Setting out for an unknown future

For the second time in my life I am reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” I first picked it up purely by accident during my first week in the seminary, 1949. I am reading it again in 2017.

What caught my attention in that first reading was Merton’s unsettled life, the number of times he moved from place to place, choosing one way of life, then another, always searching, never being satisfied until he finally found himself at rest, as he writes “In the Cistercian abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani…That (I) may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

Reflecting once again on Merton’s life and his search for meaning, it occurs to me that many of us, like Merton, spend much of our own lifetime on the road, moving from place to place, from goal to goal, from this way of life to another until we discover a kind of steadiness, a firmness of mind and heart that we ultimately decide to embrace…at least for now!

I believe those occasions in life when we change our mind and begin to perceive our future differently, even following a new way without knowing completely where we are going — all this is a holy search, a quest for God.

We are already moving swiftly into the second week of Lent and, as I try to understand the Scriptures for this Sunday, it occurs to me that they also speak to us of the human search for something, some place, some way, some goal that can be found only if we take the risk of leaving behind the place where we are so that the yet unknown future will become more discernible and worthy of our choice.

This is precisely what we find in the reading from the Book of Genesis that describes the life of Abraham, father of nations. He had long imagined that life with his large family in Haran would suit him just fine. However, at age 75, he suddenly discerns a mysterious voice, urging him to put all this behind him and set out across the desert for a distant land of promise without the assurance that life there would be any better than what he had already come to know.

We know, of course, from the study of biblical history that this perilous journey was part of the covenant God made with Abraham, promising him that his family line would last for centuries and from his lineage would come forth the Savior.

The meaning of this story, therefore, lies in Abraham’s willingness to embrace the yet unknown and to accept without question God’s mysterious plan.

Saint Paul makes this same point in his letter to Timothy: “God has called us to a holy life not because of any merit of ours but according to his own design.”

Finally in the Gospel, Jesus invites three of his disciples to leave their former lives behind and ascend with him a high place, a place of mystery where they will ultimately discover the meaning of his own death and resurrection.

So, here we are once again entering Lent’s early days, being invited to question the certainties of our present ways and set out, like Abraham, for a land of promise as yet unclear and undefined. Or, like Thomas Merton, to see that life on the road is itself actually part of the mystery of God.

March 12 Scriptures

Genesis 12: 1-4

2 Timothy 1: 8-10

Matthew 17: 1-9

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese. He now lives in Notre Dame, Ind.

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