A Mutual Vulnerability
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Earlier this year, my colleague and dear friend Jim Finley gave an unpublished talk to Illuman, an organization that supports men in authentic spiritual development. Jim shared some stories from his own life, including how he began to heal from his own childhood abuse and trauma with the help of Thomas Merton, who was his novice master and spiritual director at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
When I went in to see Merton for direction, I was eighteen years old, I was just out of high school. Because of my trauma history I had this issue with authority figures. So when I went in to try to talk to him, I hyperventilated; I had a hard time breathing. And he said to me, “What’s going on?” I told him, my voice was shaking, and I said, “I’m scared because you’re Thomas Merton.”
I can remember being so ashamed, because I wanted him to think well of me. . . . He said to me something that really was a turning point in my life. . . . I worked at the pig barn at the time. . . . He said, “Under obedience, every day after afternoon work, before vespers, I want you to come here every day and sit down and tell me one thing that happened at the pig barn each day.”. . .
I remember thinking to myself, “I can do that.” And it leveled the playing field. . . . Just two men sitting in a room, talking about daily work. And he became a father figure for me.
I learned a big lesson, which later really was to affect me in my own therapy and as a therapist, that when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can learn not to invade or abandon yourself. Even deeper down, when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can discover within yourself what Jesus called the pearl of great price [Matthew 13:46], your invincible preciousness in the midst of your fragility.
So through humility and through vulnerability, the true strength of being empowered, my manhood came forth, sitting in this room. Out of all the studies I’ve done with Merton, and my talks on Merton, I think nothing went deeper than talking with him about the pigs. Because that’s compassion. . . .
So this is my sense of manhood, I guess: a radicality, a spirituality, that gives me the courage to face the most broken and lost places within myself, discovering through that acceptance the oceanic tender mercy of God that sustains us in that brokenness, so that by learning to be this way ourselves we can pass it on to others. We can be someone in whose presence it’s safe to be vulnerable and to be open, and truly courageous and strong and powerful, as Jesus was strong and powerful, in the truest, deepest sense of the word.
Adapted from James Finley, “An Illuman Watering Hole Zoom Event,” (June 18, 2020), unpublished presentation. To learn more about this organization and its work, see www.illuman.org/about/.