A Prayer of Unknowing By Thomas Merton
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. Amen.
– Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, page 79.
A Reflection on Thomas Merton’s Prayer of Unknowing
Throughout my journey to become an Augustinian Friar, I have found myself turning to this prayer time and time again. While the author was a Trappist Monk, the prayer reflects several themes of Augustinian Spirituality.
The prayer stems from a question we have all asked at one point or another on our Christian journey: How do we know for sure we are following God’s will? This question comes up in a number of life situations. Should I take that next promotion? Should I get married? How do I handle that difficult relationship? Should I speak up about an injustice I am witnessing? Should I make that investment?
In this prayer Merton acknowledges the “fogginess” of discernment and concludes even a desire to follow God’s will does not mean he actually is: and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean I am actually doing so. Yet, Merton acknowledges it is the desire to please God alone that gives him affirmation he is going down the right road: but I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You … if I do this, You will lead me by the right road. The word desire becomes central to Merton’s own discernment. It is only when his desires are oriented towards God that he can gain any affirmation that God has led him to choose the right path.
Over 1,600 years before Merton lived, Saint Augustine echoed this same sentiment. Augustine taught that at the heart of all that we desire in this life is a desire for the God who made us:
“For you have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You”
Saint Augustine (The Confessions)
Our deepest longings for purpose/meaning, pleasure, and security that all humans share are rooted in the God who made us. God gave us these desires so that we may desire Him. When these desires are oriented towards God, we find God.
“In this life there are two loves in conflict: the love for this world and the love of God. Whichever wins out draws the lover like gravity in its direction. It is not through feet or wings but by desire that we come to God. And it is not by some physical bond or iron chain that we are bound to earth. We are bound simply by our desire for the things of earth.”
– Saint Augustine (Sermon 344, 1).
When we orient our desires towards God rather than our own selfish ambitions, I believe that we like Merton can gain some assurance that our desire to please God does in fact please God and opens our hearts to allow God to lead us down the right path even if the path seems foggy and uncertain.
“The entire life of a good Christian is a holy desire. What you desire, however, you don’t yet see. But by desiring you are made large enough, so that, when there comes what you should see, you may be filled”
Saint Augustine (On the First Letter of John, 4)
It is therefore in exploring our deepest desires (rather than suppressing them) and bringing them to prayer that we come face to face with the God who is already within. When we do this, we begin to hear God who is the “inner teacher” that leads us down the path we are called to:
“Note the Psalmist’s words: ‘I sought the Lord and He answered me.’ Where did the Lord hear? Within. What does He reply? Within. There you pray, there you are heard, and there you are made happy. Therefore, enter your heart. Happy are those who delight to enter their hearts and find no evil.”
Saint Augustine (Commentary on Psalm 33).
How do I know I am called to be an Augustinian Friar? Like Merton, I cannot say for certain. My discernment to religious life began with a desire to use the gifts and talents I was given through my life experience, education, and career for something bigger than myself. That could have led me in a number of directions from marriage and parenthood to starting a non-profit to becoming a missionary. As I brought these desires to prayer, I discovered joy when I embraced opportunities God gave me to share these gifts and talents in various ministries I was involved in with my parish. As my desire for this newfound joy increased, I came to discover how the Augustinian Way of Life allowed me to share these gifts more freely than other paths I was discerning. After I entered the Order and continued journeying towards a greater commitment to the Augustinian way of life, I eventually began to realize I could not imagine life any other way. As I brought to God this desire to enjoy the gift of the Augustinian way of life forever, I felt God calling me to become an Augustinian for life.
How do I know I am called to be an Augustinian Friar for life? I cannot know for certain using human logic any more than Merton could. But I can rest assured that as long as I faithfully bring the desires of my heart to God in prayer, I can know the doors I find open on the journey of life are in fact opened by the God who loves me and invites me to enter through.