All of us at some point or another have been at a crossroad, and determining which path to take in our lives can be daunting. We can overwhelm ourselves – How do I know I am choosing what God wills of me? Yes, frequent prayer is essential! However, is that God’s voice I hear or my own? Yes, listening to God through others is important, but how do I differentiate between the conflicting, but sage, voices of family, friends, and colleagues? Are they just telling me what I want to hear? Yes, inner reflection is equally necessary. Nevertheless, how do I recognize the truth in that inner voice? God is not a micromanager, though some of us may wish otherwise! In addition to consulting my spiritual advisor, I frequently turn to the writings of Thomas Merton (who, by the way, would have turned 100 this year) for all things spiritual.
I find Thomas Merton’s insights not only helpful to myself in wrestling with decisions, but also in guiding those discerning God’s will for their vocation, particularly the high school seniors with whom I have had the privilege to work this year. Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968), a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a Trappist monk from Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, wrote more than 70 books on the spiritual life, peace, social justice, and ecumenism. Additionally, his autobiographical work, The Seven Storey Mountain, is on par with St. Augustine’s Confessions. In his works, he builds on the Church’s rich mystical and contemplative traditions, bringing his insights to contemporary readers. His writings have inspired numerous others, including Fr. Basil Pennington, OCSO (one of the architects of centering prayer, along with Fathers Thomas Keating and William Meninger), Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM (author and founder for the Center for Action and Contemplation), as well as Fr. James Martin, SJ (author and editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine, America), to name just three.
Merton’s writings speak to Christians and non-Christians alike and can be an unwavering influence in maintaining a prayerful presence and discerning God’s will. Merton teaches us that contemplative prayer can bring not only inner peace, but also profound insight. I have found meditation and contemplative prayer, specifically the simple method of centering prayer, helpful in the discernment process – no matter the magnitude of the decision! More importantly, Merton’s explanation of the “true self and false self” construct can be beneficial to unifying your will with God’s will – to hear what God is calling you to do. Illuminating Christ’s teaching that we must “lose ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mk 8:35), Merton penned and explained the term false self, which Keating, Rohr, and others further expounded upon. Briefly, the false self (think “ego”) is who you present to the world, an illusion according to Merton that is outside the reach of God, whereas your true self is the person you are before God, that which is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27).
There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1961).
In the silence of contemplative prayer, I can quiet my mind so I can lose my ego that depends on control, pride, power, and recognition and which is often envious, judgmental, and/or worried. I shed my false self and reveal my true self. In the midst of the silence, if I find my true self, I rest with God. In that rest, I often hear God’s will. I experience God in the present moment – I am open to God’s will, even though it may run counter to my own desires.
Merton’s words, in what is known as the “Merton Prayer,” provide insight on the mindset we should have going into any discernment process (it is also an excellent prayer to begin a period of contemplation).
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 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. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1956)
When a question of discernment arises, set aside time to spend with God in silence whether it is Eucharistic adoration, meditation, contemplative prayer, or centering prayer. Quiet your mind, shed your false self, reveal the passion of your true self…trust and wait in hope for God to lead you by the right road…rest in God’s will.
Fawn Waranauskas teaches Catholic Spirituality for the Catholic Catechesis Program at Saint Joseph’s College Online.