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“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
This is the Serenity Prayer, well known and used by many. Today was my turn in our Faith Sharing group to pose the question. Using a quote from Thomas Merton and the Serenity Prayer I posed the question of how do we know what we can change or must accept. I think most of accept the only person we can change is ourselves but that working individually or together we need to try to make a difference on other issues of social justice and peace that surround us, like reducing the violence, making peace not war, training soldiers to kill without conscience and environmental issues. In fact there is so much war, violence, injustice and we are so aware of it that we need to pick and choose what we can do and be most effective.
It could mean being an activist on peace issue, like stopping the escalating “Killer Drone” warfare. Or it could mean something small in daily life like helping a stranger get food and shelter or a kind word. No matter what it is we must do it because it is the ‘right thing’ to do not for results. If we work for results we can get discouraged, frustrated and give up.
Thomas Merton, the well known Trappist monk says this best in a letter to my friend Jim Forest in the 60’s when Jim was discouraged about his peace work. You can find the letter below but Merton starts off by saying: “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
I have been discouraged recently by a church group I belong to that should be serving people in need in the area around the church. The group has become down in personal politics, worry about money etc. Normally I try to correct the situation as best I can and if that does not work I keep trying. This time I tried, failed and decided to let it go. Knowing what is right and we must try to change and know how to change it or accept what we cannot change takes wisdom
Letter from Thomas Merton to Jim Forest
(commonly known as Merton’s ‘Letter to a Young Activist/Peacemaker’)
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that save everything.
You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there gin by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, or of your work and your witness. You are using it so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the face that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion…
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.”
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