No time for a long post this week, as I have three shows at two different schools on the Eastern Shore tomorrow, and have a 6 am call. I should have hit the hay half an hour ago. I do children’s theatre with Children’s Theater Association, and tomorrow is Maryland, My Maryland, our show about Maryland history.

I finished Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain today. I absolutely loved it. It got me thinking about the topic of vocation. A vocation, or “calling,” is part of the life we are each given to lead. It’s similar to the idea of one’s purpose in life. But in secular American culture, when we think about our purpose, we generally think of something we have chosen ourselves, the one thing we want to do above all else – “following our dream,” “following our bliss.”

But the idea of vocation presented in Merton’s book is not a purpose we have claimed for ourselves. It is a purpose that has been chosen for us, by Another. The only way to find “bliss” in this life is to die to our own ideas of what we want our vocation to be, and instead submit totally to the vocation to which God calls us. There may be significant overlap; there may be no overlap.

Merton at first wanted to be a writer, and wrote to satisfy his own ambitions. Who knows anything much about those writings? Later, he wanted to be a contemplative, and writes in the final pages of the book about how Merton the writer, like a “Judas,” shadows and betrays Merton the monk, who wanted nothing so much as to retreat completely from the world. “And the worst of it is,” he writes, “he has my superiors on his side.” I thank his superiors for encouraging Merton the writer, who could only come to full fruition and redemption after Merton the monk had died to his own desires. And now we are able to know Thomas Merton, Frater Louis, the writer-monk whose books and life have borne much fruit. God only knows how fruitful his prayers have been.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve e-mailed the priest who recommended it to me to see when we can meet to talk about it. I’m sure the subject of vocation will come up. I’ve been thinking (and worrying, I admit) the last couple years, ever since I left grad school and for the first time did not have a clear path laid out for my life, about what I want to do with my life. Merton’s book has reminded me that that’s not the proper question.

The proper question is: Who is God calling me to be in this life? And how does He want me to serve Him today?

That’s the hardest question for any Christian, because we have to give up everything we want to find that out.

“A Zoo of Lusts”

I’ve fallen behind in my reading plans for Oxford, but that’s okay, because none of them are required. I’ve finished re-reading the Gospels, and will move on to re-reading the rest of the New Testament. I haven’t read any new theology books on my list, but next up is Davies’ and Rogerson’s The Old Testament World. I plan to start in on my Greek textbook exercises this week. Chapter 1 is learning the Greek alphabet.

My current reading is not academic, but rather spiritual. On the suggestion of a priest I talked to last week, I’m reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I fell in love immediately. As a friend of the author writes in the Introduction, Merton is a born writer. I’m at the point now where he is at Columbia College and becoming a Communist. His descriptions of his soul, looking back at himself, remind me of one of Lewis’ statements in his own spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

Merton, too, speaks of examining himself after leaving Cambridge, and finding “the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called ‘the world,’ in every age, in every class.” But he didn’t yet recognize these festering abcesses in his soul as such, and blamed his flaws on his upbringing in a relatively well-off socioeconomic class and in a capitalist society. It was only later that he was to recognize them as spiritual failings, and submit himself to God for their remedy.

At church the other week, we were discussing how every time we feel as if we have finally conquered some sinful inclination, God allows us little to no time to revel in the victory before revealing to us another deeper and harder battle yet to be fought within our own souls. If we take the time to examine ourselves truly and fully, asking for the grace to see with God’s sight into the depths of our hearts, what zoo of lusts will we find there? I know I’m terrified to make a full inventory of my particular menagerie. Spiritual autobiographies like those of Lewis and Merton are comforting, I think, because we realize that, alone as we feel in our sins, there are others who have been just as terribly ashamed – and yet how completely were they redeemed when they gave themselves up to God, for Him to do as He would with them!

We will never know what good we gave up each time we sinned, but thankfully, God can make each sin a felix peccatum that is the occasion for grace, and that can be used for both our good and for the good of our neighbor. Merton says that the selfish rebellion into which he descended as a youth ended up being good for him, because God let him see what a mess he made of his life when left to his own devices. It enabled him to see how much he needed God. And Lewis’ atheism helped him immensely as a Christian apologist. Besides giving him credibility with many outside Christianity, it also enabled him to understand how someone could not believe in God, and how to speak to that person. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been better for Merton, Lewis, and us if they and we had never sinned, but since they and we have, the only remedy is to let God use the sin for good. And that means submitting to His will for our lives, and living with the consequences of the sin. And that, I think, is the most difficult part. I know it is for me.

I really didn’t mean to write a sermon when I started, I promise! I meant to write a paragraph or two on Merton’s book. But as you can see, The Seven Storey Mountain inspires spiritual self-examination, which I’ve only touched on at a shallow level. I’m going to sign off so I can get back to reading it.

Btw, I’ve linked to a few books in this post. If you’re interested in purchasing them, especially Surprised by Joy, please consider doing so through the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s online bookstore, run through Amazon.com. That way, a percentage of your purchase will go to support the Foundation’s activities.

Also, Diana Pavlac Glyer, whom I mentioned in a previous post, has now written her own post about her two-week sabbatical at the Kilns. Read it here! You can also get her book, The Company They Keep, at the Foundation’s bookstore. It examines the Inklings (especially focusing on Lewis and Tolkien) as “writers in community,” and the different kinds of influence they had on each other as members of a writing group. I read it last year, and highly recommend it, especially if you’re a writer, or are interested in the Inklings’ creative process.