The Hell of Mercy | Sojourners

The Hell of Mercy

In Thomas Merton’s small, but very penetrating book, Contemplative Prayer, which appeared shortly after his death, we are confronted with an aspect of the spiritual life which we easily tend to forget or ignore. It is dread. One would not expect a man who has lived a deep spiritual life for 27 years in a Trappist monastery to write about dread. One would expect him to write about purity of heart, peace, and inner harmony as the fruits of a long life of prayer and contemplation. But Merton wrote about dread, and it is obvious from his powerful analysis that his words were born from his own spiritual struggle. He writes:

Dread is an expression of our insecurity in this earthly life, a realization that we are never and can never be completely “sure” in the sense of possessing a definitive and established spiritual status. It means that we cannot any longer hope in ourselves, in our wisdom, our virtues, our fidelity. We see too clearly that all that is “ours” is nothing and can completely fail us. In other words we no longer rely on what we “have,” what has been given by our past, what has been acquired. We are open to God and to his mercy in the inscrutable future and our trust is entirely in the emptiness where we will confront unforeseen decisions. Only when we have descended in dread to the center of our nothingness, by his grace and his guidance, can we be led by him, in his own time, to find him in losing ourselves. (Contemplative Prayer, page 101)

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