September 21, 2020

Lent III: Richard Rohr on Merton and a Life of Contradictions


Lent III
Richard Rohr on Merton and a Life of Contradictions

On Sundays in Lent this year I’m sharing some things I’ve been learning from Richard Rohr.

Lent (Spring) is such a time of contradictions! Yesterday we were in northern Indiana, where a foot of snow had fallen a few days before. Large piles of plowed snow along the edges of the road framed our journey. Snowmen were standing tall in suburban yards. Snow still blanketed the sides of the trees in the woods where it had blown during the blizzard.

And yet it was over fifty degrees outside, with a bright sun shining and crystal blue skies. We felt warm. Entire yards and fields exposed to the sun all day were now bereft of snow, except in patches, and the mud and grass and plants formed a patchwork of colors and textures.

Spring is the in-between time, when we don’t always know what to expect and don’t always know how to dress. Frankly, we only tolerate it because it sparks a sense of hope. We know we are in a transition, a season that points beyond itself to fertile days ahead.

Today, Richard Rohr has a few thoughts on Thomas Merton’s perspective on the contradictions in our lives.

merton-3I believe Thomas Merton is one of the most significant American Catholics of the twentieth century. His whole life is a parable and a paradox, as are all of our lives. Merton wrote, “I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing for the fact, even to myself. . . . It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and still is a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security.”

I’m convinced that is the very meaning of faith. Faith is agreeing to live without full resolution. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures make that very clear. We are often called to walk in darkness, where God leads us to that next step which is usually not clear, predictable, or controllable by the rational mind.

“I have become convinced,” Merton goes on to write, “that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.”

Messy spring.

Messy life.

Merciful God.


  1. These thoughts touch on an important truth about life and faith. The cross itself is a “sign of contradiction”, as Merton has written somewhere. Still I wonder: Is there a line separating contradiction from incoherent meaningless? And if there is, as I think there must be, is it possible to recognize it with any certainty, and know when we are about to pass over it, from the one into the other? These seem important questions to have answered, yet no one seems to know the answers. Oh, many claim to know the answers, but upon investigation, their answers don’t hold up.

  2. Half-moon, cold dark sky-
    Steamy breath rises up toward
    interstellar voids.

  3. “Faith is agreeing to live without full resolution.” I like that a lot.

  4. I like how Merton worked out the miracle of grace in his thinking, here:
    ““I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.”

    If God’s ‘special mercy’ can serve as an antidote to a man’s complications and confusion, then that explains the beautiful simplicity to be found in Merton’s famous insight, this:
    “Quit keeping score altogether and surrender yourself with all your sinfulness to God who sees neither the score nor the scorekeeper but only His child redeemed by Christ.”
    (Thomas Merton)

    • I myself am repeatedly grateful for God’s ‘special mercy.’

    • Merton was a poet and brilliant writer, but this quote, like many of his words, doesn’t actually derive logically from any observation or objective modeling of the world in which we exist. In this case, billions of complicated and confusion prone people exist and even thrive, not to mention billions of other animals, creepy crawlies, microbes, and plants that make up our biosphere. This is a fact. It is also a fact that in the time-scale of the universe, any one individual doesn’t survive for very long. Ironically, Merton was electrocuted getting out of the shower. Simply put, there is no logical reason to appeal to a “special mercy” for what we observe. In a broader epistemological context, this plea breaks down under its own weight, as it is essentially a modus of the “god of the gaps” epistemology, which is really an inverse function of data resolution.

      • Dr.F.: It depends on what Merton meant by the word survive. I don’t think he was primarily talking about bare physical survival; in fact, I’m not sure he was referring to physical survival at all. I think that, if he could have somehow given us a posthumous opinion about it, he would not have counted the manner and premature character of his death as something having any impact on either the kind of survival or the special mercy to which he was referring. He was using referring to spiritual and personal aspects of his experience and life, and I don’t think these can be measured by the metric you are using.

    • One of my favorite Merton quotes, Christiane.

  5. It seems that flowers are very capable of blooming in and through snow; that is a special miracle in itself.

  6. When I first read the last three lines, my mind saw:

    Messy spring.

    Messy life.

    Messy God.

    Maybe mercy is messy…