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Good Letters

kitchen windowMy Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

—Thomas Merton

When I volunteered to teach religious education to sixth graders at our church, it was in a weak moment of senseless altruism, a desire to make some sort of lasting change in the world through the building up of young spirits. I regretted it immediately, especially once I realized I’d be subject to an actual textbook, with actual lesson plans, assignments, and tests.

I’d been operating under a delusion that I could just radiate so much joy and love for the Lord that actual teaching would be a non-issue. I was going to love the children into being—like God did—in that hungry eight o’clock hour before Mass, after raising Cain trying to get my own six children dressed and out the door.

Marooned in front of a dozen twelve-year-olds, who so clearly wished to remain in their own beds for another hour, I realized that after “my name is Mrs. Duffy,” I had absolutely nothing left to say. I was grateful for that old teacher’s manual. There is a moment in every human action where inspiration and apathy meet, and in those times, it is helpful to have a guide.

Maybe nature is orderly, or at least it appears to do what it’s supposed to do without any great interventions, but mankind’s behavior, for some reason—without decision and concrete action—slides into chaos and disorder. The risks of winging it are too high.

I’ve seen this in my prayer life, that if I don’t set a time to go to the sanctuary, just once a week, I will not go at all. If I wait until after all the chores are accomplished to make a morning offering, I will never make it. My desire—my big picture goal—is to keep opening the door to God, but in the small picture, resistance can be very strong.

Likewise at home. Activity is right and good—the folding of the laundry, the bathing and brushing, the preparations for dinner, the picking up and vacuuming. To rest without a consciously portioned boundary for rest is to give consent for entropy to take over.

The punishment for failure on the spiritual front is primarily my own self-loathing, so the stakes are lower or higher depending on how you value one’s view of the self. Still, I sometimes fear the battle is a losing one, because my apathy so consistently reappears.

Life can become a more discernible series of repentances rather than actual choices. There is clearly a right way for the hours to be spent, away from chaos, towards order. Yet, chaos often reigns, especially when there are children in the picture.

The other morning when I came out to the car to drive my kids to school, I found my son’s legs dangling out the passenger window. His older brother had decided to stop his passage from front seat to back, by pulling his seat up midway through his journey, and so he was stuck, head down in the back seat, feet up and out the window.

There was considerable yelling, from all parties, because the headfirst diver landed on my daughter’s lap, and shoes were being flung about, and one of them just wanted to get into the car in peace and quiet, and was making quite a racket in his request for peace and quiet.

By now, half of my children are in middle and high school, and I can’t help noticing how little has changed since they were all small. They still have the same fights for dominance and space, for control and food, and the good seat in the car. These are conflicts I can count on, as sure as the sun will rise.

If I had known how ineffectual my discipline would be over time, I might not have made such a big stink about things when they were young. Sometimes I wonder if my attempts to wield justice over them only taught them the value of winning at all cost. More and more, I’m the loser.

I don’t understand why God would create mankind in this fashion. If we are made in his image, what necessitates this constant battle for redemption and order? Why do my very brief moments of rest necessitate the need for more rest? In part, respites make me so weary, since inevitably, when I return to the battle, things will have slipped even further in my absence.

I ask myself sometimes (usually in hindsight), What is faithfulness? What does it require of me in the face of a battle I’m not likely to win?

Everything that matters in my life, everything that’s made any moderate difference for the good, has been done consistently, gratuitously, and without any expectation of victory or affirmation. Marriage, children, prayer, community, writing—I’m either investing in blind faith or falling into chaos.

My husband and I were wondering aloud the other day, who gets it right? Who has a happy marriage, the joyful storybook kind we all hope for on our engagement? Not that we’re unhappy…all the time anyway, but we’ve been unhappy enough to know that our darkest times are when we are being forged and changed into something unknown.

We had no idea what we were consenting to when we went ahead with it all, just having babies, who seemed harmless enough because they were small and so apparently malleable.

Writing dwells in specifics. I’m supposed to seek concrete images that best tell the inscrutable things for which I have no words. But my life has been relentless faithfulness to blindness and unspecificity. I have no idea where I am going, what I’m doing, who or what I am conceiving.

I have a series of concrete actions that look like a salve for the specific time. I can make love or I can make dinner.

I rely on the tools and guides who have gone before me. I open the textbook, and read to my sixth grade students a condensed version of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:

God tells Abraham to collect all the substance and souls he has acquired and go to a land that God will show him. And when he arrives at that place…he builds an altar.

Each action becomes a scene, a story, a tale of redemption or woe. The suffering in the world seems to nullify the expense of time and energy on such insular things as building up a spirit, or a relationship, or a family. But, in light of that same suffering they are the only things worth building. And maybe, over time, I hope anyway, we are becoming People of God.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Elizabeth Duffy

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at bettyduffy.blogspot.com. She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

  • You’re raising a family in a pretty tough time in American history, at least as it applies to Catholics. After the kids are grown and gone, you eventually catch up on sleep, find the house is easier to keep clean, but then there’s silence. And you miss the fights, the legs sticking out the car window, the belly laughs as silly jokes or statements that were said at the perfect time for comedic effect. You may be traveling blind, but just keep walking in the direction of truth. God fine tunes the last mile and you’ll arrive safely at the gate.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    I want to second the encouragement that Jim wrote just below. And also to add that I, too, say that prayer of Merton’s EVERY day. Your readers might want to see the entire prayer:
    My Lord God,
    I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain where it will end.
    Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
    But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
    And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
    I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.
    And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
    Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
    I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
    And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

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