(Friends, this is from my lecture last night, 01/31/2019, at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for the Thomas Merton Course I am lucky enough to co-teach. I decided to focus on the concept of vocation and in the lecture had also included quotes and concepts from Mary Oliver, Simone Weil, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Hope you enjoy a portion of what I shared in essay form).
I’ve long held the belief that the contemplative way is a way of agony. There are no shortcuts from human pain—ours or those we love. And being that such a way of living is also a way to love the world more deeply, there is no escape from this depth of agony. While this dull ache cannot be ignored, it also cannot be one’s central focus, for any focus solely on the pain limits the work of love and minimizes the infinite possibilities each of us host.
Many of us don’t identify with the word contemplative, and even the word contemplative is messy. In The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton writes, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” To be a contemplative, therefore, is perhaps just another way of letting go, a way of being with the suffering, in the suffering, a way of showing solidarity––a special way of being present to the pain of and in the world.
That being said, it seems any vocation where one so fully gives themselves to loving others and the world more deeply is inevitably a vocation of agony. It is often a place of loneliness, aloneness, and an ache for the world to know love. On April 4 of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz (a friend who propelled Merton’s interest in Sufism) saying,
“I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in the world, but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.”
Nearly five years later, on April 3, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared of his experience with vocational agony,
“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”
Thus, another pathway towards meeting the pain of the world is undoubtedly the way of the activist. In 1961, not long after his discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, a young Catholic Worker volunteer named Jim Forest first wrote to Thomas Merton. The correspondence began when Dorothy Day handed Jim a letter from Merton and asked him to respond. In the years that followed frequent letters were exchanged between Jim and Merton. In February of 1966, Merton wrote the young activist saying,
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
The one whose vocation is love lives in a narrative that is controlled by reality. And it is within this reality that one meets the pain of the world. It can often feel like a lonely woundedness, a gaping ache, or a gnaw that is just simply ever-present. When speaking of loneliness and aloneness with a sister of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts, she shared how loneliness belongs to us all, to the most human of hearts,
“I think the loneliness strengthens you over time through whatever life brings about… it’s a loneliness that says ‘there’s space there for the whole world… there’s space there for the whole world.’”
This pain—for the contemplative, for the activist, for the contemplative-activist, for those of us in all vocations of loving humanity—is a pain that only deepens and widens with time. As we bear our own wounds and gaze lovingly at the scars and scabs of those we love, our compassion grows deeper still, our hearts break once again, and we move closer to the unending heart of God.
I’ve long believed that all of us are artists and all of us have the capacity to pursue this kind of vocation of loving in our individual ways. Sister Corita Kent once wrote,
“Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”
And, Evelyn Underhill argued, “All artist are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.” … Finally, Thomas Merton reminds us, “To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw…”