This time it was the closing sentence that grabbed me: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Everything? Everything?
The other parts of Thomas Merton’s letter to friend Jim Forest have for years challenged me. His counsel is still near impossible for me to read:
“Do not depend on the hope of results . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to the idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself . . . You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people . . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
I like results. I work for results. I depend on results for affirmation of my worth. I love goal setting and the satisfaction of checking off my list what I have accomplished. I enjoy working with groups, like congregations, who want to go from “A” to “B,” and not deterred by seldom arriving at “B.” I love the illusion of making things happen, making time, making progress, making love, making a difference. I often overhear myself saying, “Don’t be attached to outcomes,” only because that’s the word I need and often forget.
But “in the end,” Merton writes, “saving” is about personal relationships. What did he mean, “in the end?” Well, at seventy-seven, I am coming toward “the end.” Is this a truth that takes time to understand, lots of time, a near life time? Or, maybe it takes coming “to the end,” the breakdown of repeated efforts to “makes things happen” before this truth opens up to us.
For instance, here’s what I am thinking about the pastoral role. As Merton suggests to me, it’s about a particular understanding of “personal relationships” with “specific people.”
As pastor, you are helicopter-ed down into a set of established relationships, called a congregation. These are specific people with specific names with specific histories. You give up the luxury of loving from a distance. You plant yourself there amid all the differences of age, temperament, and interest in God or church. You claim the privilege of roaming around this web of relationships doing one thing — relating. Relating is what you do in all the various roles. In preaching, ritualizing, teaching, managing, leading, caring — you intentionally enter relationships or offer new ones. It’s the string that threads all the beads that, when seen separately, make the job impossible. It’s what you do — appear, relate, and see what happens. In one sense, it’s all you do.
This to me is the bottom-line good news of the gospel: God is relational; Reality is relational; Love is relational, Love never ends, Love is a Force from which we cannot be separated, either in life or death. New science, particularly quantum physics, is helping us recover what is essential gospel truth — there is no such thing as a separate, disconnected part, particle or person. All is connected.
This says to me that God/Spirit/Love/ Justice is found within relationships, within connections, within the inter-being space, within the in-between part. In the deepest sense, I don’t love Janice, she doesn’t love me. Rather, through a measure of trust and vulnerability in our relationship, we know Love, we are in Love, we fall into Love, we channel this Love. This saving experience, as I understand Merton, can only happen within personal relationships. It’s the invisible, in-between power that flows through open connections among living beings.
So, I submit that our job is to show up in these relationships with authenticity, holding, and curiosity.
You show up with authenticity, being present as much as possible in the present with who you are — your gifts, your attention, your listening, your vision, your questions, your humor, your voice.
You show up with authenticity, holding, that is, embracing respectfully the inevitable differences in any relationships, refusing to coerce or sever or quick-fix or polarize, being non-attached to specific results, holding these relationships in the Light, to honor a Quaker phrase. If you can do this, let’s say, 60% to 70% of the time, well, that’s huge!
And you show up with authenticity, holding, and curious about what growth, learning, grace will emerge in these relationships. You assume that within these relationships God is at work. Something new is trying to be born that’s liberating, that’s good news, that’s healing. You show up looking for this evidence of Spirit at work, and when possible, align your energies with that Force, midwifing new life.
This is where I go with these words of Merton: “In the end, it’s the reality of personal relationships [with specific people] that saves everything.” It’s what pastors do: with God, in God, offer a certain kind of relationship, no matter the circumstances, no matter the expectations, no matter the responses, no matter the outcomes. It’s what we hope to do.