Unbinding Isaac: Musings on the Eve of My 55th Birthday

Everyday I kill Isaac — my beautiful dream about a silent, solitary, well-ordered life of perfect contemplation and perfect monastic observation with no intrusion from the world.

~ Thomas Merton, journal entry, May Day, 1949

Everyday we kill Isaac. 
And everyday God raises him again in our hearts,
our minds, our will,
so that Isaac's beauty keeps drawing us forward
into our true identity. And all the while
God is tilling the soil in other people's hearts,
many unknown to us, who in the end will play their part
in pulling God's grand scheme off!
In spite of our best efforts!

~ journal entry, July 2002

The journals of Thomas Merton uncover this drama repeatedly in his life: the unbinding of Isaac, we might call it, an unexpected and wondrous outcome at the meeting point of forces well beyond one’s own control.

As a young man Merton dreamed of being a writer, and then he killed the dream, happily — or so he thought — when he entered the monastery. And then the unexpected happened. After reviewing the many players involved in publishing his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain — a literary phenomenon that surprised everyone, including his publisher — he finally confesses,

"All this was completely beyond my control. 
I didn't even know what was going on,
and now it is about to be launched."

In my own life, looking back on pivotal events that paved the way toward a unforeseen good, I have certainly felt the retrospective, “Wow! How did that happen?” Oftentimes a failed outcome, which then appeared (or truly was) tragic, became the painful turn in the road leading to more fruitful and joyful encounters yet to come. It is clear to me now that this kind of grace, born of earlier dark nights and desolations, is how my wife Lauri stole, like a beatific vision, into my life.

While I may look back now on such moments with a knowing, “Yes, of course,” in truth the encounter belonged entirely to God: “Gotcha! You didn’t see that coming, did you?” One is left shaking one’s head, either completely exasperated or smiling in wonder. Behold, God is good. I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your woe, so as to give you a future full of hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

In a few weeks I will celebrate the mid-point of my sixth decade on this good Earth. I suppose I am drawing nearer to that season of life in which Abraham and Sarah had to reconcile with the apparent death of their dreams for “welfare, and not woe.” I feel no such pangs of regret, divine betrayal, or sustained loss, as this old couple must have felt, as decade after decade passed without the blessing of children. On the whole, I am at peace, in no small part because of the gift God so generously gave when Lauri came into my life, and again, with each of our four children. And, to be sure, the slings and arrows of life’s worst storms — senseless loss, random violence, structural injustice — have largely spared me. Like stars beheld in a pool of fresh rain, there is so much to be grateful for.

Yet, in moments of quiet, when I allow myself to imagine what dreams God may hold for me in the years to come, my thoughts recede into a dense cloud of unknowing, a deepening yearning to know, to understand. The cloud is not a storm cloud, not a “mid-life crisis,” but rather questions that pass gently over me, as a persistent being-questioned:

What gifts remain uncultivated? What dreams remain untested? 
What talents remain buried in the Earth?

In truth, I don’t think we could kill Isaac even if we tried, as Merton’s story — and Abraham’s and Sarah’s — illustrates. But we do have to be careful not to bury him alive, which so many of us resign to do, it seems, perhaps especially in our elder years. The worst kind of death, it occurs to me, is the slow, imperceptible-because-habitual death. At 55 I don’t wish to resign myself to pre-formulated conclusions, unimaginative addenda to the story.

Our lives are an unfolding and oft-transparent drama. From birth to death, whenever it may come, Isaac is God’s own dream for us, buried, like seeds, in these earthen vessels. And everyday, if we quiet ourselves enough to attend, God quickens those seeds again in our hearts, our minds, our will, so that Isaac’s beauty keeps drawing us forward, into our true identity.

Unbinding those dreams, watering those seeds, is the work of a lifetime.

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