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Thomas Merton may be one of the best known Christian mystics of the 20th century. He was a Trappist monk who experienced life in period few of us know or remember. He was born in 1915 and died way too soon, by electricution, in 1968, in Thailand. He was 53 years old.
Despite his shortened life Merton authored about 70 books. His words and poetry have had an enduring influence on Christians and others who are delving deeply into the contemplative life.
I came across the prayer below the other day. I thought I’d share it with you because we are all on a difficult, spiritual journey and knowing and doing God’s will seems so elusive. Read it as Merton wrote it, as a contemplative prayer. I do not know the attribution, that is, where it first appeared in print. If you can point me that direction, I’d be grateful.
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 that 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 that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I 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 will never leave me
to face my perils alone.
I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks suspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand. According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart. I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.
One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine. He was a famous Christian recording artist. Because I was a budding musician, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith. As I looked for the guitar pick, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God. Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully. Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering. One minute he was praying. The next he was thinking about something else entirely. I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too. What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.
On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon. The prayer went something like this: “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings. Be with the missionaries in foreign fields. Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening. Bless the gift and the giver. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before. As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
let Your name remain holy.
Bring about Your Kingdom,
Manifest Your will here on earth,
as it is manifest in heaven.
Give us each day that day’s bread—
no more, no less—
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive those who owe us something.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)
Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this. One is scripted. The other is more spontaneous. Peter Davids, one of the scholars who worked on The Voice, has written a wonderful piece recently on the Lord’s prayer. You can read it here.
One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does. Perhaps you will agree. I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.
Here is a good prayer exercise. Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer. It may help to write it down on a piece of paper. In any case make it your own. There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.