Our prayer should inform our lives, our lives should inform our prayer.

Epiphany 5 – 2015
Mark 1:29-39
Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into relationship with Godself, but does not call us to withdraw from the world. Amen.

The 10th of December was the anniversary of the death of the great twentieth century contemplative Thomas Merton. Thomas’s story is well-rehearsed elsewhere (Try http://www.thefamouspeople.com.) In short, he was born in France, the son of artist parents. Sadly, his mother died when he was only six. Then began a life during which he lived in many different places with his grandparents in the United States and then in France with his father. He attended boarding school in both France and England. He was only sixteen when his father died. Already quite independent as a result of being left to his own devices, Merton took himself off to Europe on a walking holiday when he finished school. When in Rome, despite the fact that he considered himself to be an agnostic, Merton felt himself drawn to visit churches. At the same time he bought and read the Vulgate – the Latin New Testament. During this time in Rome, he had a mystical experience of his dead Father. This experience exposed the emptiness that he felt within and he says that for the first time in his life he felt really drawn to prayer.

It was while he was in Rome that Merton visited a Trappist monastery. Here he felt both anxiety and also a sense of belonging. It occurred to him that he would like to become a Trappist monk. Returning to the UK he entered Clare College where, by all accounts he lived a dissipated life, to the point that his guardian encouraged him to return to the United States and to his grandparents there. At Columbia University Merton enrolled in a B.A. in English Literature. This period of his life proved to be formative and set the direction for the rest of his life. He began to write, he became politicized and he discovered Roman Catholicism. An introduction to a Hindu monk whose God-centred life impressed him was also to have a lasting effect on his life providing him with a deep desire to understand other faith traditions. To Merton’s surprise, the monk, instead of encouraging Merton to become a Hindu, encouraged him to explore his own faith traditions.

In 1938 at the age of 23 Merton felt a call to the priesthood. As a consequence he was accepte into the Catholic Church and began exploring his vocation. His first point of call was the Franciscan order, who to his great disappointment, did not accept him into the novitiate. His fall back position was to take teaching job at the St Bonaventure University (a Catholic University that provided an opportunity for him to share in the life of the priests who taught there). The position also meant that he was able to go on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Here among the Cistercians he at last found a home and was able to pursue his vocation. He continued his writing and his interest in Eastern religions.

Even though the Cistercians are a silent order, Merton sought even more space to be apart from the world. He asked for, and was eventually granted, permission to live by himself for extended periods of time. Despite his need to be apart, Merton never abandoned his interest and political action in the real world and through his writing he continued to critique the injustices and the issues of his time – racism, nuclear disarmament, poverty – and to challenge his readers to work for change.

Thomas Merton came to mind when I was pondering the second vignette in today’s gospel. We are told that after Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, “the whole city was gathered around the door”. Jesus cured the sick and cast out demons. The next morning Jesus got up before sunrise
to find some time to be apart to reflect, to pray, to gather his strength before he returns to the demands of the people. The peace he seeks is short-lived. Simon and the other disciples pursue him, hunt for him and he continues with his work, allowing the demands of others to to absorb his time and attention.

Jesus knew that his strength and focus could only be maintained if his relationship with God. He knew that he could only respond to the needs of others if his own reserves were full. He understood too the need to be fully engaged with the world. It must have been tempting to take himself away from the demands of the crowd, to avoid their neediness and constant presence. How easy it would have been to make himself into a “holy person”, separate and alone in constant communication with God, to be available only to a few.

That is not the way of God. The whole point of the incarnation was to demonstrate God’s engagement with the world. In Jesus, God steps in “boots and all” into the messiness of human existence avoiding nothing and no one.

There are times when we might wish to withdraw, to avoid the crowds, to evade our responsibilities. There are times when it all seems too hard, when the problems of our life, or the state of the world threatens to overwhelm us. At such times we might take ourself apart. Jesus’ example reminds us that our times apart are only times to recover ourselves so that we have the strength once more to enter the fray. They are times when we draw on God’s strength so that it is in that strength not our own that we carry on. Both are important – withdrawal and engagement.

Our real life should inform our prayer life and our prayer life should inform our real life. Together they make us whole, together they will contribute to the wholeness of the world.

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