Meditating on Words from Merton

My friend Paul McKay posted these words from Thomas Merton and I’ve been meditating on them ever since:

In our age everything has to be a ‘problem.’ Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.

The word meditate comes from the Latin, meditatio, which — among other things — means “to ponder.”

As much as I like the word “ponder,” it is helpful think of meditation as the act of  befriending a thought, wandering around in it, getting familiar with it.  In a world that runs through words and images at a breakneck pace, that’s a very different exercise.  Our cultural long suit is the emotional flashpoint — the momentary impression made by words that are quickly replaced by others.  By contrast, meditation involves letting an idea or insight grow in us.

In sitting with Merton’s handful of words this week, those words kept giving.  Some of that gift included these thoughts:

  • The word, anxiety is different from the word fear, which is sometimes used as a synonym.
  • Fear can be and often is specific in nature.  Anxiety almost always implies something less well defined — as much a state of being as a reaction with specific causes.
  • Hence, anxiety drives us to look for an explanation — invent one.
  • For that reason anxiety is a dangerous emotion.  One that looks for threats and enemies — one that fixes on them randomly, with little reason and even less deliberation.
  • As such anxiety is the enemy of faith, trust, and the God-given peace that faith and trust can nurture.
  • Anxiety can lead us quickly out of that space in which we can hear God — offering us what may appear to be good reasons for faithless decisions.

There is more here.  But meditation is not just about the elaboration of ideas.

It is about a space in which ideas and insights nurture a new way of living and being. I am looking forward to the fruit of that meditation.

Merton’s words aren’t simply an invitation to learn something about anxiety.  In meditation, they are an offer of greater spiritual freedom.  Because in naming anxiety and its poisoned fruit, lies the opportunity to rely more deeply on God.

Thanks for renewing my friendship with Merton’s words, Paul.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.