By Mara Fitzgibbon Adams
The Gospel reading (John 3: 14-21) for the fourth Sunday of Lent is familiar to many people. One only has to watch a sports event to see someone in the crowd holding up a placard on which “John 3:16” is written; the passage has been dubbed the most popular Bible verse in America. This text is one that offers us great hope and comfort: For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
But the passage continues with God’s lament: “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” Anyone who has ever witnessed another person bent on self-destruction can understand the sorrow captured in these words.
This Gospel reading is part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was intrigued enough by Jesus’ discussion of the Kingdom of God to seek him out for further clarification. By all accounts, Nicodemus was a devout and upright man well-versed in his faith, and yet he remained at some level spiritually unfulfilled. Like America’s most famous Bible verse, the longing of Nicodemus should also strike a chord with us, as it is the universal longing of the human person to know God deeply. We respond to or ignore this invitation in our daily actions.
Many writers throughout Christian history have written about the power of choice, and one such author was Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Catholic monk, poet and activist who wrote on diverse issues such as peace, racial injustice, the arms race, ecumenical dialogue and the tension between contemplation and activism.
Thomas Merton’s thoughts on spiritual and social concerns are too numerous for this column, but even a cursory read of his work points to the urgent need to balance discernment with action. We need to make thoughtful, peaceful choices because the safety and security of our world depends upon it.
And while Merton offered many carefully nuanced reflections on how we might go about making such choices, there is yet another problem to consider: even if we think we are living as people of the light, we can never be so arrogant as to assume that we always are. Here is where Merton really shines as a pastoral writer, for in his book “Thoughts in Solitude,” he addressed this very concern. His solution was eloquently captured in a mere 15 lines that have become known as the Merton Prayer:
“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 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 I will 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.”
(Adams is an associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)