September is an activist’s signature month. Autumn breezes blow me in the direction of wanting to get better organized, trying to ensure that this year I’ll accomplish more.
At the same time, the wisdom of Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton is starting to take root. Once you let go of “the hope of results,” he wrote in 1966, “you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” I increasingly long to do just the faithful, demanding work that is mine, trusting that others will do theirs.
Even when we carefully act on our particular calling, we can never control the outcome. We have to rely on the Spirit of love that moves on its own schedule. Putting more hope in the Holy than in the hustle means not getting discouraged when our good works fail to result in meaningful change. There’s no wisdom in being attached to any particular result — or lack thereof.
Based on recent history, for example, one would never have predicted that a pope’s words about climate change would provoke significant response. When Pope John Paul II spoke of the need for a “global ecological conversion,” the world didn’t take particular notice. Pope Benedict XVI urged humanity to “quickly arrive at a global lifestyle that respects the covenant between humanity and nature,” with little impact.
Pope Francis may have imagined his latest encyclical, Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home, would also be overlooked. Instead, it provoked worldwide interest. If he’d been aiming for a particular result, he might not have bothered. But Francis kept his focus on “the truth of the work itself.” Guardian columnist George Monbiot was one of the first to respond to the encyclical, writing, “Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect. It inspires belief; and this is essential to the lasting success of any movement.”
Francis and Thomas Merton have much in common, including religious practices that nurture both active service and contemplation. Francis has been formed by the relative activism of St. Ignatius, bringing attention to the world’s needs into prayer. By contrast, Merton was more influenced by the teachings of St. Benedict, bringing prayerful contemplation to the needs of the world.
Merton was born in France during the First World War, the son of a New Zealand painter and an American Quaker and artist. Trappist monks are known for silence, but Merton, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1949, was vocal about pacifism, social justice and interfaith understanding through the writing of more than 70 books. During the Second World War, he became a conscientious objector, a rare stance at the time.
Later, as the United States deepened its military engagement in Vietnam, Merton penned his now famous Letter to a Young Activist, the source of this month’s quote. His young activist was involved in America’s peace movement and had written to Merton in exhausted despair. The monk replied, “The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.”
Almost 50 years after Merton’s death, I am learning that when I focus more on the value of my work than satisfaction, faithfulness trumps success.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.