by Pastor Doug Kings
I recently came across a talk given by James Finley a few years ago on a prayer written by Thomas Merton. Finley was a student of Merton and author of the book about his teachings that a group of us discussed earlier this year. The prayer is from Merton’s book Thoughts in Solitude.
“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 the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
One year ago this week we ceased our in-person worship (a phrase I had never used before) and abruptly switched all our congregation’s activities to online broadcasts or Zoom meetings. Thus began a year I could never have imagined, nor could any of us as we all individually experienced the coronavirus pandemic in our unique ways.
As Finley begins his talk, he asks his audience to think back to various points in their lives: when they were in their teens, twenties, thirties. Think about how you imagined your life would be and how it has turned out, he asks. “Look at the circuitous journey,” Finley say. “10,000 cul-de-sacs. You could not have planned it if you tried.” As Merton says, we do not see the road ahead of us.
Yet we are constantly making plans, putting such a high priority on thinking we know what will happen next, and getting so upset whenever we are in a situation where we don’t know what will happen next. Yet that is the normal reality: completely unpredictable trap doors and detours coming at us one after another.
The reality is that we don’t know ourself, we don’t know our future, we don’t know God. Yet, as we go through life, we keep telling ourself that we’re starting to get things figured out—until the next trap doors opens. “We are all dopes,” Merton says, “but we’re loved dopes.”
For if we know we are loved, then our misadventures don’t cause humiliation but lead to humility, which Finley describes as “experiential knowledge.” Then we realize we need to stay open to things we don’t actually know (though we thought we did), things that we don’t understand (though we though we did). It is to acknowledge that self-deception is always possible and that we can’t see around the next corner.
The past year has been an intense and profound demonstration of this reality. At times we have sincerely trusted and at other times we have furiously schemed and planned. At times we have acted in the best interest of others and sometimes we have thought only of ourselves. Yet throughout this year, though we haven’t liked it or wanted to admit it, we should have said as Merton does, “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.”
And that is true today and will be true tomorrow. But what keeps us from succumbing to bitterness or despair is the knowledge that so long as we desire to act out of love, which is what it means “to please” God, that is enough. This is the meaning of faith. It is the source of what Paul calls “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”
For then, however convoluted our journey, however many wrong turns we make, we know that we are not traveling alone. Or as Finley says, “Though I may be lost, you always know exactly where I am.” And more than our supposed destination, or the route we are on to get there, that companionship, that presence, that love is all that matters.
Blessings in your life and ministry.