Merton: The Two Halves of Life

I am reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The accompanying CD has a talk by Richard on the same subject. I highly recommend both. In what follows I hope I have done justice tom Rohr’s thinking.

Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He came rather to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

In the first half of our lives we are busy establishing ourselves, building the container, the wineskin, so to speak. The Law provides the structure we need to achieve this task. It gives us a framework, a foundation, a point of reference for the rest of our lives. We never abolish these foundational structures—we fulfill them.

In the second half of our lives, we come to realize that we have to let go and go beyond laws and structures. We follow the law written on our hearts by God. A troubling or disconcerting event usually triggers the Passover to the second half which is about falling into the void, surrendering control, letting go.

Merton wrote:

Hence the Christian has no Law but Christ. His “Law” is the new life itself that has been given to him in Christ. His Law is not written in books but in the depths of his own heart, not by the pen of man but by the finger of God. His duty is now not just to obey but to live. He does not have to save himself, he is saved by Christ. He must live to God in Christ, not only as one who seeks salvation but as one who is saved. (Seasons of Celebration, 119-120)

Relying on Walter Bruggemann’s analysis, Rohr relates life stages to the Law (Torah), the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings. Many people never move beyond the Law—the need for well-defined church and societal structures. The journey into the second half of our lives, which does not always occur at the chronological midpoint, requires us to develop prophetic self-critique. The critique looks not outward with finger pointing but rather inward with introspection. If we do the work, or perhaps, if we let the work be done in us, we then move to the Wisdom phase.

Thomas Merton is the perfect paradigm for the two halves of life. Merton, after an indulgent life of alcohol and sex, entered the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani the month before his 27th birthday—December 10, 1941. He died in Bangkok exactly 27 years later—December 10, 1968. (Ironic isn’t it?)

By his own admission in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton said : “I was breaking my neck trying to get everything out of life that you think you can get out of it when you are eighteen.” In other words, Merton was hell-bent on doing his own thing. In a disastrous year at Clare College Cambridge University Merton impregnated a woman who bore his son. Both are believed to have died in the buzz bombings of England.

After graduating from Columbia University, Merton converted to Catholicism and taught at St. Bonaventure University. Having been accepted to study for the Franciscans and priesthood, Merton, in a pique of conscience, told the vocation director all about his sordid life. The vocation director was quick to tell Merton that he did not have a vocation to the priesthood. (Wonder whether the Franciscans fired the vocation director after Merton became famous?)

Merton entered the monastery with “Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in the other, and his Bible open to the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation).” Gethsemani was the center of all that was good in the world. Gethsemani and the Trappist structures gave Merton what he sorely lacked. He became a contemplative. He fell into the arms of the living God. The Divine physician shredded the trappings of Merton’s errant false self and called forth his true self—his self grounded in God. Merton had truly fallen into the abyss and tumbled out into the loving arms of God—“mercy upon mercy upon mercy.”

Established in his relationship with God, Merton had an epiphany on the streets of Louisville while running an errand for the monastery. On the corner of Fourth and Walnut (now Fourth and Muhammad Ali) as the people hustled and bustled about him, Merton came to understand that the separate self was a myth. He was one with all the people around him. He could see the light of Christ shining in them and he knew he was in solidarity with every other person. This was indeed his Passover moment into the second half of life. He wrote, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Merton the prophet emerged. He moved beyond the structures that gave him new life and became the spiritual director, the conscience of the peace movement in the sixties. In conjunction with Dom Leclercq, Merton understood that monastic life was not about survival. It is about prophetic critique. He was silenced by Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General, for his writings on war and nuclear weapons.

Even though he critiqued the church and society, he got it right, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” Begin with yourself and let God bring you into your true self.

Merton grew in wisdom. His poem, Hagai Sophia, is a masterpiece of wisdom literature. Echoing Gerard Manley Hopkins, Merton wrote, “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, and a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.” Read the entire poem. It is Merton at his second half of life best.

Merton had grown to be comfortable with prophetic critique and paradox (e.g. “dimmed light”). Many of us are not as blessed as Merton. Our lives do not fall into neat halves; however, when the precipitating event occurs, Merton can be our anam cara, our soul friend, our guide at the side.

Merton’s prayer—a second half of life prayer— is our 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.

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