I love this quote from the beloved monk Thomas Merton, “Yet another elder said: If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up to heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, for what he is doing is not good for him.”
It speaks to me and my experience as both a Christian and a Pastor. There certainly was a time where I more than would have looked like that young monk desperately trying to climb my way up to heaven by my own will, create the paradise I thought was needed.
Oh sure, I would dress it up in very spiritual language by saying things like, “I’m just trying to fulfill my calling” or “I’m simply trying to build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven” or “Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said to love God and love neighbor?” But really, I was trying to save myself all the while dressed up in sacrificial duty as if I could work or serve my way out of the current malaise the world happens to be in.
It was like I thought it was up to me to perfect the world around me, thereby living as if it were heaven.
What Merton doesn’t say is that we are all that young monk trying to climb up the ladder of success (whatever we think it is) so we might taste heaven here and now. We all want control of our lives so we can fashion them into whatever we think paradise is. What was The Fall in Genesis if not humanity trying to be like God, be in control?
And if I’m being honest, the impulse is still with me. I can’t say I’ve grown up from my younger years of striving. I still try and create my version of heaven on earth with the emphasis falling on my shoulders. It’s a recipe for disaster and disappointment when life doesn’t turn into the paradise I’ve hoped for, worked for, climbed for. I still need people (read here the Church) to pull me down off that ladder lest I fall.
The good news is that God doesn’t need us to climb our way up to heaven. Heaven came down to us once in Jesus. He went into the shadows of our lives, our failed dreams, crushed hopes, disappointed paradises when he died on the Cross. Instead of climbing up to heaven, he descended into hell.
Of course, God raised him on that third day defeating death for good. He left it lying beside the newly opened tomb in a heap just like those linen cloths. He gave us a foretaste of what happens to us: God will raise us too. It’s not up to us to try and make our way to heaven, that’s God’s job.
So if you ever notice me building a ladder with my eyes skyward, pull me back down to earth, please.