“The Gift of Adversity”
Several years ago a friend gave me a small marble plaque with a quote on it from Sir Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop!” While you could always count on Sir Winston to find just the right phrase to buck up the faint-hearted, it doesn’t go as deep as another phrase we have all come across in recent years, “The only way out is through.”* However much I appreciate both of these sayings (and both have inspired me on some pretty tough days) there is an even deeper wisdom, as I was recently reminded reading a fascinating book about Thomas Merton, “Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down” by Roger Lipsey, (Shambhala, 2015).
The book tells the story of the decades’ long conflict between the world-famous mystic, Cistercian monk, and Catholic theologian Thomas Merton and his Abbot at Gethsemani Abbey, Father James Fox, a man at the helm of a conservative institution during one of the most contentious periods of the modern world. To say that Merton and Fox had a complicated and contentious relationship is an understatement on the order of saying, the universe is biggish.
Fox felt that Merton was a temperamental dilettante, perhaps a mentally unbalanced rebel, a monk in need of tight boundaries, a seeker of applause, an individualist with questionable interests in other faiths and other religious traditions, even (horror of horrors!) Protestantism. Merton felt that Fox was a hidebound traditionalist who took sadistic pleasure in constraining him, denying opportunities for him to grow, learn and travel.
I can’t decide whether it is merely ironic, or something even cosmically stranger, but Abbot Fox also chose Merton to serve as his confessor. And, to put the exclamation point to the epic irony of the history of their relationship, long after Merton’s tragic death, Fox was buried next to Merton in the Abbey graveyard. And there they rest for all eternity, side by side.
However difficult this relationship was for these two people, I am convinced that the depth and resonance and the subtlety of Merton’s published work owes a great deal to his difficulties with the Cistercian life (from which he wanted to be released so he could live as a hermit) and his Cistercian superiors (especially Abbot Fox). The continual irritation and the constraint against which Merton struggled worked on the soft tissue of Merton’s soul like the proverbial grain of sand in the oyster. And what a pearl it produced between Merton’s entry to the monastic life in 1942 and his death in 1968!**
Adversity can be a tremendous, though unwanted, gift. I certainly don’t tend to welcome adversity into my own life. And I am grateful that Jesus himself prayed that God would not lead us into trials. But knowing that adversity can be used for good in our lives encourages us to yield to it and to learn from it.
I recall a conversation with my son, Jeremy, one day a couple of years ago. It was at the end of a delightful Christmas holiday together and we were loading his car together so that he and his family could return home. It had been a rough year for me. Leadership challenges abounded. Travel was exhausting and stress persistent. Double-binds tied me in knots. Conflicts and potential conflicts are typical of higher education these days, and I was experiencing my share.
Jeremy, himself a Presbyterian minister, knew how tough it was. And he saw through the adversities, focusing instead on what had happened to me and in me because of the difficulties. Jeremy noticed the increase in time I spent in prayer, contemplation and meditation and how important the life of the spirit had become for me. He told me that he had observed an increasing calmness in me – which frankly I had not noticed – because of the spiritual practices in which I was engaged.
It was one of those wonderful moments when your child turns to teach you, the parent. He simply observed that had it not been for the adversities I had been facing I might not have dug deeper into the life of the spirit or yielded myself to its disciplines.
The ancient text, “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” by the eighth-century A.D. Indian poet and mystic, Shantideva, says we should give thanks for our adversaries (as well as our adversities). Adversaries are sacrificing their own peace of mind when they harm us. We should feel compassion for them because they are sacrificing themselves to help us to grow spiritually and emotionally. Jesus himself says we should bless those who curse us, and I think I better understand why he said that now.
The work of spiritual transformation is less like polishing and cutting a rough diamond than it is producing a diamond from a lump of carbon. It takes heat and pressure and lots of time. Bless the fire and bless the anvil.
*This familiar saying seems to be an adaptation of a line from the poem, “A Servant of Servants,” (1915) by Robert Frost.
**An interesting factoid: Thomas Merton and Reformed theologian Karl Barth died on precisely the same day, December 10, 1968.