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Thomas Merton, Lent, and the Perils of Avoiding Suffering


I've sometimes wondered what Lent must look like to a non-religious person: 


  • We spend one day a week not eating meat, and on a few days we skip meals altogether.
  • We voluntarily deprive ourselves of good things.
  • We intentionally ponder and ritualize the torture and death of our God/Leader.
  • Oh, and our male leaders all dress in purple (and occasionally pink).

In this thought experiment, I can imagine the other thinking: "Those people are intentionally causing themselves to suffer.  Who does that?  All the sane people are trying to avoid and reduce suffering."

Checking in with myself, I notice that often avoiding suffering is indeed my main motivation. Procrastination is merely putting off a necessary suffering for a little while.  Eating a tasty snack is often intended to distract me from some other discomfort.  I even choose activities with my kids based on what bugs me least.  Those things aren't huge transgressions, but I can see what direction they point me in.  The direction where my comfort matters more than any other value I have.  From personal experience, I know that seeking my own comfort above all else usually leaves me feeling miserable.

There is a quote by Thomas Merton from The Seven Storey Mountain that illustrates the paradox quite beautifully:

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. … This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.

What a powerful exposition of the danger of avoidance.  The more we try to avoid suffering, the more we suffer.  Yet all of us engage in avoidance to some degree.  Fr. Robert Barron's Lenten reflections for today talks about Jesus temptation in the desert, and the first temptation to pursue physical and sensual comforts.  With my three young ones, I particularly liked his reference to Merton's description of these temptations as "like children in that they are so immediate and insistent."  We are rarely free of these temptations: in my life they sometimes win by mere persistence.  What can keep us from sliding down the slope of increasing attention to our own comfort?

In a few words, "willingness" and "acceptance".  Though I got these terms from a psychological approach to healing (ACT therapy), they fit right in with a Catholic view of the world.  They capture the spirit of the antidote to avoidance and the temptations of comfort and pleasure.

Acceptance  includes an openness to and honesty about the way things are.  This includes openness and honesty about painful feelings, urges and sensations.  Many people's first association with acceptance is giving up, ceasing to care, a finality.  "Just accept it, you're a terrible human."  I think this is a distortion.  The acceptance I am talking about is more like accepting you have diabetes.  Accepting in this case means ceasing to deny or struggle against the painful reality, and speaks of freedom to live in healthy ways, given the circumstances.  Accepting diabetes might mean monitoring blood sugar, administering insulin, adjusting diet and living more intentionally.  Acceptance leads to health, freedom and change.

Willingness expresses much of the same concept as acceptance, with a bit more of an active connotation: it is an act of the will to allow and participate in current experiences. This means actively making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle.  When we are willing to experience pain, we do not become wrapped up in efforts to get rid of it; we are free to continue to live and pursue our values.  Willingness says "YES" to our moment-to-moment experience, allowing both pleasant and painful experience to come and go as gifts of God.  It neither holds on to pleasure or rejects pain.

Lent is the season where the church brings us face to face with suffering.  Intentionally. Because it is by embracing suffering that we rob it of power over us.  Lenten sacrifices are a workout for our "willingness" and "acceptance" muscles.

The Church year has a wonderful way of making sure that we practice what is important. God knows we are tempted to our own comfort and avoiding pain, but that the result will be entrapment and misery.  Lent asks us to face pain head-on and acknowledge its salvific power in our lives — it is an extended exercise in willingness and acceptance.  Thus;

  • "We spend one day a week not eating meat, and on a few days we skip meals altogether."  Restated: We accept that physical pleasures are limited, and willingly choose to sacrifice them for spiritual goods.
  • "We voluntarily deprive ourselves of good things."  Restated: We practice a willing stance towards suffering and discomfort.
  • "We intentionally ponder and ritualize the torture and death of our God/Leader."  Restated: We bear witness that our salvation was earned through Christ's willingness to suffer and accept God's will.
  • "Oh, and our male leaders all dress in purple (and occasionally pink)."  Restated: The symbolism of purple reminds us that it is by his suffering that Christ won his crown.

By our willingness to give up the good things of the world, we reverse the bondage of avoidance, and become free to enjoy them as generous gifts of God.

Lent is not merely a pain-induction ritual, just as lifting weights is not merely a means of experiencing soreness.  Given the trouble I have in getting myself to go to the gym, I am glad the Church has built the practice of Lent into the liturgical year.  I need the encouragement to practice willingness and strengthen acceptance.

Lent need not be a somber season, a time of mourning for goods we have been obligated to relinquish.  Rather I think it can be a joyful season, in the spirit in which St. Francis told Brother Leo:  "Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt."  Lent is a time in which we regain a healthy relationship with tangible pleasures.  By our willingness to give up the good things of the world, we reverse the bondage of avoidance, and become free to enjoy them as generous gifts of God.

So I hope you are flexing those muscles, exercising your willingness to suffer and acceptance of God's will.  Though you may be sore, its the kind of pain that delivers a joyful message of increasing health and freedom. 



Ed Rogers. "Thomas Merton, Lent, and the Perils of Avoiding Suffering." PsychedCatholic (February 22, 2015). 

Reprinted with permission of PsychedCatholic.

The Author

rogers Ed Rogers is in his last year of a doctoral program in clinical psychology at Baylor University. He states that his "Bringing together faith and psychological understanding has been particularly powerful for my life. By offering insights from this merging, I hope to be an instrument of growth for others as well."

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