I graduated from a small, private, Christian college in Tennessee. You’ve probably never heard of it. I tell people it was a great experience because all of my professors knew my name. Well, it took half a semester and a concussion for one of them to remember it… But after everything I put him through in my three and a half years there, he probably wishes he’d kept forgetting.
I enrolled in one of his classes every single semester–including my study abroad term. I think I am his only student to ever manage that so far. I’d sit in the back of the class (because I’m a “W” and grade school alphabetical seating stuck with me) and pass notes, and make snarky remarks, and occasionally have something positive to contribute. He’d teach us about life without us realizing it and then say something about metaphors and sexual relations with roses and we all just loved him more.
He saved me from dropping out my first semester. He passed me when I deserved to fail. He walked with me to my first therapy session. When I showed up to his office 7 months after graduating, I didn’t even have to tell him I was pregnant–he knew. We have an understanding that if his administrative assistant ever decides to quit (God forbid because she holds that department together), I am going to work for him regardless of where I’m living, what I’m doing, or what I’m being paid.
And he introduced me to The Merton Prayer when he knew I needed these words:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani
I prayed these words so many times; they carried me through some of my darkest, ugliest times. Still do. My final semester of college was pretty traumatic personally–I can’t even remember what classes I took–my grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer a week into the term and I had some things happen to me…that nearly drove me over the edge. I would lay on my bedroom floor with my Sacred Heart of Jesus candle burning, holding the piece of paper with this prayer to my chest, tears running down my face, begging God to make these words true. I wasn’t at the point where I desired to please Him, but I did want to learn that desire. I totally believed I was lost and in the shadow of death. And I was certain–without any doubt–that in no way, shape, or form did I know myself.
Oh, but the hope!
It was so tiny, so dim, I didn’t really know it was there. Barely a candle in an empty coliseum. I didn’t feel hopeful, I just felt like maybe I could make it through another night without taking a whole bottle of ibuprofen. That wasn’t a good feeling per se, but I was still breathing and that’s what mattered.
I found my little flicker of hope in two phrases:
“You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it..” and
“..for you are ever with me…”
Believe me, I could do a line-by-line analysis right now and still have more to say about this prayer, but those two phrases… Those two phrases took root deepest in my heart.
When I prayed aloud, I always exhaled through the “know nothing” line because I had to take a deep, reassuring breath before I could say it. That nasty being-in-control issue again. And I could almost never affirm “for you are ever with me” without my voice breaking or tears flowing.
Ever with me?
Even when my grandfather is laying in a hospital bed with part of his skull removed and it feels like my family is falling apart? Even when my sister is blacking out for inexplicable, undiagnosed reasons? Even when I have been abused and assaulted? Even when I can’t get out of bed for crying?
I cannot know where my path leads now, but I know I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for that professor (along with others in that department and the French one, as well). I don’t know that I would have had the courage to keep Eva. He was the one I was scared to disappoint. I knew there was no escaping my parents’ disappointment and anger. I knew that my female professors/mentors would still love and accept me. But if I had disappointed him… oh no, I could not have borne that. But he wasn’t disappointed. In fact, he told me that if he had to pick anyone he knew to be a single mother, he’d pick me.
Without his care and the love of all my mentors there, I don’t even know that I would still believe in God, honestly. That’s how much they have done for me.
I have seen my daughter in his arms when she’d never been in her father’s. I have cried in his office when I felt like i had nowhere else to go. I have gotten better life advice from him in one sentence than in whole discussions with others. And I will never, ever stop being grateful.
So I am returning to this prayer now. One, because I need to practice spiritual discipline and lectio divina is a good way to start. Two, because I am starting to feel lost like that again. And three, because when I hold those words in my hands, I am strengthened by his (and my other mentors’) support. So even when I feel more lonely than seems humanly possible, I know I am never truly alone.