The Road Ahead: Merton, U2, and the Language of Desire

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.

                                        ~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

In their 1987 mega-hit album The Joshua Tree, the Irish rock band U2 mined the roots of American blues and Gospel music to produce a work of art haunted by spiritual yearnings. One hears echoes of Thomas Merton’s most famous prayer in the album’s iconic second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

The song is a kind of restless postmodern spiritual, lead singer Bono’s version of St. Paul’s lament, “The good which I would do, I do not do; and the evil which I would not do, that I do,” or perhaps St. Augustine’s anguished, and delightful, “Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.”

U2.JoshuaTree.2About the song’s composition, producer Daniel Lanois says, “I’ve always liked gospel music and I encouraged Bono to take it to that place. . . . I think it opened a door for them, to experiment with that territory. . . . .[Bono]’s singing at the top of his range and there is something very compelling about somebody pushing themselves. It’s like hearing Aretha Franklin almost. It jumps on you and you can’t help but feel the feeling.” Indeed, rhythmically and lyrically the song both kicks you in the gut and lifts you into the heights, invoking one’s own passages of yearning and tastes of fulfillment, foretastes of communion, when “all the colors will bleed into one.”

In many ways, I think Merton’s prayer has had a similar kind of impact on people across the generations. Like the song, the prayer pulses with desire, a yearning that few pilgrims will not recognize. Like Bono, Merton is “singing at the top of his range”—which is to say, at his most vulnerable, naked and human before God—stripped of all religious posturing. I have no idea where I am going. Nor do I really know myself. But my desire to please you—to live into the gifts you have given me, to discover my calling—is sincere. Desire cedes to hope, and hope cedes to trust in God’s abiding companionship, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.    

Too often the language of prayer keeps us hiding behind a veneer of formalism. Merton’s prayer gives us permission to step out from behind our masks and get very real with God. Like Bono or Aretha Franklin or the saints in their most unrehearsed and anguished moments, there is something very compelling indeed “about somebody pushing themselves.” And I expect God would agree. “Why not let’s open that door,” says God, “let’s experiment with that territory.”

Christopher Pramuk, “The Road Ahead,” from the November 2018 issue of Give Us This Day (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018). Used with permission.
Thomas Merton, “The Road Ahead,” in Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956, 1958), 83. © Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Used by permission of the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust.


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