Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
For years as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey, Thomas Merton served as a teacher to the novices. Eventually, the abbot assigned him a new station as a hermit to live a more solitary life of prayer.
In his last lecture before moving into the hermitage, Merton made a startling claim. He said, “The life of the hermit – indeed, the life of any Christian – should be a life without care.” He quickly clarified that he did not mean a life of not caring about other people. Rather, he meant a life unburdened by the cares of the world.
What are the cares of the world?
To answer that question, Merton first answered a more basic one: What is the world? In the fourth gospel, John spoke of “the world” into which Jesus came but that “knew him not” (John 1:11). Jesus said his disciples, “do not belong in the world just as I do not belong in the world” (John 17:14). Yet, “God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son” into it (John 3:16).
That world, according to Merton, organizes its passions and programs around a futile struggle against death. We participate in that struggle when we strive to “keep up with the Joneses,” when we build up our egos or tribal identities with war and competition, when we distract ourselves with things that degrade or trivialize us, when we immerse ourselves in material stuff, and so forth. Through such games and pursuits, we race against death and bypass the loving life to which God invites us before bringing us home.
Thus, the cares of the world are the anxieties and misplaced priorities that compel us in the race against death. So the practicing Christian, whether hermit or housekeeper, detaches from the cares that arise from that futility. The Christian dies to this world and lives in Christ. Paradoxically, Christ who helps us detach from cares does so out of care for us. Then he calls us to a life of caring for our neighbors, indeed, even for our enemies.
The Greek word, agape, signifies God’s love for us in Christ and the love in which Christ invites us to participate. Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 13 as patient, kind, free from ego, hopeful and persistent. John used it when he wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus portrayed it in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Neither filial nor sexual love approaches the radical freedom of agape. Such love seeks nothing for itself, delighting only in the joy and wholeness of the beloved.
Ironically then, this life free from cares is a life free to care more fully. If we let go of cares that burden us but do not care, we only fall back into other self-defeating cares. If we try to care but do not loosen our grip on our cares, we live fragmented lives, full of anxiety and self-contradiction.
None of us rise above those struggles. All of us have inner work to do in surrendering to God and letting go of the cares that bind us. None of us love with full freedom. All of us utterly need God’s help to live this life of carefree care.
As we look forward to another calendar year, please join me in begging God for that help. Let us consider just one care to let go, even if it takes all year and longer. At the same time, let us consider what new or renewed caring we will offer in the space the letting go leaves us. Let us offer those considerations to God and seek God’s peace and strength in moving forward with them. God who freely cares about us will not disappoint us.
You can listen to Merton’s lecture to which I referred above on the audio set, Thomas Merton on Contemplation, published by Now You Know Media.