Life and Holiness
By Thomas Merton
Publisher: Trappist, KY: Abbey Press of Gethsemani, 1996.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, writer, poet, and peace activist, and also a best-selling author. His many books on spirituality have inspired both laypeople and those in monasteries, and have reached across the divisions between religions, East and West, to touch the hearts of spiritual seekers everywhere.
Life and Holiness outlines the basic principles of living a spiritual life. First published in the 1960s, and cognizant of the political turmoil of the era, the essays continue to be remarkably appropriate and applicable fifty years later. The book is divided into five sections: “Christian Ideals”, “The Testing of Ideals”, “Christ, the Way”, “The Life of Faith”, “Growth in Christ”. While Merton writes as a Christian, using some terminology specific to Christian spirituality, his ideals offer guidelines for disciples of any path.
Merton starts out by noting how many common ideas about sin and holiness are superficial and misleading:
Sin is the refusal of spiritual life, the refusal of the inner order and peace that come from our union with the divine will. In a word, sin is the refusal of God’s will and of his love. It is not only a refusal to “do” this or that thing willed by God, or a determination to do what he forbids. It is more radically a refusal to be what we are, a rejection of our mysterious, contingent, spiritual reality hidden in the very mystery of God. Sin is our refusal to be what we were created to be – sons of God, images of God. Ultimately, sin, while seeming to be an assertion of freedom, is a flight from the freedom and the responsibility of divine sonship.
For Merton, ‘faith’ does not mean merely accepting certain beliefs; rather it is a surrender to Truth.
A person can be detached and spiritual in a rational, idealistic kind of way and still be in the flesh. What distinguishes flesh from spirit is the virtue of faith.… Faith is not merely the acquiescence of the mind to certain truths, it is the gift of our whole being to Truth itself, to the Word of God.
The life of faith is, in essence, a life of continual prayer:
Prayer is therefore the heart of faith. . . . The chief meaning of the New Testament teaching on prayer is then that the kingdom of heaven is open to those who beg, by prayer, to enter it. That supernatural aid will never be refused anyone who needs it and seeks it in the name of Christ [See John 16:23].
Merton holds that a life of faith should not result in passively accepting all the injustice and cruelty we see around us, or hiding from the pain and suffering in the world. “Sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human,” meaning “a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humour, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.” Merton was ever conscious of the social and moral turmoil of his era. He encourages us to be aware of injustice, knowing full well that we cannot solve all the problems of the world. If we would live a spiritual life, we must behave honourably and compassionately with all and not contribute, even passively, to suffering and poverty. He writes,
Too often we think of charity as a kind of moral luxury, as something which we choose to practise, and which gives us merit in God’s sight, at the same time satisfying a certain interior need to ‘do good’. Such charity is immature … and unreal. True charity is love.
For anyone attempting to live a truly spiritual life, one’s ideals will be tested, and the way of spiritual growth will be long and difficult. In a spiritual life one must “mortify even some legitimate cravings” with discipline and seriousness, and no compromise. Failures will happen. Merton warns against falling into a morbid self-hatred, especially if one is fooled into imagining that this is humility. Although we must strive for spiritual perfection, attaining it can only come through divine grace.
We would do well to emphasize uncreated grace. The Holy Spirit present within us, the dulcis hospes animae, the ‘sweet guest dwelling in our soul’…. To ‘be perfect’ then is not so much a matter of seeking God with ardour and generosity, as of being found, loved, and possessed by God, in such a way that his action in us makes us completely generous and helps us to transcend our limitations and react against our own weakness.
This, however, is no excuse for lack of effort. As he puts it, “Spiritual perfection is beyond our mortal ability. But accepting defeat is laziness.” Our effort is to “avail” ourselves of God’s gifts:
If holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task.… He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints, it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.
While Merton believes that perfection is beyond our ability to achieve, he holds that a spiritual seeker can achieve very real peace. “Without this interior peace we cannot truly come to know God and enjoy the familiarity with him which is proper.” But “peace is not the work of force but the fruit of love. And love means submission to Christ.”
Our Lord, who came to bring ‘not peace but the sword’ also promised a peace that the world cannot give. We, insofar as we rely on our own anxious efforts, are of this world. We are not capable of producing such peace by our own efforts. We can only find it when we have, in some sense, renounced peace and forgotten about it.
The way of holiness, Merton says, is a kind of “madness, the folly of abandoning all concern for ourselves both in the material and in the spiritual order.” If one can fully “entrust ourselves to Christ”, it will mean “a kind of death to our temporal selves.”
The ability to make this act, to let go, to plunge into our own emptiness and there find the freedom of Christ in all fullness – this is inaccessible to all our merely human efforts and plans. We cannot do it by relaxing or by striving, by thinking or not thinking, by acting or not acting. The only answer is perfect faith, exultant hope, transformed by a completely spiritual love of Christ. This is a pure gift of his: but we can dispose ourselves to receive it by fortitude, humility, patience, and, above all, by simple fidelity to his will in every circumstance of our ordinary life.
Ultimately, Merton defines the essence of holiness with a simple principle: “to live not according to our own desire and our own judgment but according to God’s will for us.” For a true lover of God, “all things, whether they appear good or evil, are in actuality good. All things manifest the loving mercy of God.” For such a lover, “obstacles no longer exist.” The way of holiness “is a way of confidence and love.”
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