Reading Thomas Merton’s early letters in The Road to Joy which include some that he wrote to his best friend, Robert Lax, during his young adult years beginning in 1939. They were pretty raw, the kind of letters he would not have wanted his mother to read. Writing during WW II, Merton was subject to the draft but took a pacifist position asking to serve as a medic. It seemed that his CO status was accepted and he was assigned “to hoe and tend the trees and shrubs” at a camp that was not yet constructed before he went into the Trappist monastery in December, 1941.
Shortly after entering the monastery, he wrote to Lax: “It is very very good and sweet to be always occupied with God only, and sit simply in His presence and shut up, and be healed by the mere fact that God likes to be in your soul, because you like Him to be there. And in doing this you also love your neighbor as much as you could by any action of your own: because God cannot be in your soul without that fact having an effect on other people, and not necessarily people who have ever heard of you.”
It has been a challenge in my own spiritual journey to get over an idea I had that one can only experience closeness to God if shut up in a convent or monastery. It never seemed that people who lived normal lives which included marriage (sex!), raising kids (drama!), working (money!), going to movies (carnality!), having backyard parties with friends (drinking!), and buying stuff (materialism!) could or even were allowed to have a close relationship with God. I suppose I got that idea in a church that only canonized people who were nuns, monks or priests. Sainthood, it seemed, was not for the tainted.
I don’t know what I think now about sainthood. I think some of these folks had a good heavenly laugh at the idea when the Church officially declared them saints. Some of them were thought to be heretics by the same Church when they actually walked the earth.
I am just glad to be living during a time when ordinary people are able to lay claim to spirituality separate from religion and define a relationship with a higher power that makes sense to them and can fill their souls. These aren’t necessarily people who have abandoned their religious communities. But they seem to rise above the doctrines and practices and hierarchies of said communities and walk to the beat of a different drummer. Or they function without a religious community, walking in the spirit, and others don’t know the source of their serenity or their joy.
I love Merton’s idea that God likes to be in your soul. I will ponder that today as God coexists with my thoughts of canned tomatoes and frozen chard.