By Fr. Brian Miclot
Some of our best contemporary religious music is from Bernadette Farrell. “Christ be our Light,” and dozens of others were followed by “All that is Hidden,” in which is sung, “If you would rise with me, rise through your destiny; do not refuse the death which brings you life … for as the grain in the earth…” We know the rest, don’t we? They are Jesus’ own words, this coming Sunday: “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remain just a grain … but if it dies, it produces much …” These words express one of the essentials of Lent — dying to that which keeps us from Christ; rising with Christ to new life.
Father Thomas Merton’s life was a struggle to “die” to many things. He wrote often of his unrelenting “dying inside,” his constant uneasiness with the poor condition of the way things were in his own life as well as in our world. His destiny was much like Farrell’s song making music of Jesus’ words. He grew up quite bright, but binging, womanizing and, for the most part, avoiding the “destiny” of the kind of “dying” that could bring him life and to which Christ called him.
How are we being called to die in some way this Lent? Our destiny in Christ often arises as a summons. This is to say that, in Christ, we are summoned to “die” at the very spot we often avoid: our son’s failure we’d rather forget; my alcoholism from avoiding pain or responsibility, your daughter’s coming out of the closet you would prefer she had stayed in; our country’s mistakes at Abu Ghraib we’d hidden away, then “explained away.” The list goes on.
Yet, here is the grace of Lent, the death of our selves enfolded into new life: “… do not refuse the death which brings you life.”
Merton first “converted” from being a youthful, wild child toward the seeds of grace found in a monastery. Yet, he later “reconverted;” he “died” again one could say. In “The Sign of Jonas” he wrote, “The guy who wrote the Seven Storey Mountain is dead. …. Thomas Merton is dead many times over.” He “died” in such a way that he could give up what he, at first believed to be, an unbothered escape of monastic solitude, in order to think, pray and vicariously live in the struggles, the “dyings” of Jewish victims at the hands of a “sane” Nazi, Eichmann. Merton died at a soulful level, when recalling the burning of Vietnam and Hiroshima’s innocents. He died again and lived for Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggles for voting, desegregation, just wages and working conditions.
Here in America, there in Southeast Asia and there (again) in the hidden history of Nazi genocide, Merton was summoned to die. Yet everywhere were the beginnings of resurrection. Merton discovered — not only in monasteries or churches — that God’s divine “seeds” were planted in death to bring forth new life. Often at the very spots most avoided, he as well as we must respond to God’s summons to “die” to our former, distracted, evasive selves — and only then, discover life. “What is the contemplative life,” Merton wrote late in life, “if one becomes oblivious to the rights of others and the truth of God in the world and in God’s church?”
Indeed, not only, “What is contemplative life?” but what are our lives in and out of church? What is our Lenten renewal all about if we “refuse the death(s) which bring us life?” For as the grain in the earth must die for rebirth, so, (Christ) has planted his love deep within us.
(Father Brian Miclot is professor of philosophy at St Ambrose University in Davenport.)