Lenten Reflection: Chs. 4 & 5 of Thoughts in Solitude

11 February 2008

Merton’s fourth chapter posits a simple and straightforward formula: self-conquest is self-surrender, which is only possible if we possess ourselves, and we must have some hope of being victorious in our desire for self-possession and enjoy that very self-possession.

Fine.  What does all this mean?  He means, ultimately, that we must enjoy and find pleasure in doing good things.  So far, much of this book seems concerned with dispelling myths or misunderstandings.  Good actions should not be devoid of some pleasure; that, Merton argues, is false humility.  The truly humble, therefore, find appropriate pleasure in doing good things.  This is the first step —becoming conscious of desiring and enjoying good— and we can then become more self-possessed if this is true.

I find this quite true.  We have some kind of impression that “good people” are boring and joyless.  It’s no fun being good, many of us reason, so why be good?  There’s no point.  As many of us discover as we mature, doing good is enjoyable.

His fifth chapter looks at the difference between “discretion” and laziness/cowardice.  Discretion, Merton tells us, is figuring out what God wants us to do.  I would call this discernment.  Laziness, of course, is the temptation to not do something because of a lack of will or desire.

Sometimes we should not do good.  Really.  While I could do something for our son —say, put on his slippers— it is better that I not do it.  By not doing it, I can help him learn to do it himself.

Today, at All Saints’, Bonnie gave an excellent sermon on the story of the fall.   She started with Walter Bruggeman’s suggestion that this story is a theological critique of anxiety.  The fall is an analogy for all those times when, in crisis, we decide to be pro-active and end up messing things up: she’s sad, so I act; he’s angry, so I act; I am unsure I am truly loved or provided for, so I eat the fruit, perhaps with good intentions, but ultimately with bad results, these results being sin.

To some extent, this is what Chapter 5 is about.  We must remember that sometimes our inaction is rooted in laziness, at others by a recognition that God wants us not to do something.  We need to reflect on what is truly needful in a situation, as well as confident that God provides.  This is the kernel of this chapter.  And one that I, for one, really need to remember.

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