Sometimes, what your faith life needs is someone to break things down, but not too far down. Adults do not like to be talked down to or made to feel like they don’t know anything, but not everyone is a rocket scientist (and I know several actual rocket scientists). Lent in particular is a great time to assess your faith life and see where you need more time and space to reflect, respond, and grow closer to the Lord. As ACNM’s trusty book reviewer, part of my job is to point you in the direction of resources that can help you grow in faith. If Theology for Beginners is too much for you, give No Man Is an Island a try.
Until I began No Man, I had never actually read anything by Thomas Merton. I knew plenty about him, though: he was a Cistercian monk at an abbey in Kentucky, he had a variety of personal struggles with his life in the abbey, he had a particular affinity for Eastern religion, and he actually died outside of the abbey while on a trip to Thailand in the late 1960s. My first encounter with Merton was through his well-known 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.
That prayer has definitely brought me comfort, especially by his insight that effort doesn’t always make results: “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” I can identify with that, so I knew I would probably get along with his other writing, too.
I was right. I chose No Man based on what was available to me, and I was pleased to discover that Merton selected the specific essays that make up that collection because they are more foundational than those in the earlier New Seeds of Contemplation. He says that they fill in gaps in understanding, which is the story of my life sometimes. He alludes to various Bible passages but quotes others outright. He starts from basic experiences and works up to truths about God.
As I read, I noted how Merton strikes that delicate balance between too theological and too practical. He asserts, for example, that all government stems from the love of God. We love God because he loves us, and we love other people because God loves them and we are trying to be like God. Because we love people, we care about them and want to organize them into well-ordered societies with strong, capable leaders. If we didn’t care about anyone else, why would we bother to govern them at all? Our governments don’t always love perfectly or even well, but they try, and trying at all is better than not.
Although Thomas Merton is not a saint (and as far as I know, his cause has not been opened), he is widely recognized as a mystic and an important 20th-century Catholic thinker and writer. If you find yourself with a few minutes to reflect on the human condition and our interconnectedness with one another and with God, you might find some ripe spiritual fruit in No Man. At the very least, you’ll get something good to chew on.