Seeds of Merton’s Verbs

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,
and that I think I am following your will
does not mean I am actually doing so.

But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.

I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.

I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear,
for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

From my discovery of this text in college, Thomas Merton’s Prayer of Abandonment has always and often been with me. How many times have I uttered that first line, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” I utter it slowly. Emphasizing every word. And I mean it.

I was looking at that prayer a while ago; it has been with me through a very dark Advent this past year. As the worries at work and at home have roosted in my heart, I was drawn to the verbs. I was noticing their progression, and how they form a beautiful heart of this prayer. They struck me as five powerful “seeds,” to use the term of this spiritual master. These five “seeds” follow a very human, a very natural progression. Check it out:

I have no idea
I do not see
I cannot know

In this first seed, the believer has hit bottom, coming to the reality that her life is not under her control. We have no other way to go. Nothing is coming to us. We are unable to proceed on our own power. In my own moment of truth, I remember clearly sitting in the shower stall of a retreat house at 6AM. I was in tears and I was confronted with the enormity of the utter powerlessness in my life in the face of the realities that had just hit me. It was the most powerful moment of contrition in my life. But it was not over yet.

I (don’t) really know
I think I am
does not mean I am

In the second “seed,” we are overwhelmed with doubts. In my own life, I pull back from the admission of powerlessness. Maybe there’s something I can do, some bit of cleverness to pull out of my hat. I think I can use my arms and legs to crawl out of the pit. But I realize that even though I think I am, I also have an enormous capacity for self-deception. So when I’m feeling good about my own diagnosis, maybe that’s a good time to return to God and admit that reasonable, reasonable doubt that just because I think something, it doesn’t mean that it is.

But I believe
And I hope

This third seed is the moment of faith. The believer returns to his God, and from the seed of belief, there is a small green shoot of hope. I think hope is essential in these dark nights. I don’t know about you, but I need a dose of hope now and then. I need to see that glimmer in the darkness. Maybe I don’t need the all-out lighted way. Just a glimpse to lift up my spirit and give my legs a bit of strength when they’re in revolt and wanting to just collapse.

I hope I will never do
I know if I do
you will lead

The human reality is that we sin, even after a conversion moment. Even after a hitting bottom moment. In Twelve Step wisdom, the recovering addict promptly recognizes new transgressions, and admits them. The believer, too, needs God’s grace in these moments, long after that first commitment. We all hope we will never sin. But we know that if we do, God will lead. The tricky part is that we have to want to be led. After the 6AM shower at Our Lady of Gethsemani, my life has not been perfect. But I have the pattern of reliance on God. I hope I don’t need to lean. But I know that if I do, God will lead.

I will trust you
I will not fear

This is the ultimate solution, this fifth seed.

You may wonder if this has any connection to Christmas and the season we celebrate these days. I think it does.

When encountering human beings, God and angels often open the conversation with “Don’t be afraid.” Ne timeas. I’ve explored that theme here six years ago and I’ve return to it often in my own prayer life. Fear is a driving and demonic force in our own culture. It is difficult to swim against the current of fear, which is far closer to the route of what ails us than the symptoms of gun gluttony, greed, sex, and the drive to stay young and strong.

There has to be a reason the first thing we hear from God or his divine messengers is “Don’t be afraid.” Mary at the Annunciation. Her husband Joseph in the dream. Shepherds of the night watch. God knows it is deeply ingrained in his children. Even believers like Mary and Joseph.

Thomas Merton’s last seed, “I will trust you. I will not fear.” seems the most elemental prayer we can utter. When other words fail us, when the situation overwhelms, the Father will surely hear the heartfelt prayer from the shadows and perils of our lives. He did twenty centuries ago, didn’t he?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Seeds of Merton’s Verbs

  1. John McGrath says:

    Beautiful reflection, especially for Christmas and the New Year. Thank you. And God bless.

  2. Liam says:

    Beautiful.

    Part of my daily prayers is to thank God for all the blessings and answered prayers he has given me, especially those I don’t know of, don’t understand, don’t appreciate, or take for granted.

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