“No matter what mistakes and illusions have marked my life, most of it I think has been happiness and, as far as I can tell, truth.” — Thomas Merton
January 31st commemorates the birth of mystic, writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. One thing that always amazes me about his writing is Merton’s profound honesty with regard to his “development” as a writer, a priest and human being. Excerpts from his journals are filled with as much religious certainty as they are filled with deep un-abiding doubt at one’s ability to walk a chosen path despite our flaws.
This struggle is known to all of us. We all have doubts as we battle daily shames and shortcomings. Some days we appear “perfect” — perfect parent, perfect spouse, perfect worker, perfect boss, perfect conservative or perfect liberal. But other days… not so much.
Sometimes we scream at our kids in the market and overreact at their minor infractions. On the flip side, we occasionally under-react to more bothersome behaviors. We back off and then wonder if maybe we sent the wrong message. Maybe they should be grounded for a week, we think. Maybe they deserve to miss the prom. No, no I can’t do that to them…
Now and then we fail to be present in our marriages. We ignore our hearts and behave selfishly or we sidestep difficulties instead of dealing directly with our emotions and their aftermath.
Once in a while we cut corners at work. We nurse petty grievances against our bosses, and we gossip about co-workers in the break room. If we manage people, sometimes we do so lacking compassion for their struggles putting material needs above human ones.
Merton’s reflections and meditations from his journals suggest that in each of these respects, and then some, Merton failed as well. He failed at being a monk, he failed at being a priest, he failed at being a writer, he failed at being a friend to his many acquaintances in the world beyond his cloistered walls. At least that’s how he felt at times.
He writes: “… I will always be accused of inconsistencies…” And that feeling — the feeling of immeasurably falling short keeps one working. It drove him to be a better priest, monk, writer, friend and steward of the earth.
I imagine that even if Merton ever arrived at being “better” he’d most likely refuse to consider himself as being “the best”.
I imagine if someone sent him a coffee mug for his birthday, emblazoned with “World’s Greatest Monk” Merton would likely shrug it off. No doubt he’d resist seeing himself as the greatest anything.
I find his view — the fact that we are never “great” — refreshing in a world where we all (myself included) insist that we are more than what we truly are. We demand others acknowledge how great we are. So much so we are willing to go on reality television shows, or loudly demand the attention of the room.
Our society also says only greatness has value. This is one disturbing element in the style of Donald Trump’s campaign, and even more disturbing to me is how many are attracted to the illusions embedded in his viewpoint and the rhetoric of greatness.
We forget that greatness, if it exists at all, is just an outcome. It is the final recognition of having lived one’s life authentically. And having lived means accepting the good, the bad and the ugly of our own steps and missteps.
Merton writes: “The need for self-revision, growth, leaving behind, is a renunciation of yesterday, yet in the continuity with all other yesterdays (to cling to the past it so lose one’s identity with it, for this means clinging to what’s not there)…”
Now, I read that quote not as a repudiation and rejection of our past selves but as building awareness out of our story, the continuity of our yesterdays. Our identity, in my opinion, is formed from what we “write” in the present and on into the future and this emerges through the manner in which we recognize our past with honest fullness.
We are works in progress. We are, young and old, striving towards the only real goal that exists for us in this life: becoming human. Perhaps, when we leave this place, at the very least we can all say we were more than just mostly alive. Perhaps we can say, “I loved, I cried, I nurtured, and I died — in short: I lived.”