Living in God’s Great Story
Lost in the Secret of God’s Face
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
In an episode of his podcast Turning to the Mystics, James Finley shares how he first encountered the work of Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and how it changed the course of his life. He says:
When I was at home growing up in Akron, Ohio with a violent, alcoholic father—like ongoing violent abuse—I was in the ninth grade at an all-boys Catholic school. . . . One of the instructors in the religion class mentioned monasteries. I’d never heard of monasteries before. Because of the role prayer played in my life to help me survive what was happening to me at home, I was already starting to get opened up that way. I was very taken by this idea of monasteries, that there were places you could go to, to seek God, and so on. And he talked about Thomas Merton. So, I went to the school library that day and they had one book by Merton, The Sign of Jonas, which is a journal he wrote in the monastery.
On the first page of that journal, he writes, “As for me, I have but one desire, the desire for solitude, to be lost in the secret of God’s face.” At fourteen years old, I didn’t know what it meant, but something in me did. . . . I got my own copy, and I read it over and over and over again. I thought it was so beautiful. I just sensed how true it was. Therefore, in the four years of high school, [while] the violence was still going on, I started writing to the monastery. . . . When I graduated from high school, I entered, and went in there, and then [Thomas] Merton was novice master. That’s how he got to be my spiritual director. I was eighteen years old.
Jim continues to explore how working with Merton allowed him to come to terms with his own story, while staying connected to God’s reality:
The reality of Thomas Merton made God’s unreality impossible to me. That is, [Merton’s] very reality was to me, the presence of God as a transformed person. I saw it in this ancient lineage of the mystics that he was that. I sat at his feet in the classical sense. . . .
I’d knock on his door, and he was always writing a book and he would sit and listen and talk, and it leveled the playing field for me, really, just absolutely in terms of compassion. And then [opened up by] that compassion, I told him about my desire for God. . . . Then he told me, he said, “Once in a while, you’ll find somebody to talk to about this, but they’re hard to find. They’re really hard to find.” And he said, “The purpose of this place is, it is a place meant to protect, to preserve, and cultivate this radical desire, as a charism in the world.” And then he offered me guidance in my own prayer.
James Finley with Kirsten Oates, “Turning to Thomas Merton,” February 24, 2020, in Turning to the Mystics, season 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.
Story from Our Community:
I am thankful for Brother Richard’s Daily Meditations. As a Franciscan in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, these reflections are so relevant for all—no matter our faith. The word of God continues to be relevant to all we walk with on our journey. I look forward to the reflections, which have become part of my daily rhythm of prayer and meditation. I give thanks to our Divine Love. —Br. Donald D.