In-Sight: A Gift From Thomas Merton

A couple of weeks ago, I received a gift from Thomas Merton—a gift he gave me through his journals.  I want to pass the gift on to you as we begin 2013.

The gift of fluctuation.

When I stepped back to look at Merton’s journals as-a-whole, I realized that one of the main themes that emerges in his writing is fluctuation.  He runs “hot” and “cold” on almost every aspect of his life:  wanting to be a Cistercian monk, and not—wanting to be at Gethsemani, and not—wanting to be part of the peace movement, and not—wanting to live in The United States, and not—wanting to be a hermit, and not—feeling like a true witness to the faith, and not.

It goes on and on.  Some might want to conclude that his fluctuation is precisely what rules him out, so far as being an example is concerned.  But I want to say the opposite.  Merton’s fluctuations are what keeps him “real” and reflective of the essence of a true journey of spiritual formation.

If we’re going to rule out Merton, we have to throw John Wesley out at the same time. Wesley’s journal records the same kind of “ups” and “downs” that Merton’s does.  And St. Paul even said that things got so bad for him on one occasion he despaired even of life itself  (2 Cor. 1:8)—a pretty amazing thing for him to say after literally being blinded by God’s glory on the road to Damascus!

The witness of the saints is not perfect consistency, but unceasing devotion.  For whether it be Merton, Wesley, or someone else—what we find is that they are as devoted to God when they “don’t feel like it” as they are when they do.  Their experience fluctuates, but their commitment does not.  And that’s what makes their witness authentic.

It’s only those who try to project the idea that “every day in every way I’m getting better and better” who actually project illusion, rather than reality.  It’s only those who believe the only witness they can make is that they “have the victory” who become the plaster saints, who must be treated carefully or they’ll shatter into a million pieces.

Give me a fluctuating saint any day—a witness that faces success and failure—pleasure and pain—advance and decline—happiness and heartache—with unwavering devotion to an unchanging God.


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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3 Responses to In-Sight: A Gift From Thomas Merton

  1. Rev. Sandy Rogers says:

    Steve, I find this very encouraging! My journey with and toward God certainly has its ups and downs! Nouwen – another one of my mentors – certainly did as well My God bless and rest you abundantly during your sabbatical!

  2. Doug Wootten says:

    What an insightful article. I think the most powerful sentence is about a 3rd way down. Their experience fluctuates, but their commitment does not. This is true in a lot of things but as a marriage counselor on many occasions that is what I try to instill in the couples that I counsel. Not to give up when the going gets tough. Thanks for sharing such a great truth.

  3. Bonnie Beuning says:

    So very excellent, Steve. One who is willing and actively pursuing the way to commit heart, mind, and soul knows the depth and totality involved. How can she not “fluctuate?” I have an image in my mind of a wavering landscape (a committed life) as it seen through the heat waves rising above a fire (passion for God).
    p.s. I loved experiencing your daily sessions in Academy, session #5. Thank you for being such a blessing.

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