Every few years I find a mystery key on my key chain. Perhaps it is because I have moved several times over these past decades. For the life of me, I don’t know where this key came from. I don’t know what it unlocks. I try it on every door and lock that I can find. I try to consider how it found itself onto my key ring. I consider the onset of early dementia.
And this gets me to wonder if this mystery key might not open some secret door- a dream door. And this gets me to recalling a teaching about a secret door by the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton.
I stumbled on a YouTube clip of a recording of Merton speaking in the 1960’s. He was the novice master to several young men who were considering becoming monks.
The clip was entitled “Renunciation and Contemplation”. I pushed the play icon awaiting some wise spiritual learning from this wisdom master. Indeed, what profundity might this wise, elder monk have to share with young novices?
The first two minutes of my nine minutes of enlightenment (thus spaketh the red progress bar at the bottom) was focused on… the issue of dirty towels in the monastery. Apparently, the novices were using a towel after a shower and then discarding them directly in the dirty linen pile. The monastery laundry was under stress. Merton explained, somewhat sarcastically I need to add, and to great laughter from the novices, that a miracle is possible! One can use two towels. One can hang up a wet towel.. and then an amazing thing takes place. It dries on its own. And you can use the other towel which is dry… and you can perform this switching several times in a week! And this practice alone will take a growing load off of the monastery laundry.
Enlightenment, like life, is all about the laundry (or so says my dear friend, Louise).
The next seven minutes of the audio recording are not about laundry.
Merton talks to these novices about their eager desire to ‘know the will of God’. He speaks from his own youth when he reveals their thoughts: you want to know what God wants you to do. You want to be in the center of God’s will for your life: also known as ‘the plan’.
Alas, I must admit to also hearing about God’s will for my life. This was a repeated teaching in my church for all my youth and young adult years. There was a pre-determined will. I needed to know this will.
Merton continues that this kind of thinking about God arises from a mistaken concept. Here is where things go wrong. Religion often teaches us that in heaven there is a secret office. It is locked. You don’t have the key. In the office is a large file cabinet. It too is locked. You don’t have the key for the cabinet either. In the cabinet are files. Each file has a name: a file for every person on earth. You too have a file in this secret office. God has your whole life story written out in each file. What you will do with your life. The will of God is there- written out in detail.
This is your deep fear, instilled in you by religious teaching. You are told that at the end of your life, at the moment of judgement, God will take out the file. And God will look at you with great disappointment. You will be judged by whether you were true to the plan. You are here at this monastery, needing to be a monk, because you think this is God’s will for your life.
So what do you do? You surrender to authority figures who claim to have a key! You hope that they can help reveal this plan to you. You trust them to tell you what to do. Or you go to oracles and prophets who might also have a key (a few dollars to borrow their key!). They promise you at least a revealing peek into your file.
Merton’s next words resonate with truth and compassion.
You actually don’t have to be a monk! God is not requiring this of you. It is not God’s will for you. Nothing is pre-determined.
There is no file cabinet.
There is no secret office.
There are no keys.
God has no plan. God is involved in the sacred surprise within all of life. God is free. You are free. I am free. If you decide to be a monk, then this is a decision that you make for yourself. God has no fixed agenda.
At the heart of Merton’s teaching is the realization that we are all in relationship. At the very essence of any loving relationship is freedom: not duty or fate. What we are becoming is emerging each moment.
Without any need to live in fear about a file in a secret office, we are left with… what?
Responsibility. We are responsible for how we will live our lives.
And these words of Merton remind me to pay attention to life and reality, as it is!
In Quaker language, “I let my life speak”.
I develop a simple habit of attentiveness to what gives life and is true for me.
I assume my responsibility to act freely with the best wisdom I can find.
I strongly suppose that I will find yet another mystery key on my key ring in the years ahead.
When I do, I hope that I can graciously discard the key. And in this act of letting go, I hope to remember my loving freedom.