When I was a very young monk, just 23 and in the monastery for only a year, a reading from Thomas Merton at our midday office created a great deal of inner turmoil. I can’t recall what the reading said, but when the office was over I knew I had to leave.
I was very angry because I thought all those years of believing I had a monastic vocation had been a lie. So I went up to my room to pack.
Thomas Merton Asks a Question
When I arrived at my room in what was called the “the snorers dorm,” I became very sleepy and laid down for a nap before I packed. How I could be so agitated and angry and still feel an overwhelming desire to sleep was something I was wondering about even as my head hit the pillow.
It was then that I had a dream that kept me in the monastery. Thomas Merton came to me and presented to me this question: “Mark, do you know what a monk is?”
Had I known it would happen to me in the monastery, I doubt I would have entered. That is probably true of any vocation: What we have to face is hidden from us, because the reality would be too grim.
I responded: “No I don’t.” He smiled at me and said in a very matter-of-fact tone: “Mark, a monk is a man who clings to God even when he is in despair.” I awoke then, and knew I was to stay.
The importance did not really register on such a young mind. Within a few months, I understood that the dream pointed to the reality of God’s faithfulness in all of my struggles, even the worst of them. It was just I had not experienced despair before.
A short time later I entered into a journey that made the dream come alive. It also made me understand the importance of clinging to God through trust and prayer. While I was still 23 my inner state changed. The intensity of what I had to go through was at first terrifying.
This is a common path humanity follows, but if I had known it would happen to me in the monastery, I doubt I would have entered. That is probably true of any vocation: What we have to face is hidden from us, because the reality would be too grim.
The Dream Stayed
The dream stayed with me: “Cling to God, even in despair.” So I clung and God slowly brought about healing. I suppose if I had left the monastery, I would have dealt with this wound with the salve of addiction. Say sexual addiction, or drugs, or food, or other things. My main weakness is food.
Prayer kept me on the road towards healing, though it was far from a straight shot. I would run, find it useless, and return to prayer, to the Lord. Over the years healing has come, and is in fact still taking place.
Christ Jesus is one with us in all human experiences, so the deeper we go into the Mind of Christ, the more we understand our oneness with all of humanity. When I pray I feel this deep connection.
I still have not figured out just exactly why I have this inner wound, but that is ok. One of the good things about aging is that I don’t have to fix it, or figure it out. All I have to do is pray, trust, and live one day at a time. In prayer I keep the doors open to life and to the God who had seemed truly absent.
My joy, my love, my anger and lust, my inner rages, are stepping stones to prayer. It is also my connection with others, for my path, while unique, is not that much different from most people’s. In my prayer, I understand that when I am healed, or being healed — for it is a life-long journey — I grow in my desire to bring all others with me.
In this, I have learned what “the priesthood of the faithful” means. Christ Jesus is one with us in all human experiences, so the deeper we go into the Mind of Christ, the more we understand our oneness with all of humanity. When I pray I feel this deep connection.
Released From the Burden
Self-knowledge does not mean that I have myself figured out. It does mean that I come face to face with my radical freedom as well as my struggle to grow in freedom every day. This releases me from the burden of judging others, as well as trying to figure them out. In prayer I learn to see my reflection in others.
It happens slowly for most of us. The seed of grace once planted, God does the watering and the harvesting. We are called to pray, to love, and to minister to each other. Not to judge or to criticize. The greatest self-wounding I do to myself is when I judge in ways that I have no right to do.