“A lucky sea that drowned his reputation…” On making meaning from emptiness with Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr

In the summer of 2017 I spent 10 weeks at l’Abri Fellowship in Southborough after a pretty tough life transition. I was learning to grieve, and grieving doesn’t come easy. I spent many days reading books, listening to lectures, and generally trying to put meaning back together. Several months in, I discovered that it was not books on theology that spoke to me, but poetry. There’s some part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, that poetry accesses through our imagination which can startle us and wake us up.

One poem I discovered was through Richard Rohr’s book “Falling Upward,” recommended by my spiritual director. Rohr speaks about a model for life’s spiritual journey in which after an ascent (which he calls, the “heroic” journey), we often find ourselves in a place where our effort, talent, skill, and success can carry us along no further. Many people might call this a mid-life-crisis, but this is not just about quitting your job or buying a sports car. Rohr speaks to a crisis of limitation, where we no longer view life as a climbing up a mountain, no longer looking to achieve the next step in the ladder, but begin to find new meaning in the journey of wisdom, which, as Christ models for us, is always a descent (i.e. Phil 2, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”).

Sooner or later (and for me it was much sooner than I expected) we find ourselves in a state of utter failure and loss, at a place where our own intellect and resources will not save us. It is from there that God can remind us that he and he alone is the rock on which we stand. “In the divine economy of grace,” Rohr writes, “sin and failure become the base  metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself.” From this place of failure Rohr reminds us that our fall or failure is actually the biggest grace we can receive, if we truly receive it. There’s a ton of wisdom in the Enneagram here, which I believe is a very effective tool in spiritual growth, and I hope to expand on in future posts.

At the end of the book, Rohr points to Merton’s Poem, published in 1977, as a unique vantage point of one who has just begun their second half of life. Merton writes:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

And now with some of my annotations:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

I lamented many things, but one deep sense of shame came from realizing that I was no longer living up to the heroic image I had for myself – one who is successful, without failure, without problems, and generally well put together. Oh, and I also actually lost my house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

There’s a certain emptiness in grief that is amplified by the fact that nobody can say anything to make you feel better. The best consolation in grief is simply someone sitting with you and saying “I’m sorry. I can’t make it better, but I can be here with you.” I cherished the friends that were able to say that without trying to make me feel better.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

I suppose looking back on it it is lucky. There are many good things that have come from tragedy, but to say that it is lucky is not to say that “something good will come of it,” but is to say that when your external facade (i.e. our metaphorical “halo”) is blown away, and your reputation destroyed, you have nothing else to stand on, and, because of Christ and only because of Christ, that is a lucky place to be.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

A quick reminder to an over-achiever like me that there is no prize for finding this poverty, no special award for being content with emptiness. Don’t humble brag, or try to say how awful your life is and how you deserve the most praise for enduring such suffering. There is no easy end or cliché moral to the story.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

I am still learning the importance of humility – of being okay with just being okay. It is a certain freedom when I can remember it, though this #enneagramthree has a tough time sometimes. So hard that I decided to write music and turn it into a concert for choir and orchestra. Oh well.

Yes, I’ve set this poem to music for choir and orchestra. We’re performing it on May 19th at Westgate Church in Weston. Read more here!

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Author: adamkurihara

Director of Worship and Community Life at Trinitarian Congregational Church, Wayland, MA.

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