By Fran Lavelle
I watched a webinar sponsored by Ave Maria Press given by Jonathan Montaldo on “The Spiritual Exercises of Thomas Merton” a few weeks ago. Montaldo was the director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He also served a term as President of the International Thomas Merton Society. I was struck by the unpretentious manner in which Montaldo spoke of Merton. It was evident that Montaldo appreciated the very human, very ordinary Merton. He went so far as to caution against elevating Merton to some kind of guru status. He also reminded the viewer that Merton did not advocate a particular spiritual practice; rather, Merton was calling others to find their own authentic path to a greater intimacy with God. In the spirit of Dom John Chapman, OSB, Merton would have us pray as we can, not as we can’t.
Pointing to the simplicity of Merton’s message, Montaldo shared an entry from one of Merton’s notebooks from the time period he was novice master. In it Merton instructed the novices:
Enter deeply into the school of life itself. Your life is a school of wisdom. Ruminate on the text of your life as a spiritual exercise to excavate God’s loving-kindness to you through your life’s thicket of relationships. Receive every event and learning as a secret instruction from God. Reflect on the action and Grace and detect the innumerable movements of divine Love in your life.
The term “school of life” deeply resonated with me. As Catholic Christians we are called to lifelong conversion. We are called to continue to journey deeper into the mystery of God’s love. Reflecting on our own school of life should not become overly scrupulous or self-centered. We should heed the directive to “receive every event as a secret instruction from God.” Filtering one’s life experience through the lens of what lessons we learn is powerful. Given the correct context, what would ruminating on the text of your life reveal? In journeying back through time ask yourself, who taught you to pray? Who in your church community taught you how to live a life of faith? Who loved you into the “now” of your life?
Merton’s editor compiled an index for his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. The index detailed the myriad of people who contributed to Merton’s faith journey. It served as an alphabetical listing of who’s who over the decades of his life. Reportedly the index was Merton’s most prized part of the book.
What would the index of your life look like? What people, places and situations over the course of your life have made you who you are today? Who are the people you owe your life to because of their love for you? Who are the people who have caused you to suffer? Who are the people who have given you wounds that have turned into blessings? What are the places and events that shaped and formed you?
Making an index is a spiritual exercise that can lead to greater gratitude. A thankful heart inevitably leads us into greater intimacy with God.
During our recent ice and snowstorm, I was talking to a friend about the powerful events that seem to continue to drive us indoors. In addition to the ice and snow we are still in the middle of the pandemic that has drastically curbed our exterior lives. As I sat in prayer on Ash Wednesday morning, I reflected on the previous few days of being sheltered in place. I began seeing this situation as a gift rather than a limitation. With our mobility restricted and literally restrained indoors, I wondered what the next few days would look like if I allowed myself to shelter in place in my interior life as well. What would it look like if I invited God in to the icy, slushy, and messy places in my heart?
I thought about the Merton webinar and replayed it. I am working on an index of my life. It is something I plan on working on throughout Lent adding a few names, places, and events every day. So far, each remembrance has reinforced my gratitude for the gift of my journey. Merton believed that each person in his index was an essential part of his salvation story because he was able to see it all as a gift from God.
I am reminded that some of my best teachers taught me by their example of who I did not want to be. In the same way I recognize the giants whose shoulders I am privileged to stand on. And, not just people, but places and events. I am reminded that my maternal heart was first stirred by a calf I received for my seventh birthday. I wrote Hubert letters and signed them “Love, Your Mother.” Hubert is named in my index.
Many people have asked what does one give up for Lent in the middle of a devastating pandemic when we have already given so much up. It is a legitimate question. Maybe this year instead of giving up we can add up. Yes, add up all the lessons from our school of life and offer them back to God in the form of thanksgiving. And to the extent we are able to, give others a reason to be included in their index by loving and living authentically as Jesus calls us to.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)