This will be the last reflection I write for this blog, at least for the foreseeable future.
These days, I find myself longing for silence more than speech, for learning more than teaching, for the ordinary spaciousness of the daily more than the excitement of the special. I don’t have much to say these days, which makes writing regular reflections a challenge.
And, at the same time, there is a deeper sea change about in my life.
I’ll let you in on a secret I’ve held since I entered the monastery three and a half years ago, though you may well have picked up on it by now. I have long wanted to be the Thomas Merton of my generation. This fantasy is more than passing. It’s come to symbolize and, in mostly subtle ways, to shape my inner and outer journey these last few years. I’ve planned out the books I’d write and the awards I’d receive. I’ve practiced my responses for Krista Tippett. I’ve even come up with the title The New Yorker would use for their profile of me. It would be called “The Millennial Merton.”
I hope you’re laughing by now. Because, as important as this fantasy has been for me, as I’ve revealed it to a few people I trust over the last weeks, it has come to seem utterly ridiculous. It’s funny in that poignant way that so many of our inner conversations are funny. And like the boggart in Harry Potter, laughing at it steals its power.
As I’ve shared this part of myself with others, I’ve felt, by turns, embarrassment and liberation. The embarrassment has passed; the freedom has remained. So it often is with self-disclosure.
This fantasy really isn’t any different from any other fantasy of success and recognition. It’s just the same old “I’m going to famous one day” story dressed in a monastic habit. And in that sense it is so deeply human, and also, ultimately, a stumbling block on the road home to God and Self.
A dear friend reminded me this week that the world needed Thomas Merton in his time. Today, the world no longer needs Merton, at least not as it did when he was alive. Now the world needs Aidan Owen, and millions of others, to be fully themselves.
I’m reminded, too, of a Hasidic anecdote about Rabbi Zusha, who told his disciples that when he dies God won’t be asking him why he wasn’t Moses. Instead, he’s afraid God will look him in the eye and ask, “Why weren’t you Zusha?”
As I say, this fantasy and this stumbling block are perennial features in the human story. There are also some of us who, from background and training, fall prey to it more often and easily. I am one of those. My whole life I have been “successful” in whatever context I’ve found myself. And, for a host of reasons, some beyond my control and some not, I have fed on that “success” and seen in it the way to wholeness and healing. But like any idol, or any drug, it ultimately leaves me hungrier and emptier than I was before.
None of this is to say that I have no depth, wisdom, or experience or that I lack authenticity. Much of my inner work over the last 12 years has been to shed the masks as I’ve realized that they were masks, to continue to ask myself “what is my deepest desire?” and “who am I?” Beginning this blog, writing it weekly and then mostly weekly, and now stopping to write it, have all been important parts of that process.
My deepest desire has always been to love and be loved. Just that. That simple, that plain, that ordinary.
Twelve steppers know this desire as the desire to be a person among persons. You might also call it the desire to be utterly real.
I was talking to my therapist, who has spent a great deal of time at Buddhist monasteries, about my fear of dropping the fantasies of success. “I’m terrified, in a primal way,” I said to her, “that underneath all the words, and the piety, and the wisdom, and the accomplishments, when I get down to who I really am, I’ll find nothing at all.” Her face lit up, and she exclaimed, with joy, “Absolutely! Wonderful! When you find that nothing, you’ll just be and be in relationship with whatever else is happening or being.”
Her words made intuitive sense to me. To be nothing is also to be everything, and, at the same time, is just plainly, ordinarily, to be. One of the reasons I love walking in the woods or sitting by the river is that the woods and the river have no expectations of me. I can simply be with them. They don’t even expect me, as I so often do, to be myself or to know myself. That’s freedom.
The punchline to a great cosmic joke came last week when someone said of a friend of mine, who is indeed quite wise, that he is the closest thing we have today to a Thomas Merton. I laughed out loud at a joke that only I got. “Okay, God” I said. “I’ll let him be Thomas Merton. I’ll just be Aidan.”
In this just being Aidan there’s that mixture of grief and freedom that so powerfully attends, at least for me, experiences of surrender to God. In that just being there is the acceptance of my poverty and of my inability, ultimately, not to need God and other people to carry me through this life. The grief lies in seeing all the useless effort I’ve put into self-sufficiency; the freedom comes in allowing myself to be carried and loved, as just plain Aidan.
You may be familiar with the famous Merton quotation about that point of nothingness underneath all of our striving and posing. But in case you aren’t, I give it to you here:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
“I am” and “nothing” are a breath away from one another.
I am grateful to all of you for reading these reflections over the last few years, for your comments, challenges, insights, questions, and stories. You have helped me to grow. And I pray that God will bless you with more and deeper life.
With love and gratitude,