So begins Thomas Merton’s reflection on his first Christmas as a monk at the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky.
Thomas Merton is considered by many to be one of the most important spiritual writers of the 20th century. His breakthrough autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, from which this reflection is taken, outlines his profound conversion from a life of frantic paganism, to a life of Christian devotion.
His first Christmas at the monastery in Kentucky was different than any he had experienced before. He writes, “in all other Christmases of my life, I had got a lot of presents and a big dinner. This Christmas I was to get no presents, and not much of a dinner: but I would have, indeed, Christ Himself, God, the Savior of the world.”
On the one hand, Merton’s Christmas experience was challenging, because the idols of his heart had to be confronted. The time he used to spend in shops in restaurants was now spent in prayer and silence. Merton explains that Advent was a time where he emptied his life of the things that were distracting him from God. He notes that, “an emptiness had opened out within me.”
Yet as Christmas approached he recalls that this emptiness “now became filled, and suddenly I was in a new world.” As Merton was emptied of his worldly pursuits, space was created for God to enter his life. And what an experience this was!
Merton can barely put words to his encounter with God saying, “as soon as I attempted to make words or thoughts about it, I was excluded.” Yet, he tries to capture the joy he experienced as best as he could. He says that he experienced an “unworldly interior peace,” a realization “that you can love! That you are standing on the threshold of infinite possibilities, . . . that darkness has been washed out of your spiritual eyes . . . that you can know peace.” His previous life of excess and frivolity was replaced with a glimpse of heaven on earth, with “God as experience.”
This Advent we have the opportunity to experience an “unworldly interior peace,” which is found in Christ. It begins by creating space for God to enter our lives. This is really what Advent is all about. It is a season of anticipation and waiting on God, a time for focused spiritual discipline.
This is a challenge for us, because we live in a culture that markets this season as a time for excess. However, if we resist the temptation to fill the longings of our heart with worldly things, I believe we will experience a gift that is beyond compare – Christ himself, God, the Savior of the world!
(1) Note that these quotes are taken from an unpublished section of The Seven Storey Mountain. When I was studying with Merton Scholar, Lynn Szabo, at Trinity Western University, she had access to some of Merton’s unpublished notes and writings.
(Reprinted from a Nov. 29, 2010 blog post by Philip Rushton)