“Y’know, many of us are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.” That line, attributed to an old black Baptist pastor, always gets a laugh. It seems to prove a fundamental principle of good humor — it’s ultimately grounded in fact. We chuckle because we knowingly recognize its truth.
Those who work Twelve Step programs know how challenging it can be to “walk our talk.” I didn’t need Jungian analysis or the Enneagram — though both are helpful — to tell me about my propensity to polish my carefully crafted public persona!
When confronted with someone hell-bent on telling others what God expects of us, I have quietly come to wonder: “What is so out of control in their lives that they feel the need to control everyone else?” The will to power is in all of us and it is strong!
Yes, this is the direction my personal Examination of Conscience needs to go this Lenten season. My will to control is strong, hopefully not insatiable. I can too easily resort to my years of theological education and “spiritual practice” to stay safe in the realm of ideas rather than walk-my-talk. Being articulate can quickly slip into a weapon wielding superiority and arrogance rather than a tool to liberate and empower others.
As our chuckle in response to the black Baptist pastor’s admonition attests to its truth, so we knowingly recognize ourselves in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). In our social interactions, as well as our prayer, we find ourselves easily thanking God we “are not like other men.”
Thomas Merton masterfully cuts through such charade! Clearly asceticism and prayer — rightly understood and rightly applied — are means toward spiritual maturation and personal growth. But, here is what we don’t want to accept, the roadblock we must eventually traverse… Merton suggests these practices — unfortunately and almost inevitably — will get subsumed into a quest for our own aggrandizement. Our self-centeredness does not give-up easily or without quite a fight!
There is plenty in our pop culture and the self-help section of bookstores to feed our unbridled ego-ism and deceive us into thinking our happiness is found in “personal fulfillment”. Merton admonishes his fellow monks as well as the rest of us who feel a tug toward spiritual “solitude” or “would be perfect.” He warns us how easily it is to fool ourselves: “We burn with self-admiration and think, ‘It is the fire of the love of God’.”
A fool-proof litmus test for whether my spiritually is fatally “inverted” in pursuit of my own “perfection” is to ask whether I am actually in search of the consolations of God or seeking the God of consolation. Are others better off because of my “heavenly minded” machinations?
Thankfully, there is a surefire solution. Failure! What saves us is finally, even if begrudgingly, the self-acceptance that we are not our own savior, we are ultimately powerless, we cannot make ourselves perfect or even “worthy.”
What saves us, finally, is love… nothing other than the merciful love of God! How hard it is for us to accept this! Fellow Trappist Bernardo Bonowitz writes: “This piercing intuition leads Merton to say, in a beautiful re-phrasing of 1 John 4:10, ‘The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. That one is loved by God. The faith that one is loved by God, although unworthy, or rather, irrespective of one’s worth’.”
With that grace, even quickening in our awareness, we can embark on loving others as ourselves — loving in a way that is of some earthly good.
This reflection is largely inspired by and based upon Reaping Where Merton has Sown: A Retreat for the Merton Centenary by Bernardo Bonowitz, OCSO published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly 50.1 (2015), p. 56.