“It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others. When we do this, we will be able to face, and accept, our own limitations. … We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.” (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island)
Thomas Merton wrote this in his Prologue to the book, No Man Is An Island, which was published the year I was born. I discovered it about the time I turned 45 — the book with its prologue.
Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, is one of those men who truly changed the world, and continues to change the world, though non-Catholics may be entirely unfamiliar with him or with any of his work. Merton was a Trappist monk, whose autobiography revealed how God can touch even the most unchurched of us. I’ve read that a whole generation of seekers was inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography, and it has never gone out of print.
He is known in Catholic circles for taking contemplative prayer out of the monastery and into the lives of the laity. (That’s what the average church-goer is called in Catholic circles.) However, he was also a behind-the-scenes peace activist, encouraging those on the front lines, like Dorothy Day. As a monk in a religious order where speech is strongly discouraged, he was remarkably vocal, writing numerous books and innumerable letters which continue to impact people today. One of my favorite authors, James Martin, SJ, speaks and writes often about the impact of Thomas Merton on his life.
But I will, possibly forever, remember Thomas Merton for the lines quotes above. When I first read them, I could not continue with the book. Night after night, I would crawl into my bed, grab No Man is an Island, open it to that page and reread the section of which that is a part. That passage called for a radical shift in the way I thought about myself and about my relationships with others.
Merton went on to write, “My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others…. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore, the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation…. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ.”
Thomas Merton introduced me to the concept of our inter-relatedness. Americans glorify the rugged individual and we idolize those who rise to the top of the heap, regardless of how they got there. They have money and therefore they are successful. That is why our nation has none of the programs which support the health of the family found in other industrialized nations, and why we have the appalling tendency to denigrate the poor, regardless of how hard they work and regardless of how much their quality of life was created by the greed of those at the top.
(Lost a lot of you there, didn’t I? You don’t agree. You like the way you think. You’ve worked hard for what you have achieved and to hell with everyone else. Yep! I can hear one of my brothers from here — and he hasn’t even read this yet.)
I didn’t function well within the average American mindset. I was always getting sidetracked by someone in need — the single mom who grew up in the foster care system and had no real concept of family though she was desperate for love, the recovering drug addict I met while selling Avon products, the unemployed teacher who ended up delivering newspapers and working as a motel housekeeper to keep a roof over her head. I simply could not fail to offer assistance, though more often than not the only assistance I could provide was my time and a compassionate ear.
But time, as every American knows, is money and money is the measure of success. Right? Merton said, “No, it’s not.” Merton said our lives are inter-related, that my strength meets your need and, in that, Christ is present.
For the first time, I didn’t feel like such a loser. For the first time, I thought, “OK, I can live this.” It took a seven-day silent retreat five years later and a little (well, more than a little) adversity to fully appreciate what Merton was saying, though. I was comfortable in being the one with strengths who could help others. I could accept not rising to the top of the great American heap, but I was not equally comfortable with the whole weakness component. It always humiliated me to the bone to ask for assistance. I felt like the animal excrement a farmer scrapes off his boots every time I had to ask, every time I had to accept assistance.
But, the year I turned 50, I gave myself the gift of a seven-day silent retreat during which I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, we have to accept the whole Christ; we must be willing to receive as well as give. Yes, Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. But Jesus also said he was found in the hungry who were fed and the homeless who were given shelter and the prisoner who was visited (cf. Matt.25:34-40). It’s OK to be strong, I came to understand, but it OK to be weak sometimes, too.”
Even today, I can’t say I am at home with weakness and with receiving, but I have learned to accept gifts with a little more grace as a result of learning about this idea of wholeness that Merton introduced and long hours of prayer affirmed. And, as a result, I’ve come to see God in unexpected places. My daughter and her husband, for example, will undoubtedly be on the right-hand when the day of judgment comes for they feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless month after month. Although they don’t attend church with same regularity that I do, they open themselves to be God’s hands in this world as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
I wonder if most of those on the right at the last judgment won’t be just like them. After all, according to Jesus, those on the right didn’t even know they were caring for him by their actions in this world. “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” they asked. When? When? When? (Matt. 25:37-39) It’s a sobering thought.