A Famous Prayer by a Famous Cistercian

Thomas Merton

“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 that 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.”

From Thoughts in Solitude (part 2, chapter 2) by Thomas Merton

This is hands down, one of the best prayers I have ever known about.

I first read it a few years ago back in 2015, and must have glazed over it because I did not underline it in my copy of Thoughts in Solitude. Since then, I have seen this prayer pop up in numerous places.

It is simple, to the point, yet expansive and has a certain air of fresh honesty to it.

It should be no wonder that such a prayer is often quoted.

So let’s break it down.

  1. It is about God’s will.
  2. It is about not knowing God’s will.
  3. It is about wanting to do God’s will.
  4. It is about the trust that, despite not knowing God’s will, the desire to please God is, itself, pure.
  5. It is about realizing that we may be doing God’s will without knowing that we are doing God’s will.
  6. It is about trusting the God will not abandon us, whether we think we are doing God’s will or not.

The reality is that this prayer touches upon a universal experience of the human person, especially among those who call themselves people of faith. The experience of lostness is real, as is the desire to please authority figures. However, the lostness and the desire to please God are not things that cause more anxiety to life, rather they are parts of life that need to be acknowledged, integrated and valued for what they are: a part of the human experience.

In active listening seminars, they say to pay special attention “to the poles.” We tend to organize the story of our lives around polar opposite words. This means that when we tell the story of our day, week or year, we might use words such as: lost, found, above, below, broken, healed, burned, balmed, alone, together, unknown, known, etc.

Rarely are we ever the full extent of one pole, but we may certainly feel that way. Occasionally we will sit with someone who hears those words and can draw us toward the other pole, from lost to found, from broken to healed, from unknown to know, etc. And when we have no physical person to talk to, prayer becomes that conversation with the One who loves unconditionally and without limit. Since God is love, love always seeks the good of the Beloved, and the good is always toward wholeness, health, and holiness.

What stands out to me about Thomas Merton’s famous prayer is that it sounds like a very honest conversation between man and God, but it is a prayer between friends, between lovers, between people who both want to know and be known, to love and be loved. Perhaps that is what prayer ought to be, perhaps that is why it stands out when we hear a prayer that is so vulnerable and honest about the human experience before God.

May you learn to pray well today.

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