Quotation #2: The Desire to Please

“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 believe 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. . . 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 you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton)

As I discussed in some ways in my last post, one of my core convictions, for better or worse, is that there is at least a degree of uncertainty in virtually every aspect of life. Nothing can be proven (with the only major exceptions lying in mathematics and logic). In the quotation above, the famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, openly struggles with this, particularly in the uncertainties he notes with respect to the future, himself and, by implication, God Himself.

I believe that one of the major defining characteristics of people’s lives deals with how they respond to such uncertainties. A common path is to simply deny the possibility of uncertainty, to hold a level of confidence that (to me anyway) seems to go well beyond what is substantiated in reality. Freud called this defense “denial,” and I believe it remains one of the most common features of people’s psychologies. In some ways, I envy those who can live their lives without reflecting on the possibility of their own denial. It must be easier, at least in the short-term.

On the other hand, denial often seems to contribute to poor life outcomes. For example, someone in denial of a possible health problem often won’t do what it takes to receive treatment. Someone in denial of their role in a poor marriage often will not take stock of what they can do to improve it. Someone in denial of death often will not reflect on what would make for a meaningful life. Someone in denial of poor performance at work often will not consider their role in improving.

What I respect about Merton in the quotation above is the integrity and honesty he shows in openly admitting his uncertainties and wrestling with them. There may be many healthy responses to uncertainty, but Merton’s is intriguing. To Merton, intentionality matters. That is, in his attempt to be faithful to his spiritual convictions, Merton seeks to please God. Although he may not be certain that God even exists, or that he actually is doing what God may wish, he prays that “the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Ultimately, he concludes his prayer by reaffirming what is perhaps a better word than “faith,” that being “trust.”

I can relate to Merton’s attempts. Although I also can’t say for certain that God is who I believe, I can say for certain what I seek, at least consciously. I can seek to give my desire to values and activities that I treasure, as best as I can determine them. And, although I cannot know for certain, I can choose to trust that Good exists and will overcome evil.

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