The Holy Machine
Today I came across a really interesting passage in The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, which is the last volume in Thomas Merton's journals before his untimely death in December of 1968.
On Christmas Eve of 1967, Merton was experiencing a lot of tension in the monastery and in his own life. He was questioning his calling in a very deep way, and it didn't help that Gethsemane was experiencing a divisive election of a new abbot. Merton was floated as a candidate for the position, but did not want it and made that quite clear to everyone.
He expressed his frustration in these words:
The Church is a great treadmill, and when you turn it, it churns out an ineffable substance called grace, and he who gets his pail full is thereafter untouchable, impervious to everything, neither man nor God can tell him anything. He is justified. He is right. He has a right to bash your head in if you even think of questioning it.
I can identify with Father Thomas' feelings. He is chest deep in "church politics", when people let the lesser sides of their humanness run the day and make others cynical about the real value of the church. Vietnam and contentious debates about "Just War" are also very much on his mind. Merton is talking specifically about the Roman Catholic Church, being part of a strict monastic order, but you could easily apply his comments to any organized religious group.
Anyone who spends much time deeply engaged in any type of faith community experiences this kind of disillusionment, and it can be a regular occurrence if you are a clergy-person. The past year has been full of these kind of low moments for me on a number of levels, and right now I'm finding myself in a place where I'm still climbing out of a deep funk.
The good news, though, is that God is with us in these low places as much as anywhere else, and it is in these low places that we experience God's grace more powerfully because we are much more aware of our need for it.
As stuck as I can feel sometimes, I know that God is leading me through these dark places into a better future where I will be stronger for having gone through it. And God will continue to use the Holy Machine of the Church, in spite of and even through its many flaws. I'm going to try very hard to choose to not give up on the Church Universal, even in moments of frustration and anxiety. God hasn't given up on us, so why should we?