So what choice remains?
To be ordinary is no choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.Thomas Merton
Today we finish unpacking Thomas Merton’ poem “In the soul of the serene disciple” and I remember a dance which never fails to bring bittersweet moisture to my eyes.
My wife Kay and I had been ushered from a room where a church board was deciding my fate and asked to wait just down the hall. The mood was somber and quiet. We both expected that I would be fired in disgrace. And, such an outcome would not have been unjust. I had failed spectacularly; letting down and hurting nearly everyone in my life, but Kay most of all. We sat in silence for a while and then Kay asked, “What would you do if you weren’t a pastor?” It was her way of asking, “What choice remains?”
Last week I dealt with a stanza that many find troubling, and the concluding stanza is no different, often making people frown in disagreement. “Hang on! The usual freedom of men without visions!? That’s not a good thing!” or so I have been told in heated tones when teaching through this poem in retreats. And it is certainly counter cultural. From corporations and governmental agencies, to churches and non-profit organizations, to our families, to personal vision statements, we are taught that having vision is crucial, that nothing gets done without vision, and that the most important part of any project or endeavor is to formulate and embrace the vision. Even the Bible tells us to write the vision down and make it clear, and that without vision people lose their way. How can being without visions be freedom?
Let’s take this stanza from its beginning. Merton asks, “What choice remains?” and then answers his own question, “to be ordinary is no choice.” Who chooses to be ordinary?? Children may say they want to grow up to be ordinary things, but from the child’s perspective their choice is extraordinary. Goodness knows to be tall enough to reach the cookie jar and get one without having to get permission represents a tremendous accomplishment! At about three years old, one of my children announced that when she grew up she wanted to be a rabbit. Okay, that would be extraordinary! But then again, when you drive down my driveway in the morning the rabbits scatter like, well, rabbits. Another child of mine announced at around 8 years old that she wanted to be a pedestrian when she grew up. Huh? We thought that she must not know what the word meant. No, she knew. She wanted to live in a big city where she walked to work and on the way she would stop by Starbucks for her morning coffee. Each of these visions may feel ordinary to the one actually living that life, but to my children these were visions of grandeur.
From the perspective of the author of the poem, the choice to be great has slipped away. Recall that the context of this closing stanza is a poem in which the ruins of the former house of one’s ambitious efforts are undeniable, the lucky wind has blown away the halo, the lucky storm has drowned reputation leaving only the serene poverty of non-achievement. Greatness? No. Not going to happen. The halo and the reputation are gone. Take a moment to go back and reread the whole poem if this is unfamiliar to you. But, there is a distinct, carefree quality in having no more choices.
In that room, waiting to hear the decision of the church board, I lifted my eyes to hers and we began to think beyond the current crisis. After a while, Kay put “Come Away with Me” by Nora Jones on her phone, stood, and extended her hand to me. Weeping and laughing, I accepted her hand and we danced, just the two of us while others debated our future elsewhere.
I had spent the previous twenty-three years as a man with visions — visions of ministry greatness. Of course, I couched it all in very righteous sounding religious words about changing the world for the glory of God, bringing light to the lost, really making a difference in people’s lives, and those motivations were real to a certain extent. But underneath all of that was a more malignant ambition: I was going to make something of myself. I was going to be somebody. I climbed the normal ladder of my profession in pursuit of my visions, but it was never enough. I was never enough. Looking back, I’m not sure “enough” was possible. I’ve known ministers who had bigger ministries, the ones I saw as having experienced and done enough, but those that shared their hearts with me did not see their accomplishments any differently than I saw mine — not enough. And, I’ve met those who looked at me in all my not-enoughness and said, “If only I could accomplish what Brett has, it would be enough.”
In my early forties, when it seemed to me that no choice remained, I crashed completely, but quite unoriginally, which led to that church board meeting and that precious, vulnerable dance with my wife who was, in that act, inviting me through the disaster to a life without visions.
Bravely, that church board chose to extend grace to me and I continued to serve in pastoral ministry for another decade. But in my post-crash ministry, I served in the freedom of a pastor without visions. In time I learned to love and enjoy people without requiring them to make me great.
A couple of lines from “A Liturgy for Those Who Have Not Done Great Things for God” stand out to me now.
Be liberated now from this burden of believing
That anything depends on you
And so be liberated at last to give yourself to his
Joyful service in grateful response for the grace
He has lavished upon you!*Douglas Kaine McKelvney
That “liberated, joyful service” is captured in the spiritual practice that I developed over the next few years, that I jokingly called Suburban Monasticism, and forms the heart of the Serene Disciple Project. It is to that we will turn to beginning next week. Now, go back and read the whole poem one more time. See if it speaks to you differently than when you first read it.
And what was my answer to Kay’s question that memorable evening about what I would do if I wasn’t a pastor? I described to her, essentially, what I am doing now with the Serene Disciple Project and Egret Isle Farm. Life’s a funny old thing.
Comment below and let me know what this poem has meant to you.