“The land you are to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come…” – Deuteronomy 11:10
I am reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a broken and sinful young man who grew up between the World Wars, converted to Catholicism in his 20s, and ultimately became a Trappist monk and priest. Merton is complicated, and his later writings indicate a potentially dangerous attraction to Buddhism. But externally, at least, he never left the priesthood or his order, and his conversion story is a profound and thought-provoking read.
Merton regrets that he did not have the sense to embrace the life of grace the Lord was providing on the day he joined the Catholic Church. Following his baptism and first Holy Communion, he returned to the life he led before—as an aspiring intellectual and writer—except with a few spiritual practices added to the mix: He attended Mass on the weekends and sometimes during the week, went to Confession more than once a month, and engaged in spiritual reading on a fairly regular basis.
To my eyes, that list reads like the makings of a strong disciple. Merton saw it differently: “A man who has just come out of the hospital, having nearly died there, and having been cut to pieces on the operating table, cannot immediately begin to lead the life of the ordinary working man. And after the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.”
Merton recognized something that many of us forget as we work through our conversions: God is calling us to the Promised Land, but that land is another country, completely unlike the place we are leaving. We cannot live as there as we do here. We cannot even enter as we are.
In his case, Merton heard a call to priesthood, which he ignored, and had numerous questions about Catholic teachings and practices, which he failed to ask. Even after his initial conversion, he remained wrapped up in himself—his desires, his plans, his way. This made it impossible for him to follow the Lord’s way, the one path connecting him to heaven.
How often do we do the same? How often have we felt the twinge of a calling or a question, but let it go in favor of whatever we decide is more desirable or important? How often do we ask God for space to do our own thing?
“Doing our own thing” is what takes us away from His path. The Enemy does not need us to turn our backs on God. If we deviate a few degrees to the left or the right, over the course of our lives we will miss Him by miles.
So take time to speak with the Lord and to listen. Ask the questions in your heart and seek the answers. Pray for the wisdom to perceive the truth of His plan for you and the courage to embrace it. Say yes—and no—when you need to. In this way we fit ourselves to enter that other country for eternity.
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Blogger’s Note: This reflection was originally published in the Sunday, February 2, edition of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.