Jun 1 2016

Still Learning from Thomas Merton

_CES6986I have been a fan of the writings of Thomas Merton for almost forty years. I consider him one of my spiritual mentors even though I never met him.  Merton has been dead close to fifty years but through his many books he continues to speak to me.  Over the past few days I’ve come across two passages from his writings that have moved me deeply.  I am currently rereading Thoughts in Solitude and read this word on gratitude a few nights ago: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us–and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6979Although Merton does not speak specifically of nature in this passage it made me think of my experience of God through Creation. Over the years I have come to see “the Love of God” in everything that God has made.  All around us is the evidence of God’s love.  The air we breathe, the clouds that float by overhead, the trees waving their branches, the birds singing their songs…all of these are expressions of God’s love for you and me.  I appreciate Merton’s clarion call to be grateful for God’s overtures of love.  He is right; we should not take anything for granted, never be unresponsive to the divine gifts of love we receive, and live in complete wonder and awe of the goodness of God.  In many ways, but especially in nature, I have experienced the goodness and love of God “not by hearsay but by experience.” And, yes, “that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6936The other passage by Merton I came across showed up on a Facebook page earlier today that features daily sayings of the late Trappist monk. This one originated in what is perhaps my favorite Merton book, No Man Is An Island.  Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. . . . It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all out fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.”

_CES6956In this passage I was convicted of the inner and outer noise in my life which keeps me from fully experiencing “the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea.” I was convicted of my busyness—usually taking pictures—that frequently robs me of the peace and tranquility that God’s Creation is meant to give us.   I was convicted of my illogical need for speed even when outdoors and how important it is for me to slow down if I want to enjoy the “immense graces” God provides those who will “be still.”  (Psalm 46:10)  I was convicted of the fact that I’m guilty of thinking I know what’s going on around me when in reality that’s an illusion and I have so very much yet to learn.

I don’t know if you are a fan of Thomas Merton’s writings or not, but sometimes I think I’d be lost without them.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used here on a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani  in central Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived most of his adult life.)


Jun 23 2013

The Answer Center

Akaka Falls 213Yesterday I was driving into town when I saw a long line of people in front of a building.  As I got closer I looked to see what the building was.  The name on the front of it was “The Answer Center.”  When I saw this I couldn’t help but chuckle.  It made sense that a place where you can get answers would have a long line in front of it.  In fact, I was tempted to get in line myself.

CSP3967In this life we all have questions we’d like answers for.  One question many people ask is “what is the secret to happiness?”  Happiness tends to be one of humankind’s primary goals.  Everyone wants to be happy.  So what is the answer to the secret of happiness?  Shortly before seeing the line in front of the building yesterday I had pulled out one of my favorite Thomas Merton books, No Man Is an Island.  I was flipping through the pages when I came across a passage I had underlined a number of years ago.  It reads: “It is for this that we account ourselves happy when we know His will and do it, and realize that the greatest unhappiness is to have no sense of His purposes or His designs either for ourselves or for the rest of the world.”

I happen to believe that there are answers indeed to be found in Merton’s words.  If people want to experience true happiness they must come to know God’s will for their lives and do it.  If a person doesn’t have a sense of God purpose or design on his or her life it creates both confusion and unhappiness.  Our happiness is dependent on fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

I would have you note, however, that Merton also points out that it is imperative that we also have some sense of God’s purposes and designs “for the rest of the world.”  I’ve read enough of Merton to know that he would include in this God’s purposes and designs for Creation.  He knew that if we do not understand God’s intention for Creation then it will affect our happiness.  How could it not?  If we do not have a clear sense of the role the world or Creation has to play in God’s design then we are likely to miss out on much in life.

LAV 837I have written several times about how the chief purpose of both humankind and Creation is to bring glory to God.  Recently I pointed to an important passage in Colossians 1 where we are told that the world was created by and for Christ. (v. 16)  In my own life I have discovered that I am most unhappy when I am centering everything on me.  There’s a reason for that.  The world does not center on me; it centers on Christ.  If we keep trying to make everything about us then we will remain unhappy.  But if we will live out our lives in the recognition that we, along with Creation itself, exist to bring glory to God it will end up bringing us a joy and happiness we will find nowhere else. 

In Merton’s words I find the “answer center’ I need.  Perhaps you will too.

–Chuck

(I took the top image of Akaka Falls in Hawaii, the middle image at Custer State Park in South Dakota, and the bottom image of lavendar on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.


Sep 5 2012

Silence is Golden

“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.”  Psalm 62:5 (ESV)

Yesterday I came across two different passages about noise and silence.  The first one I discovered while looking through Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island.   The second one I discovered in a posting from “R120”on Facebook.  It is a passage from another one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen.  I want to share these two passages with you today and then make a couple of observations.

Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else.  They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness.  The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength.  The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone.  The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart.  It is the silence of the world that is real.  Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.  God is present, and His thought is alive and awake in the fullness and depth and breadth of all the silences of the world.”

Nouwen wrote: “Few of us can fully appreciate the terrible conspiracy of noise there is about us, noise that denies us the silence and solitude we need for this cultivation of the inner garden. It would not be hard to believe that the archenemy of God has conspired to surround us at every conceivable point in our lives with the interfering noises of civilization that, when left unmuffled, usually drown out the voice of God. He who walks with God will tell you plainly, God does not ordinarily shout to make Himself heard. As Elijah discovered, God tends to whisper in the garden.”

These two passages speak of the importance of silence in the spiritual journey and also to how difficult it can be to actually experience silence.  The world we live in is filled with noise.  Whether you live in a rural setting or an urban one there’s a lot of noise to contend with.  Needless to say, most of this noise is necessary.  The machines and appliances we use and enjoy all make noise.  The problem is this noise can, if we are not careful, keep us from hearing God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) and seeing Him in the world around us.

Over the centuries many of the masters of Christian spirituality have written about the importance of silence in the spiritual life.  They concur that we all need periods of silence and solitude in order to commune with God.  Experiencing silence, however, does not necessarily come easy.  Some people do everything they can to avoid silence.  I run across such people on a consistent basis.  Many people actually fear silence because there is something about silence that forces them to look within and to matters of the soul.  They intentionally fill their lives with noise so that they do not have to think of these things. Such people need to realize that silence is a vital component of the spiritual life.

Others desire silence but find it hard to obtain.  Here’s where I think nature can be of great help.  Although you will rarely, if ever, find complete silence in nature you will often find in God’s Creation a refuge from the noises that tend to distract us at home or in the workplace.  I realize that not everyone has easy access to quiet natural areas but many of us do.  We need to take advantage of these places.  In the stillness of Creation we can see and hear God in ways that might not come so readily elsewhere.

I encourage you to be intentional about seeking silence in your life, whether that be outdoors or indoors.  In my experience, silence truly is golden.  It is of the utmost value because it helps me experience more fully my wonderful God and Savior.

–Chuck

p.s. If you are on Facebook I would encourage you to search for and “like” the site “R120.”  Michael Boone posts wonderful inspirational quotes about nature at this site on a regular basis.  In case you’re wondering,  R120 stands for Romans 1:20.

(I took the top image at Big Bend National Park, the middle image at Death Valley National Park, and the bottom image at Jackson, New Hampshire.)


Jul 10 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

This past Wednesday I shared some words with you from the end of a chapter in Thomas Merton’s book, No Man Is An Island. Actually those words weren’t at the very end of the chapter–just real close. At the very end Merton discusses the importance of gratitude and it’s role in seeing God in His Creation. He writes, “If we are not grateful to God, we cannot taste the joy of finding Him in His creation. To be ungrateful is to admit that we do not know Him, and that we love His creatures not for His sake but for our own.”

I think Merton is on to something here. We miss so much when we fail to live our lives with an attitude of gratitude. If we do not live our lives each day in the awareness that everything is a gift of God and an expression of His goodness we will miss the full blessing of His gifts. We may see a tree, flower or animal and be thankful for it but if we don’t also see in that same tree, flower or animal an expression of God’s love then our thanksgiving is not complete and we miss the full joy God intended.  

We are also reminded that ultimately we should love Creation for God’s sake instead of our own. The Bible indicates that the world was created for God’s glory.  We tend to think it is all about us but Paul says in First Corinthians 8:6 “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” The world was made by God and for God. Yes, it brings us great delight and meets our needs in many ways, but if we fail to see that it exists first and foremost for His glory then we fail to see things as they are and also fail to appreciate things as we should. Our gratitude is intensified when we recognize this vital truth and we come to love Creation for God’s sake, not just our own.

In the final sentence of the chapter Merton says “Gratitude shows reverence to God in the way it makes use of His gifts.” I encourage you to give some thought to these words. What he says is true of our own personal gifts but it is also certainly true of the gift of Creation. If we are genuinely grateful for the world God has made it will be revealed not necessarily in how often we say “thank you” but in how we make use of this wonderful gift. Gratitude and Creation Care are intimately connected. I fear too many people have forgotten this or have not been made aware of the connection. Those who are most grateful for the natural world are the ones who are striving to be good stewards of it. According to Merton, they are also the ones showing the most reverence to God.

–Chuck 

(I photographed the western chipmunk above in Oregon. The grizzly cubs were photographed at Katmai National Park in Alaska.)  

 


Jul 6 2011

Paradise: Past, Present and Future

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Thomas Merton.  Currently I am rereading one of my favorite books by this deceased Trappist monk, No Man Is An Island.  Last night I came across a passage that I had forgotten about but that certainly speaks to those interested in “seeing Creation.”

At the conclusion to the chapter, “Asceticism and Sacrifice,” Merton writes: “All nature is meant to make us think of paradise.  Woods, fields, valleys, the rivers and the sea, the clouds traveling across the sky, light and darkness, sun and stars, remind us that the world was first created as a paradise for the first Adam, and that in spite of his sin and ours, it will once again become a paradise when we are all risen from death in the second Adam.”  Merton goes on to say, “Heaven is even now mirrored in created things.  All God’s creatures invite us to forget our vain cares and enter into our own hearts, which God Himself has made to be His paradise and our own.  If we have God dwelling within us, making our souls His paradise, then the world around us can also become for us what it was meant to be for Adam—his paradise.”

Merton gives us much to think about here.  He teaches us that all the natural world serves as a reminder to us of the paradise God created in the very beginning.  In the Garden of Eden everything was good and humans walked in fellowship with God.  Sin eventually marred Creation (and continues to today) but the Scriptures point to a day when there will be “a new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev. 21:1)  This is a great source of hope for us—paradise will one day be restored!  But as Merton points out, even now heaven is “mirrored in created things.”  In Creation we experience a “foretaste of glory divine.”  Merton says even the animals around us call us to “forget our vain cares” and call us to move our hearts in the Creator’s direction.  It is in Him, first and foremost, that we experience paradise.

Another thing Merton teaches us is that a fellowship with God is necessary for us truly to find in Creation the paradise the Creator intended for both Adam and us.  He elaborates on this when he says, “if we seek paradise outside ourselves, we cannot have paradise in our hearts.  If we have no peace within ourselves, we have no peace with what is around us.  Only the man who is free from attachment finds that creatures have become his friends.  As long as he is attached to them, they speak to him only of his own desires.  Or they remind him of his sins.  When he is selfish, they serve his selfishness.  When he is pure, they speak to him of God.”  Here we are reminded that the person who longs to see God in His Creation must put God first in his or her life.  When our lives are focused primarily on Him then we will see God everywhere we look.  We will see Him in all that He has made.  Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” (Matthew 5:8) apply here.  The closer we are to God the more places we will see Him and the more we will experience paradise here on earth.

–Chuck

(Both of the images above were taken near Hazard, Kentucky.  I took the top picture at Buckhorn Lake State Park a few years ago.  The fawn was photographed a couple of weeks ago.)


May 15 2011

“Living On the Doorstep of Hell”

In the final chapter of his book, The Gospel According to the Earth, Matthew Sleeth discusses an unpopular subject, sacrifice.  In this chapter he makes a couple of allusions to boats.  At one point Dr. Sleeth says “Think of the earth as a ship.  It is the only earth we have.  If we destroy it, we have nowhere else to go.  If the ship is sinking, as ours most assuredly is, we must make difficult choices to save it.  Choices that involve sacrifice.”

There can be no denying that our planet is in trouble.  There are toxins in the air and in the water almost everywhere you look.  Our invaluable rain forests are shrinking at an alarming rate, as are many of the wonderful species God intentionally created.  There are lots of problems with few easy answers.  Some would argue that there are easy answers but what they ignore is that all of these answers require sacrifice.  Because they do, they are not easy.  As a general rule people today do not like to make sacrifices.

Earlier in the chapter noted above Sleeth says “Everyone believes that ark building is a great idea once it has begun to rain.  The trick is beginning an ark six months before the flood.  We can begin building our metaphorical ark by accepting God’s truth and living sacrificially.”   From some of the things I have read and seen I’m not  convinced “everyone” thinks it’s a great idea to build an ark just because it happens to be raining.  Countless people these days live in a state of denial.  They refuse to believe that our planet, and we along with it, is suffering due to our poor stewardship of God’s Creation.  They see no need to do anything even though it has already begun to flood.

How could anyone be so blind?  I’m not sure the issue is blindness as much as it is an unwillingness to sacrifice.   And behind this unwillingness to sacrifice stands pride or selfishness.  A couple of nights ago I came across this sentence in Thomas Merton’s book, No Man Is An Island“To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.”  Too many people today are living on the doorstep of hell.  They are living only for themselves.  As long as people continue to live this way they will not make the sacrifices necessary to help the earth or to help others.

In his call to discipleship Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew16:24)  Sacrifice, denying oneself, lies at the heart of following Jesus.  There are many ways we can and should live sacrificial lifestyles.  One way involves how we live on and care for the earth.  We do not follow in the steps of Christ if we fail to take into consideration how our actions affect the earth and those around us.  We do not follow in his steps if we fail to make the sacrifices necessary that will benefit not just us but all those around us and the generations that will follow as well. 

May God grant each of us wisdom to know what sacrifices we should be making and the courage to make them.

–Chuck

(The top image was taken at Devil’s Canyon Overlook in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana.  The bottom image was taken at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.)