of any special psychological effect in our own soul. It is [rather] the silence of our whole being in compunction and adoration before God, in the habitual realization that He is everything and we are nothing, that He is the Center to which all things tend, and to Whom all our actions must be directed. That our life and strength proceed from Him, that both in life and in death we depend entirely on Him […]

The only thing to seek in prayer is God; and we seek Him successfully when we realize that we cannot find Him unless He shows Himself to us, and yet at the same time that He would not have inspired us to seek Him unless we had already found Him. […]

Poverty is the door to freedom, not because we remain imprisoned in the anxiety and constraint which poverty of itself implies, but because, finding nothing in ourselves that is a source of hope, we know there is nothing in ourselves worth defending. There is nothing special in ourselves to love. We go out of ourselves therefore and rest in Him in Whom alone is our hope.

5. On why true humility is despair in ourselves:

Lord, You have taught us to love humility, but we have not learned. We have learned only to love the outward surface of it — the humility that makes a person charming and attractive. We sometimes pause to think about these qualities, and we often pretend that we possess them, and that we have gained them by “practicing humility.”

If we were really humble, we would know to what an extent we are liars!

Teach me to bear a humility which shows me, without ceasing, that I am a liar and a fraud and that, even though this is so, I have an obligation to strive after truth, to be as true as I can, even though I will inevitably find all my truth half poisoned with deceit. This is the terrible thing about humility: that it is never fully successful. […] You, Lord, were humble. But our humility consists in being proud and knowing all about it, and being crushed by the unbearable weight of it, and to be able to do so little about it. […]

[T]he more we struggle to be true, the more we discover our falsity. Is it merciful of Your light to bring us, inexorably, to despair? No — it is not to despair that You bring me but to humility. For true humility is, in a way, a very real despair: despair of myself, in order that I may hope entirely in You.

On receiving the blessing of adoption:

O great God, Father of all things, Whose infinite light is darkness to me, Whose immensity is to me as the void, You have called me forth out of yourself because You love me in yourself […]. I could not know You, I would be lost in this darkness, I would fall away from You into this void, if You did not hold me to Yourself in the Heart of Your only begotten Son.

Father, I love You Whom I do not know, and I embrace You Whom I do not see, and I abandon myself to You Whom I have offended, because You love in me Your only begotten Son. You see Him in me, You embrace Him in me, because He has willed to identify Himself completely with me by that love which brought Him to death, for me, on the Cross.

Featured image via the New Yorker.

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