Professional religious people and politicians have had a bad couple decades in America. People who sound very confident of their “solutions” to our “problems” have, in fact, offered few real solutions and showed us plenty of their own problems. Much of the American leadership paradigm is built around the idea of a competent, skilled leader laying out a clear path to arrive at a desired destination. Businesses, churches, nations, and individuals order their lives around this paradigm. I’ve done it myself.
“Follow these steps, be this type of person, and you’ll be successful,” we’re told. And yet for so many of us who have labored for good in the world, tried to climb the corporate ladder or just tried to be a better person, these strategies have left us totally unsatisfied and wondering if they helped at all.
The leaders who spout them often suffer tragic, hard falls from grace. They fail to live up to the standards to which they called us. This, of course, is totally predictable. They too were human all along. So we should not be surprised, really, at Bill Clinton’s escapades in the White House or Ravi Zacharias’ sexual secrets or Paula White’s extravagant wealth and privilege.
What then, might be a different way? A depth grounded in humility and desperation more than certitude and confidence. A daily living out of the most basic principles of love, starting with faithfully carrying out the tasks before us.
Thomas Merton has much to teach us about this. Here, from New Seeds of Contemplation, is a searing examination of what it really means to think and live deeply as opposed to the superficial “religion” many of us experience:
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false “faith” which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our “religion” is subject to inexorable questioning…Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans and rationalizations!
My experiences of the past few years both in politics and religion have led me more and more to a hunger for the real, the deep, the raw. Much of modern American Christianity and politics has failed to bring the fruit we all desire to see in our world and in our lives — peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Our leaders continue to present solutions and tell us how to live. They may not necessarily be wrong about some stuff, but the problem comes when we attach both our personal and collective futures to these leaders and their solutions. We will always be disappointed in some way. They are not perfect nor are there solutions always the right ones. And if we’re attached our identity and hope to them and their ideas, when they fail us, where are we left?
Worse, what if big groups of us totally neglect our souls, outsourcing our meaning to leaders and ideas? Merton has pointed words for this:
There are many other escapes from the empirical, external self, which might seem to be, but are not, contemplation. For instance, the experience of being seized and taken out of oneself by collective enthusiasm, in a totalitarian parade: the self-righteous upsurge of party loyalty that blots out conscience and absolves every criminal tendency in the name of Class, Nation, Party, Race or Sect. Yet it is precisely these ersatz forms of enthusiasm that are “opium” for the people, deadening their awareness of their deepest and most personal needs, alienating them from their true selves, putting conscience and personality to sleep and turning free, reasonable men into passive instruments of the power politician.
Is this not what is plaguing so many in our beloved nation this very moment?! Right and left, people are pulled into a “vision” for the future which scratches some itch in their soul, but which will ultimately lead to death. And by attaching their hope and meaning to these visions — whether of “Making America Great Again” or a socialist paradise, we “deaden our awareness of our deepest and most personal needs.”
I too have done this! I have been swept up in hopes and dreams for a certain future, and worked incredibly hard to bring that future about. But what happens when it doesn’t come to pass? We are witnessing this real-time with those who believed in the Q-Anon conspiracy. None of the big predictions have come true and now those who attached so much of themselves to it are crushed and angry. The online message boards are heart-breaking, really, if you have any compassion.
Because I care, I keep asking myself, “how then should we live?” I’ve been growing increasingly hungry to live in the present moment. To shed dreams of culture-shaping grandeur and simply learn to love God and love people in the most immediate of ways, today. And in this, to cultivate depth of soul. To soak in the call of Merton and more recently, Richard Rohr, to shed our false selves and discover more and more our true selves — the eternal self who is created by God to enjoy communion with God. To live into the “humble realization of our mysterious being as person in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power.”
And so we come to my plumber. My friend Peter is a deep soul. You can tell it when you’re with him. He speaks few words but when he does, they have meaning. He talks about God in concrete ways that exhibit he’s been near Him. He prays as one talking to someone he knows, and yet with an awe and reverence and realization of who he is. Peter is a plumber from Jamaica who, after much searching and holding various jobs which were not plumbing, was able to get back into it with a great local company. When Peter comes to my house to fix something, as he did recently with my water heater, I know it will be done right. Patiently. Carefully. With pride.
It’s here that the monk Thomas Merton’s ideas intersect with the very real experiences I am having and which validate a different approach. Listen to Merton:
The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. To do work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.
To be sure, not all work achieves this. Merton speaks of it, as does Tim Keller in his incredible book, Every Good Endeavor. Here’s how Merton describes it:
Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. He may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live. IN that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.
But when we can engage in the simple and beautiful work before us, with joy and peace, we are in some mysterious way uniting ourselves “to God’s will in our work.” This is Peter. My plumber is a monk and I didn’t even know it. You can be too.
And in this we each have much to learn in this time. Our nation and our culture are indeed in great need of many things. Politicians and religious leaders will continue to offer us many answers to such problems. Might it be that what our world needs most right now is not followers of new and big ideas, or obedient and frustrated religious people, but lovers of God and one another who wake up every morning and go deep? Who take on each day for what that day is, looking for ways to do meaningful work and love those around us? Here again, Merton offers a vision of this simple, beautiful living:
A saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God and arouses a greater love of God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion.
Today, don’t strain. Don’t strive. Just rest in the knowledge that God loves you and created you and has given you — if only you’ll receive it — a simple, beautiful opportunity for meaningful work, loving connection and deep peace. Even if you’re unclogging a toilet.