Archive for the ‘Thomas Merton’ Category


Faith Lessons — Various

February 6, 2013
To know God by this miracle of transcendent life implies a radical elevation. It means our mortal clay has been attuned to the incorporeal Word. It means we comprehend God's private language, the language the Trinity speaks. By faith we enter God's circumincession as eavesdroppers. "My sheep hear my voice;' says the Lord (John 10:27). To hear the Lord's immutable voice speaking in the Word made flesh is eternal life. Such faith lifts our minds to abide in that place where God's Truth radiates in unchanging splendor

To know God by this miracle of transcendent life implies a radical elevation. It means our mortal clay has been attuned to the incorporeal Word. It means we comprehend God’s private language, the language the Trinity speaks. By faith we enter God’s circumincession as eavesdroppers. “My sheep hear my voice;’ says the Lord (John 10:27). To hear the Lord’s immutable voice speaking in the Word made flesh is eternal life. Such faith lifts our minds to abide in that place where God’s Truth radiates in unchanging splendor

Faith: Revealing The Unknown In Our Own Selves
FAITH INCORPORATES the unknown into our everyday life in a living, dynamic, and actual manner. The unknown remains unknown. It is still a mystery, for it cannot cease to be one. The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole, in which we are more and more able to transcend the limitations of our external self.

Hence the function of faith is not only to bring us into contact with the “authority of God” revealing; not only to teach us truths “about God,” but even to reveal to us the unknown in our own selves, in so far as our unknown and undiscovered self actually lives in God, moving and acting only under the direct light of his merciful grace.

This is, to my mind, the crucially important aspect of faith which is too often ignored today. Faith is not just conformity, it is life. It embraces all the realms of life, penetrating into the most mysterious and inaccessible depths not only of our unknown spiritual being but even of God’s own hidden essence and love. Faith, then, is the only way of opening up the true depths of reality, even of our own reality.
Fr. Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. [The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae)]


The Catholic Surrender
The Catholic makes a surrender.
But, paradoxically, this surrender frees him to walk familiarly into the hidden life of God. Faith removes the barriers of the natural order which shield, from the world and man, the inner life of the Godhead….

The barriers of nature crumble before the power of a simple act of faith, revealing a completely new and transcendent aspect of the Author of nature. Faith reveals not only many naturally attainable truths; far more importantly, a vast new order of truth rising completely above the natural capacities of the human mind appears before the believer. By faith the veil is drawn back to disclose what theologians’ call the supernatural order of life and truth in God. Faith brings into the focus of man’s intelligence the unfathomable riches of Christ”….

Faith opens our minds to gaze on the ineffable supernatural mysteries of God.

This… is that singular gift of God for which’ [Hebrews] gives the profound and meaningful definition: faith is “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that are not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is faith which implants in man the first beginnings (“the substance”) of his eternal happiness (“of things to be hoped for”), and makes him absolutely certain of the hidden mysteries and glories of God (“the evidence of things that are not seen”).
Father Francis L. B. Cunningham, O.P.


The Formal And Material Objects Of Faith
The formal object of faith is the reason or motive that moves man to assent to the material object. The material object answers the question, “What is believed?” But the formal object provides the answer for why man believes. Man assents to all the truths contained in God’s supernatural revelation “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” The reason, and the only reason, for man’s acceptance of supernatural truth is the authority of God himself. If God speaks to man, there can be no doubt as to the truth of his message. His knowledge is infinite, his veracity beyond question. And since God has spoken, the case is closed.

To anticipate, once again, the ever recurring objection-yes, it is true that the Catholic believes only what his Church proposes for his belief. Ecclesiastical authority, however, while determining the form in which the articles of faith will be proposed, does not reveal the truths which are to be believed. God alone reveals, the Church simply points out — and infallibly so — precisely what has been revealed by God.

“When you heard and received from us the word of God, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but, as it truly is, the word of God, who works in you who have believed”
(1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Father Francis L. B. Cunningham, O.P.


The Infallible Witness And Objective Proponent Of Christ’s Truth
The material object of faith is
the truth or body of truths, accepted by the believer. In the case of the supernatural act of faith, the material object is the content of God’s supernatural revelation….

It is the plan of God that his message be communicated to individual men, not by the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit… but “through the hands of the Apostles” Divine revelation is, therefore, a public matter God has determined from all eternity that his “good news,” the Gospel, would be broadcast to the world through the tangible medium of his visible Church whose Head is Jesus Christ. “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:18-19).

It follows, then, that when the Church speaks, Christ speaks and when Christ speaks, the Father speaks: ‘The Word that you have heard is not mine, but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:24), “My teaching is not my own, but his who sent me” (John 7:16). To guarantee that his message will be public and open to all men — not the plaything of individual vagaries or personal feelings, not the football of miscreants and malcontents, not the private province or production of an elite-Christ established an infallible witness and objective proponent of his truth.
Father Francis L. B. Cunningham, O.P.


“I am not ashamed of the gospel…
For in it is revealed the righteousness of God
from faith to faith; as it is written,
`The one who is righteous by faith will live.”
(Romans 1:16a-17)

If we live by faith, then faith has an animating power. It bears its own principle like a soul. Natural life is not generated from inanimate matter, nor does supernatural faith arise from any power in creation. Faith is transcendent, like the living spirit God breathed into Adam’s clay.

Faith is a divine, self-attesting reality. It stands as its own premise and serves as its own end. Paul does not say “from evidence to faith; nor does he say “from faith to higher knowledge.” No, the righteousness of God, he says, is revealed “from faith to faith.” This means that faith itself proposes the grounds of its own assent. And faith also ratifies what is premised on belief. If this is a circle, it is not vicious. It is the eternal shape of the heavens.

To know God by this miracle of transcendent life implies a radical elevation. It means our mortal clay has been attuned to the incorporeal Word. It means we comprehend God’s private language, the language the Trinity speaks. By faith we enter God’s circumincession as eavesdroppers. “My sheep hear my voice;’ says the Lord (John 10:27). To hear the Lord’s immutable voice speaking in the Word made flesh is eternal life. Such faith lifts our minds to abide in that place where God’s Truth radiates in unchanging splendor.
Father J. Anthony Giambrone, O.P.


Protected: Loving Luisa – Derek Jeter

January 8, 2013

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Book Recommendation: The Ascent To Truth by Thomas Merton

November 18, 2009

There is no greater joy for a Christian seeking to deepen his practice of the faith than quiet time with Thomas Merton (a review of his autobiography here). The Ascent To Truth is Merton’s meditation on the great Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross and the contemplative life. It has been reported that Merton considered the book a failure, as it is a product of his youth, but if you take a quick scan down to the last entry on Mary, I think you will see that Merton’s “failures” are unqualified successes and can be sources of illumination for the rest of us.

A Pattern of Development in Life and In Contemplation
Our nature imposes on us a certain pattern of development which we must follow if we are to fulfill our best capacities and achieve at least the partial happiness of being human…it can be stated very simply: We must know the truth, and we must love the truth we know, and we must act according to the measure of our love…Contemplation reproduces the same essential outline of this pattern, but on a much higher level. For contemplation is a work of grace, The Truth to which it unites us is not an abstraction but Reality and Life itself. The love by which it unites us to this Truth is a gift of God and an only be produced within us by the direct action of God.

Mystical Contemplation
The true nature of mystical contemplation is first of all a supernatural experience of God as He is in Himself. This experience is a free gift of God in  a more special sense than are all the other graces required for our sanctification, although it forms a part of the normal supernatural organism by which we are sanctified. Essentially mystical experience is a vivid conscious participation of our soul and its faculties in the life, knowledge and love of God Himself. This participation is ontologically possible only because sanctifying grace is imparted to us as a new “being” superadded to our nature and giving it the power to elicit acts which are entirely beyond its own capacity.

Blaise Pascal on The Psychology of Illusion
A Man can pass his whole life without boredom, merely by gambling each day with a modest sum. Give him, each morning, the amount of money he might be able to win each day, on a condition that he must not gamble: you make him miserable! You may say that what he seeks is the amusement of gaming, not the winnings. All right let him play for nothing. There will be no excitement, he will be bored to death.

So it is not just amusement that he seeks, An amusement that is tame, without passion, only bores him. He wants to get worked up and to delude himself that he is going to be happy if he wins a sum that he would actually refuse if it were given him on condition that he must not gamble. He needs to create an object for his passions and to direct upon his object his desire, his anger and his fear — like children who scare themselves with their own painted faces.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa
All that man pursues in this life has no existence except in his mind, not in reality: opinion, honor, dignities, glory, fortune: all these are the work of this life’s spiders…but those who rise to the heights escape, with the flick of a wing from the spiders of this world. Only those who, like flies, are heavy and without energy remain caught in the glue of this world and are taken and bound, as though in nets, by honors, pleasures, praise and manifold desires, and thus they become the prey of the beast that seeks to capture them.

Men are condemned to physical or spiritual movement because it is unbearable for them to sit still. Blaise Pascal: “We look for rest and overcome obstacles to obtain it. But if we overcome these obstacles, rest becomes intolerable, for we begin to think of the misfortunes that are ours, or of those that threaten to descend upon us.” Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man’s guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire. Incapable of the divine activity which alone can satisfy his soul, fallen man flings himself upon exterior things, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of the agitation which keeps his spirit pleasantly numb….Pascal: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is , in itself, the greatest of our miseries.”

Discernment and Detachment
The Christian contemplation of nature is characterized in the ascetic gift of discernment, which is one penetrating glance, apprehend what creatures are and what they are not. This is the intellectual counterpoise of detachment in the will. Discernment and detachment (krisis and apatheia) are two characters of the mature Christina soul. They are not yet the mark of a mystic but they bear witness that one is traveling the right way to mystical contemplation and the stage of beginners has passed….The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good — charity, union with the will of God — and an equally spontaneous repugnance with what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right or deterred from evil by threat of punishment.

The Tragedy Of Man
Our tragedy consists in this: that although our reason may be capable of showing us clearly the futility of what we desire, we continue to desire it for the sake of the desire. Passion itself is our pleasure. Reason then becomes he instrument of passion. Its perverted function is to create idols — that is fictions –to which we can dedicate the worship of love and hatred, joy and anguish, hope and fear.

The First Commandment
Saint John of the Cross regarded the First Commandment as a summary of the entire ascetic and mystical life, up to and including Transforming Union. He tells us in fact that his works are simply an explanation of what is contained in the commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength.” …Saint John of the Cross: “Herein is contained all the spiritual man ought to do, and all that I have here to teach him, so that he may truly attain God, through union of the will, by means of charity. For herein man is commanded to employ all his faculties and desires and operations and affections of his soul in God so that all the ability and strength of his soul may serve for no more than  this.”…this is simply the imitation of Christ “who in His life had no other pleasure  than to do the will of his Father. We must renounce and completely reject every pleasure that presents itself to the senses, if it be not purely for the  honor and glory of God.

Acquired vs. Infused Wisdom
Acquired wisdom is the fruit of man’s own study and his thought and infused wisdom or contemplation which is a gift of God….Acquired wisdom can do nothing to bring a man to divine union with God, divine union is a vocation and, if faithful, a destiny…The whole ascetical and mystical life is a reproduction of the life of Christ on earth because it completely empties and “annihilates” the soul in order to unite it to God.

Saint Teresa of Avila
“My opinion has always been and always will be that every Christian should try to consult some learned person, if he can, and the more learned the person the better, Those who walk in the way of prayer have the greater need of learning and the more spiritual they are, the greater is their need. Let us not make the mistake that learned men who do not practice (contemplative) prayer are not suitable directors for those who do…if a person who practices prayer consults learned men, the devil will not deceive him with illusions, except by his own desire; for I think the devils are very much afraid of learned me who are humble and  virtuous, knowing these will find them out and defeat them.”

Notes on Christian Mystical Experience
In mystical experience God is apprehended as unknown.. A knowledge that registers itself in the soul passively without an idea…the intelligence needs light but contemplation obscures the clear knowledge of divine things, it hides them in a cloud of unknowing …God communicates Himself to the soul passively and in darkness….the only proximate means of union with God is faith…no vision, no revelation, however sublime is worth the smallest act of faith….

Three Statements On Unknowing
1. Acquired conceptual knowledge of God should not be discarded as long as it helps a man toward Divine Union. And it continues to help a man toward Divine Union as long as it does not interfere with the infused, passive, mystical experience of God in obscurity.

2. It is not so much the presence of concepts in the mind that interferes with the obscure mystical illumination of the soul as the desire to reach God through concepts . There is therefore no question of rejecting all conceptual knowledge of God, but of ceasing to rely on concepts as a proximate means of union with Him.

3. You are not supposed to renounce this desire of clear conceptual knowledge of God unless you are actually receiving infused prayer — or unless you are so advanced in then mystical life that your can enter into the presence of God without active thought of Him.

Explaining God
If you begin by juggling with a system of clear ideas which you think delimit and circumscribe the Being of God you will by that very fact, begin judging God according to the measure of your ideas…Like Job’s friends, you set yourself up as a theological advocate of God. You justify His ways to men not according to what He is, but according to what your system says He ought to be. In the end you find yourself apologizing to the world for God and demonstrating that, after all, He is not to be blamed for being what He is because it can be shown that He generally acts like a just prudent and benevolent man. Or rather to help him ascend a few degrees in the estimation  of men, you present Him to them as a well-disposed and democratic millionaire. The word for this is blasphemy. It is also atheism because a God who depends on your ideas for His justification cannot possibly exist.

The Certitude Of Scholastic Philosophy And Theology
Catholic philosophy and speculative theology…are in strict truth, sciences…they are not the pragmatic rationalization of vague spiritual desires. On the levels of both philosophy and theology. Catholic thought has a value that is speculative and absolute. That is to say, it arrives at conclusions about God which are endowed with a genuine scientific certitude, because they can be proved by clear demonstration to proceed with inexorable logic form the basic principles which are self evident, in the case of philosophy, and revealed by God, in the case of theology…Yet no matter how great may be the certitude of scholastic philosophy and theology, they both culminate in a knowledge of God tamquam ignotum. They know him in his transcendence. They know him as unknown….the physicist deals with energy in such a way that it becomes subject to his control…although the existence of God ends in absolute certitude, we cannot put our minds in possession of an object which we can determine, master, possess or command….our knowledge of God makes him master of the soul that knows Him….When he knows us we are. When he knows us not, we are not.

Christian Contemplation
Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears I the hours of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable. It is a vision in which Love, mounting into the darkness which no reasoning can penetrate, unites in one bond all the loose strands that intelligence alone cannot connect together, and with this cord draws the whole being of man into a Divine Union, the effects of which will someday overflow into the world outside him.

Concepts and Intelligence
The true spiritual crisis which sometimes leads to faith, the crisis within crisis that must always prepare  the way for contemplation, must first of all have an intellectual element. It must be borne of thought. It must spring from a respect for the validity of concepts and of reasoning. It accepts the work of intelligence. But it also sees that concepts and intelligence have their limitations. At the same time it realizes that the spirit is not necessarily bound by these limitations. And this is where the crisis begins…. I believe that Christ is God, that he is the word of God Incarnate. I believe that in Christ a human nature was assumed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in such a way that it does not subsist in a proper human personality of its own but has its being from Him, subsists in Him…I believe that the man Christ is a Divine Person, the Son of God. And I believe that by the grace which He has purchased for us all by His death on the Cross and which He has made available for all by His Resurrection form the dead, and communicated to all who are baptized. He has given me a share in that divine sonship. Spiritually therefore I am living by the life of the Son of God. My life is “hidden with Christ in God.” So much I believe….These are concepts and they are joined in intelligible judgments. I can penetrate their meaning by an analysis of them which compares their revealed content with the content of other propositions revealed by God or even with propositions known to reason. And yet they remain mysteries to me. No amount of analysis can make them clearly evident to my intelligence….Nevertheless, the love of God endows man’s spirit with a kind of instinctive realization that somehow these mysteries of faith are meant to be penetrated and appreciated. In a certain sense theyare given us to be understood Faith seeks understanding, not only in study by above all in payer. Fides quaerit intellect…And Saint Paul explained to the Christian converts of Corinth that although he spoke “the wisdom of God in a mystery, a mystery which is hidden,” nevertheless the Spirit of God would manifest hidden wonders of this wisdom. “To us God hath revealed them by His Spirit…We have received not the spirit of the world but he Spirit that is of God: that we may know the things that are given us from God .(1 Corinthians 2:7, 10, 12).

Contemplation: A Gift Of Self To God
The passage from philosophical understanding to faith is marked by a gift of our self to God. The moment of transition is the moment of sacrifice. The passage from faith to that spiritual understanding which is called contemplation is also a moment of immolation. It is the direct consequence of a more complete and radical gift of ourselves to God. Contemplation is a an intensification of faith that transforms belief into something akin to vision. Yet it is not “vision” since contemplation, being pure faith, is even darker than faith itself….For at the very moment we give ourselves to God, God gives himself to us. He cannot give Himself completely to us unless we give ourselves completely to Him: but we cannot give ourselves completely to Him unless He first gives Himself in some measure to us…We can only give ourselves to God when Christ , by His grace, dies and rises spiritually within us.

St. John of The Cross And Scripture
St. John of The Cross does not merely illustrate his doctrine by use of  scripture, he proves it by scripture…He finds his doctrine in the Bible. He can say, as Jesus said, that his doctrine is not merely his won but he doctrine of the Father who sent him….”He who speaks within the divine scripture is the Holy Spirit.”

Our happiness must come, metaphysically speaking, from outside ourselves. That does not mean that perfect happiness consists in a psychological exteriorization of ourselves in created things. Far from it! But even our happiness comes from a being other than our own spirit, beatitude cannot objectively be considered as he perfection which we receive from that Being, even though he be God. To be happy we must be taken out of ourselves and raised above ourselves, not only to a higher level of creation but to the uncreated essence of God. God and God alone is our beatitude…Perfect beatitude, which is union with God in a clear vision of the Divine Essence, is something which exceeds the capacity of any created nature to achieve…Our cooperation with his grace  is demanded of us. There must be action on both sides. He will not give himself to us unless we give ourselves to Him.

The Social Character of The Solitary Contemplative
No matter how solitary a man may be, if he is a contemplative his contemplation has something of a social character. He receives it through the Church. All true and supernatural contemplation is a share in God’s revelation of Himself in the world in Christ. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, prolonging His Incarnation manifesting Him still in the world. She is in full possession of his revelation. She alone dispenses the treasures of His grace.

The Humble Contemplative
God tells Moses to seek the advice of his brother Aaron: “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you.  You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” Having heard these words Moses took courage…for this is characteristic of a humble soul which dares not to treat with God alone and cannot be completely satisfied without human counsel and guidance. And this is the will of God, for he draws near to those who come together to treat concerning truth in order to expound an confirm it in them upon a foundation of natural reason….the last thing many men would look for in a mystic would be a positive need for the advice and guidance of other men. Yet this is precisely one of the characteristic of a truly interior soul.

The Role of Asceticism
Without asceticism, the mystical life is practically out of the question. But asceticism does not need to find expression in strenuous exercises of mortification, still less spectacular and extraordinary macerations. On the contrary the true path of asceticism is a path of simplicity and obscurity, and there is no true Christian self-denial that does not begin first of all with a whole-hearted acceptance and fulfillment of the ordinary duties of one’s state in life.

Reason And The Mystical Life
Mystical prayer is a gift of God to a soul purified by ascetic discipline. This is only achieved when all the passions and faculties are controlled by reason. Mystical prayer depends, per accidens,(per se – per accidens. <philosophical terminology> Latin phrases meaning “through itself” and “by accident,” used by medieval philosophers to distinguish essential and accidental features of substances) On the right ordering of the soul by reason. Reason is the key to the mystical life.

The Harmful Consequences Of Created Pleasure
(Under Christian asceticism) we must never allow our will to seek any created pleasure for pleasure’s sake…if the will does not pass through that pleasure to rest in God rather than in the pleasure itself, then, while not necessarily being formally sinful , it will have harmful consequences for the soul because it will cause it to rest in created pleasure and will thus blind it to the supernatural light that should lead us, by the way of the Cross, to union with God.

Sanctity And Self-Knowledge
The success or failure of a man’s spiritual life depends on the clarity with which he is able to see and judge he motives of his moral acts…the first step to sanctity is self-knowledge. It is the function of reason to judge these motives to try the purity of our intentions and to evaluate the object of our desire and all the circumstances that surround our moral activity. But this work of reason is obstructed and fouled by a habit of acting on impulse every time we are prompted by the instinctive motions passion and desire.

Asceticism And Charity
The true measure of asceticism is charity. Self-denial is the mark of the Christian only because it is the negative predisposition for that charity by which alone it can truly be known whether or not we belong to Christ. We have to deny ourselves because, in practice, love that is centered in ourselves is stolen form God and from other men. Love can only live by giving. When it steals and is stolen, it dies, because it is no longer free.

The Way To God
The way to God is a way of emptiness, without refreshment or pleasure, in which we seek no light but faith and hear no voice but that of faith — so that in the end, we must always walk in darkeness. We must travel in silence.

Intelligent Humility, The Functions of Intelligence And Sharing Truth
God’s infused graces depend on a  passivity that is supremely humble because it is intelligent. Since humility is truth, it presupposes a supernaturally enlightened intelligence….The function of the intelligence is to guarantee the purity of faith hope, and charity, not by much reasoning and subtlety but by the constant ascetical discernment between the illusions of subjectivism and the true light which come from God…Truth reveals itself to the light of reason in a way that can be shared in the same way by all who use that light. Once who understands a truth can convey his understanding to another by evidence and demonstration.

The act of faith is the first step toward contemplation and toward the beatific vision….Faith is the  supernatural virtue, the function which is to enable the intelligence of man to make a firm and complete assent to divinely revealed truth, not on account of the clear intrinsic evidence of statements about God but on the authority of God himself, revealing to us what we do not actually see….the act of faith is elicited under the impulsion of the will…It is a gift of God…and produced under the inspiration of grace….The Holy Spirit takes our will, which has been deflected away from God by sin and corrects its  aim and at the same time illuminates the understanding so that we believe….Faith is a vision of God which is essentially obscure. The soul knows Him, not because it beholds Him face to face, but because it is touched by Him in darkness.

The Church
The Church is the custodian of divinely revealed Truth. Guided by the Holy Ghost , she is the only true and authoritative interpreter of that Truth. The treasury of faith  to which she holds the key is a body of concepts about God. These are the statements which we believe. Believing them, we are able, with the help of our intelligence and the light of grace, to arrive at a certain measure of understanding concerning the things of God…Contemplation is the supernatural experience of the truths about God contained in the deposit of Christian faith.

The Central Mystery
“I in them and thou in me, that they may be perfect in one.” The words of Jesus allow of no looser interpretation. Jesus  is saying that those who reach perfect union with God, in Himself, will be as much One with God by grace as He is One with the Father by Nature. This is the most tremendous and central mystery of Christianity.

Pleasing God
God is said to be pleased with the soul which He finds filled with His own reality, His own love, His own truth. In a mysterious way we please God by knowing him, because we can only know Him by receiving His light into our hearts. Faith, then, is not only capable penetrating the intimate substance of God’s truth, but it is an immediately redemptive knowledge of God. It “saves” us. Its light…confers life…it transforms a man’s whole moral being. He is born again…the truth is actually contained, in a hidden manner, in the articles of faith themselves.

The Anguish Of The Soul
Creatures are such faint reflections of His divine Being that they are no more than the footprints He has left behind Him as He went on His way. They bear witness to His passing; but by that very fact their testimony is tinged with a special anguish….the soul is nailed to the cross of anguish and darkness which is he crisis of true faith. It sees that faith, because it is at once certain and obscure, reveals God by hiding Him and by hiding reveals Him. However this no mere intellectual dilemma. It is not a problem, for  a problem can be disposed of by reasonable solution. The soul is not looking for a solution. It is not proposing a question that faith must answer. Its anguish is of a different and far deeper nature. It is the agony of love that possesses God without seeing Him and is yet restless because it needs to rest in pure vision. Thus its rest is at best a suspension in the void.

The Needle Of Faith
Not all temperaments will seek God in the same way. Some will try above all to satisfy their minds with precise reasoning and clear speculative thought, by which, to some small extent, the truths of faith can be explained. Others will become engrossed in the vital organism of liturgical prayer in which God is at the same time known, loved and served in a way that brings into play all the faculties of man’s being and elevates his soul to God by easy and simple means. Still others will be drawn to seek God, almost from the first, by interior recollection and affective union within their own souls, and they will strive to effect this union by works of prayer, of self-denial and of love. But in every case the concepts and propositions taught by faith are a kind of needle’s eye. The virtue of faith itself is the needle. Our intellect and will, like a double thread, must be threaded into the needle and drawn by the needle through the veil of obscurity that separates us from God. Without the needle of faith, the veil can never be penetrated.

The Vision Of God In Heaven
St Paul says that in heaven “I shall be known even as I am known”….St John paraphrases the statement of the soul: “May I be so transformed in thy beauty that, being alike in beauty, we may both see ourselves in Thy beauty, since I shall have Thine own beauty; so that when one of us looks at the other, each may see in the other his beauty, the beauty of both being thy beauty alone, and I being absorbed in Thy beauty.

When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul saw that in containing Him she contained the world besides. The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and end of all things came before her in her deepest heart. And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm she slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence….it is the mission of Our Lady in the world to form this Christ of hers, this Giant, in the souls of men much as He formed Himself in her. She brings them His grace, and His grace is his own life-giving presence. He is born in every man by Baptism, but we do not know it. He casts his shadow over the soul that first senses Him in the peace of contemplation; but that is not enough. At the summit of the mystical life, God must move and reveal Himself and shake the world within the soul and rise from his sleep like a giant.


Book Recommendation: The Seven Storey Mountain — Thomas Merton

November 9, 2009

mertonA review from the paperback edition says: “Thomas Merton’s early years gave no clue as to the vast richness of spirit and intellect he would develop through out his life and share through his writings. He was the son of an itinerant painter, had an upbringing with little or no religious character, was a nondescript student, a rabble rouser.. not even a Catholic.. who at a point in his early manhood left the fast life of New York and knocked on the doors of a Kentucky monastary, to give over his life to austere celibacy and contemplation.. and profound internal enrichment. Seven Story Mountain has been compared to the Confessions of Augustine, but these books are of different timber. Merton’s is a story told at a personal level, of a spiritual journey in a modern context. It does not try to compete with Augustine’s intense intellectual and theological reasoning, preferring to dwell on the peace and joy of religious life, and more generally the meaning and responsibilities of all lives. You can’t read this book without being charmed and blessed by the proximity to this rare bit of humanity and devotion in our very secular and material age.” I have used “On Becoming A Saint” and “The Death Of His Father: Suffering” in other posts. The former is one that Fr. Barron devotes a great deal of time to in “The Strangest Way”; the latter spoke to me profoundly on the value of faith and I have marshaled it as an argument in posts such as The False Gods of Expedient Mercy. Reading selections follow:

On Becoming A Saint
Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out. with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and ex pressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say”– he told me — ”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

The World Is A Moral Universe
More than that: since no man ever can, or could, live by himself and for himself alone, the destinies of thousands of other people were bound to affected, some remotely, but some very directly and near-at-hand, by my own choices and decisions and desires, as my own life would also be formed and modified according to theirs. I was entering into a moral universe in which I would be related to every other rational being, and in which whole masses of us, as thick as swarming bees, would drag one another along towards some common end of good or evil, peace or war.

A Law Of Nature
It is a law of man’s nature, written into his very essence, and just a much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their father and Creator. In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity.

Saints We Grow Up With
It is a great pleasure for me to remember such good and kind people and to talk about them, although I no longer possess any details about them. I just remember their kindness and goodness to me, and their peacefulness and their utter simplicity They inspired real reverence, and I think, in a way, they were certainly saints, And they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity.

Arguing Faith
So I began to justify Protestantism, as best I could …I gave them the argument that every religion was good: they all led to God, only in different ways, and every man should go according to his own conscience, and settle things according to his own private way of looking at things.

They did not answer me with any argument…Monsieur Privat said quietly and sadly, “Mais c’est impossible.”

It was a terrible, a frightening, a very humiliating thing to see their silence and peacefulness and strength turned against me, accusing me of being estranged from them, isolated from their security, cut off from their protections and from the strength of their inner life by my own fault, by my own willfulness, by my own ignorance, and my uninstructed Protestant pride.

One of the humiliating things about it was that I wanted them to argue, and they despised argument, it was as if they realized, as I did not, that my attitude and my desire of argument and religious discussion implied a fundamental and utter lack of faith, and a dependence on my own lights, and attachment to my own opinion.

What is more, they seemed to realize that I did not believe in anything and that anything I might say I believed would be only empty talk…

Descartes Proof Of His Own And God’s Existence
He told us that as far as he was concerned that [Descartes proof of his own and God’s existence] was the foundation of what religion meant to him….any proof of what is self-evident must necessarily be illusory. It there are no self-evident first principles, as a foundation for reasoning to conclusions that are not immediately apparent, how can you construct any kind of a philosophy? If you have to prove even the basic axioms of your metaphysics, you will never have a metaphysics, because you will never have any strict proof of anything, for your first proof will involve you in an infinite regress, proving that you are proving  what you are proving and so on, into the exterior darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. If Descartes thought it was necessary to prove his own existence , by the fact that he was thinking, and that his thought therefore existed in some subject, how did he prove that he was thinking in the first place? But as to the second step, that God must exist because Descartes had a clear idea of him – that never convinced me, the or at any other time, or now either. There are much better proofs for the existence of God than that one.

The Death Of His Father: Suffering
We went into the ward. Father was in his bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.

And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of him living much longer His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.

I said: “How are you, Father?”

He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.

But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes., Nobody said anything more.

I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do…

What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it if you could. But you must eventually each the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

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 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. It is his own existence, his own being that is at once the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. 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.

The State Of A Soul Without Grace
Religious people, those who have faith and love God and realized what life is and what death means, and know what it is to have an immortal soul, do not understand how it is with the ones who have no faith, and who have already thrown away the soul. They find it hard to conceive that anyone cold enter into the presence of death without some kind of compunction. But they should realize that millions of men die the way I was then prepared to die, the way I then might have died…”Surely you thought of God and wanted to pray to Him for mercy?”

No. As far as I remember, the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, ether that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year, for that matter….

I wish I could give those who believe in God some kind of an idea of the state of a soul like mine was in then. But it is impossible to do it in sober, straight, measured, prose terms. And in a sense, image and analogy would be even more misleading, the very fact that they would have life in them, and convey the notion of some real entity; some kind of energy, some kind of activity. But my soul was simply dead. It was blank, a nothingness. It was empty, it was a kind of a spiritual vacuum, as far as the supernatural order was concerned. Even its natural faculties were shriveled husks of what they ought to have been.

A soul is an immaterial thing. It is a principle of activity, it is an “act”, a “form”, an energizing principle. It is the life of the body, and it must also have a life of its own. But the life of the soul does not inhere to any physical, material subject. So to compare a soul without grace to a corpse without life is only a metaphor. But it is very true.

The First Time He Prays
I was in my room. It was night. The light was on. Suddenly it seemed to me that Father, who had now been dead more than a year, was there with me. The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me. The whole thing passed in a flash, but in that flash, instantly,  I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in, and I was filled with horror at what I saw, and my whole being rose up in revolt against what was within me, and my soul desired escape and liberation and freedom from all this with an intensity and an urgency unlike anything I had ever known before. And now I think for the first time in my whole life I really began to pray — praying not with my lips and with my intellect and imagination, but praying out of the roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known, to reach down towards me out of His darkness and help me to get free of the thousand terrible things that held my will in their slavery.

The Self-Consciousness of Converts
Another thing Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic Church. The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort. And that day in Santa Sabina , although the Church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes. As I knelt to pray, I wondered if she would run out and accuse me at once to the priests, with scandalous horror, for coming and praying in their church – as if Catholics were perfectly content to have a lot of heretic tourists walking about their churches with complete indifference and irreverence, and would get angry if one of them so far acknowledged God’s presence there as to go on his knees for a few seconds and say a prayer!

God Sheds Enough Light Into The Soul
For in my greatest misery, He would shed enough light into my soul to see how miserable I was, and to admit that it was my own fault and my own work. And always I was to be punished for my sins and by my sins themselves s and to realize, at least obscurely, that I as being so punished and burn in the flames of my own hell, and rot in the hell of my own corrupt will until I was forced at last, by my own intense misery, to give up my own will.

Sanctifying Grace
There is a paradox that lies at the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: a man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.

This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract, because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself into perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that it is not due it.

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely about its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God’s work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost….

When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of a thing takes place. And that is the life of sanctifying grace.

The Church: Men Leading Other Men
Christ established His Church, among other reasons, in order that men might lead one another to Him and in the process sanctify themselves and one another. For in this work it is Christ Who draws us to Himself through the action of our fellow men

Aseitas – the English equivalent is a transliteration: aseity — simply means the power for a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God. And to say that God exists a se, of and by and by reason of Himself, is merely to say that God is Being Itself. Ego sum qui sum. And this means that God must enjoy ‘complete independence not only as regards everything outside but also as regards everything within Himself’”
Merton Quotes Etienne Gilson

St. Bonaventure’s Ininerarium
Beyond all sensible images, and all conceptual determinations, God affirms Himself as the absolute act of being in its actuality. Our concept of God is a feeble analogue of a reality which overflows it in every direction, can be made explicit only in the judgment: Being is Being, and absolute positing of that which, lying beyond every object, contains in itself the sufficient reason of objects. And that is why we can rightly say that the very excess of positivity which hides that divine being from our eyes in nevertheless the light which lights up all the rest: ipsa caligo summa est nostrae mentis illuminatio
Merton Quotes St. Bonaventure’s Ininerarium

This Very Darkness Is The Supreme Illumination Of Our Mind
But just as the eye, intent on the various differences of color, does not see the light through which it sees other things, or if it does see, does not notice it, so our mind’s eye, intent on particular and universal beings, does not notice that being which is beyond all categories, even though it comes first to the mind, and through it, all other things. Wherefore it appears most true that as the eye of the bat is disposed towards the light, so the eye of our mind is disposed towards the most evident things of nature. Thus our mind, accustomed as it is to the opaqueness in beings and the phantasms of visible things, appears to be seeing nothing when it gazes upon the light of the highest being. It does not understand that this very darkness is the supreme illumination of our mind, just as when the eye sees pure light, it seems to be seeing nothing. 

Catholic Philosophy vs. The Dead Letter of Scripture
The truth is that the concept of God which I had always entertained, and which I had accused Christians of teaching to the world, was the concept of a being who was simply impossible. He was infinite and yet finite; perfect and imperfect; eternal and yet changing – subject to all the variations of emotion, love, sorrow, hate, revenge, that men are prey to. How could this fatuous, emotional thing be without beginning and without end, the creator of all? I had taken the dead letter of Scripture at its deadest, and it had killed me according to the saying of St. Paul “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.”….What a relief it was for me, now, to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should no allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him. The result was that I acquired an immense respect for Catholic philosophy and for the Catholic faith.

Vital Faith
As William Blake worked himself into my system, I became more and more conscious of the necessity of a vital faith, and the total unreality and insubstantiality of the dead, selfish rationalism which had been freezing my mind and will for the last seven years…I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God…To say that is to say a great deal and I don’t want to say it in a way that conveys more than the truth…it was still more for me a statement of intellectual realization than anything else; and it had not struck down into the roots of my will. The life of the soul is not knowledge; it is love; since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings – by which man becomes one with God.

Understanding The Virtues
Now at last I came around to a sane conception of virtue – without which there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.

I think if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility.

Why should anyone be shattered by the thought of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God’s. In damning them He is ony ratifying their own decision, a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice. Nor will He ever hold our weakness alone responsible for our damnation. Our weakness should not terrify us : it is the source of our strength. Power is made perfect by infirmity, and our very helplessness is all the more potent a claim on that Divine Mercy Who Calls to Himself the poor, the little ones, the heavily burdened.

The Precarious Nature Of Intellectual Conversion
The conversion of the intellect is not enough. And as long as the will, the domina voluntas did not belong completely to God, even the intellectual conversion was bound to remain precarious and indefinite. For although the will cannot force the intellect to see an object other than it is, it can turn it away from the object altogether and prevent it from considering that thing at all…”Where your treasure is , there will your heart be also.” [Matthew 6:21 and Luke 12:34]

Thomas Merton’s Advice To You
Whoever you are, the land God has brought you is not like the land of Egypt from which you came out. Your can no longer live here as you lived there. Your old life and your former ways are crucified now, and you must not seek to live anymore for your own gratification, but give up your own judgment into the hands of a wise director, and sacrifice your pleasures and comforts for the love of God and give the money you no longer spend on those things to the poor…Above all eat your Daily Bread without which you cannot live, and come to know Christ whose Life feeds you in the Host, and He will give you a taste of joys and delights that transcend anything you have ever experienced before and which will make the transition easy.

The Requirement of  Sainthood
All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

Translating Beliefs Into Actions
What was this curse that was upon me that I could not translate belief into action, and my knowledge of God into a concrete campaign for possessing Him, Whom I knew to be the only true good? No, I was content to speculate and argue and I think the reason is that may knowledge was too much a mere matter of natural and intellectual consideration. After all, Aristotle placed the highest natural felicity in the knowledge of God which was accessible to him, a pagan: and I think he was probably right. The heights that can be reached by metaphysical speculation introduce a man into a realm of pure and subtle pleasure that offers the most nearly permanent delights you can find in the natural order. When you go one step higher and base your speculations on premises that are revealed, the pleasure gets deeper and more perfect still. Yet even though the subject matter may be the mysteries of the Christian faith, the manner of contemplating them, speculative and impersonal, may still not transcend the natural plane, at least as far as practical consequences go. In such case you get, not a kind of intellectual and esthetic gluttony – a high and refined and even virtuous form of selfishness. And when it leads to no movement of the will towards God, no efficacious love of Him, it is sterile and dead, this mediation, and could even accidentally become, under certain circumstances, a kind of sin – at least an imperfection.

Daily Communion
It was in one of the confessionals, that a priest one day told me ,very insistently “Go to communion every day, every day.”  By that time I had already become a daily communicant, but his words comforted me and strengthened me, and his emphasis made me glad. And indeed I had reason to be, for it was those daily Communions that were transforming my life almost visibly, from day to day.

It is a wonderful experience to discover a new Saint. For God is greatly magnified and marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one. There are no two saints alike: but all of them are like God, like Him in a different and special way. In fact, if Adam had never fallen, the whole human race would have bee a series of magnificently different and splendid images of “God, each one of all the millions of men showing forth His glories and perfections in an astonishing new way, and each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity as the most complete and unimaginable supernatural perfection of his human personality.

His Brother, John Paul
One thing I would say about my brother, John Paul: My most vivid memories of him, in our childhood, all fill me with poignant compunction at the thought of my own hard-heartedness, and his natural humility and love.

I suppose it’s usual for elder brothers, when they are still children, to feel themselves demeaned by the company of a brother, four or five years younger, whom they regard as a baby, and tend to patronize and look down upon.

So when Russ and Bill and I (older brothers all) made huts in the woods out of boards and tar paper . . . we severely prohibited John Paul, and Russ’ younger brother Tommy and their friends from coming anywhere near us. If they did try to come and get into our hut, or even to look at it, we would chase them away with stones.

“When I think now about that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother John Paul is this: standing in a field a hundred yards away from our hut, is this little perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of leather jacket, standing quite still; his arms hanging down at his sides.

He is gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stones, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow. And yet he does not go away. We shout at him to go away, beat it, go home, and wing a couple more rocks in that direction. We tell him to play some other place. He does not move.

And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad. And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut. And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away.

The law written in his nature tells him he must be with his elder brother and do what he is doing, and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case.

Many times are like that, and in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us, for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We `will’ to separate ourselves from that love; we reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, because it does not please us to be loved . . . “

[Thomas Merton immediately recalls an astounding event] When our `gang’ tried to antagonize the extremely tough Polish kids who had formed a gang in nearby Little Neck (approaching their headquarters) and “from a very safe distance we would challenge them to come out and fight” (but) “nobody came out – perhaps (that day) there was nobody home.”

But then came the day, Merton recalls, “one cold and rainy afternoon, when we observed that numbers of large and small figures, varying in age from 10 to 16, most of them very brawny” gathered outside the Merton home, “20 or 25 of them. There were four of us.”[hiding inside].

The climax of the situation came when Frieda, our German maid, told us that she was very busy with housecleaning and we must all get out of the house immediately. Without listening to our extremely nervous protests, she chased us out the back way . . . we made our way through back yards to the safety of Bill’s house” [a block away, with a clear view across a field, of the Merton home].

And then an extraordinary thing happened. The front door of our house opened. My little brother John Paul came walking down the steps with a certain amount of dignity and calm. He crossed the street (and) walked toward the Little Neck gang. They all turned towards him. He kept on walking and walked right into the middle of them.

One or two of them took their hands out of their pockets. John Paul just looked at them, turning his head to one side and then the other. And he walked through the middle of them and no one ever touched him.

And so he came to the house where we were. We did not chase him away.

The book closes with a poem written by Thomas Merton upon learning of his brother’s death in the North Sea:

I learned that John Paul was severely injured in the crash but managed to keep himself afloat, even tried to support the pilot who was already dead.

He was very badly hurt; maybe his neck was broken. He lay in the bottom of the dinghy in delirium. He was terribly thirsty. He kept asking for water. But they didn’t have any. It didn’t last too long. He had three hours of it and then he died. His companions had more to suffer, and were finally picked up and taken to safety five days later. On the fourth day they had buried John Paul at sea.

The chapter concludes with Thomas Merton’s poetic requiem for his “dear brother” asking their Maker to,

“Take my breath . . .
and buy yourself a better death . . .
And buy you back to your own land
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come,
They call you home.”


Called to Holiness

June 22, 2009
Holiness by Linda Nardelli

Holiness by Linda Nardelli

I know the notion of becoming a Saint or achieving Holiness is one that may provoke disbelief or wry smiles to even those who may consider themselves “the faithful,” not to mention the hoots of derision from the pagans in our midst. But it was the singular thing I learned after my conversion that I never knew or expected on the way to my becoming Catholic. And it didn’t come by way of RCIA classes or even at the Masters in Ministry classes I am taking at St. John’s Seminary. It was totally gratuitous in a way, something I came across in my readings: first in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and then in Fr. Robert Barron’s And Now I See.

I subscribe to an Amazon Discussion Forum called “What Makes Us Catholic?” and unfortunately I have to say this is NOT the answer to that question.  But this is what fully confirmed me in my faith: It is what made ME a Catholic, although oddly enough it happened after I had already taken the step. I see it almost as if God came along cleaning up after my messy first attempts, saying, “No, no, this is why you are here.” And lest anyone misunderstand here, having achieved this is NOT what I’m talking about; realizing it is perhaps the first step.

I’m going to dedicate this post to Sr. Kathleen at St. Luke’s in Belmont MA who gave me just what I needed when I needed it.

So I ask you to consider an anecdote that Thomas Merton relates in The Seven Story Mountain when he first encounters the thought of becoming a Saint from his friend Robert Lax:

Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out. with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and ex pressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say”—he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
The Seven Storey Mountain pp 236-7

Fr. Robert Barron reflects on this moment in his book And Now I See:

“Merton said that this strange answer (Becoming a Saint by wanting to) changed his life: from that moment on, he knew that Christianity was not primarily a matter of getting his ideas straight but rather getting his life straight. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the only true theologians are the saints — those who have practiced the life of Jesus.
Christianity — like baseball, painting, and philosophy — is a world, a form of life. And like those other worlds, it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful. A youngster walks onto the baseball diamond because he finds the game splendid, and a young artist begins to draw because he finds the artistic universe enchanting. Once the beauty of Christianity has seized a devotee, he will long to submit himself to it, entering into its rhythms, its institutions, its history, its drama, its visions and activities.
And then, having practiced it, having worked it into his soul and flesh, he will know it. The movement, in short, is from the beautiful (It is splendid!) to the good (I must play it!) to the true (It is right!). One of the mistakes that both liberals and conservatives make is to get this process precisely backward, arguing first about right and wrong. No kid will be drawn into the universe of baseball by hearing arguments over the infield-fly rule or disputes about the quality of umpiring in the National League. And none of us will be enchanted by the world of Christianity if all we hear are disputes about Humanae vitae and the infallibility of the pope.
Christianity is a captivating and intellectually satisfying game, but the point is to play it. It is a beautiful and truthful way, but the point is to walk it.”  

Ralph Martin in his book Called to Holiness elaborates more on this theme:

JESUS SUMMED UP His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, perfect in holiness – when we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is — just as impossible as it is for rich people to enter heaven, or for a man and a woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.

John Paul II — and he himself may be among those recognized as a Doctor one day — in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first Novo Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church’s consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He points out that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.

Pope John Paul II speaks of three rediscoveries to which the Holy Spirit has led the Church beginning with the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. One of these rediscoveries is the ‘‘rediscovery of the universal call to holiness.”

All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.

John Paul further emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.

To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)… the time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.

Before we go much further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let’s take an initial look at what “holiness” really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we’re engaged in; it’s a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments which sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. Or as Teresa of Avila puts it, holiness is a matter of bringing our wills into union with God’s will.

Thérèse of Lisieux expresses it very similarly:

Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be…who resists His grace in nothing.” As she said towards the very end of her life: “I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love.”

John Paul II goes on to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where “training in holiness” is given.

“Our Christian communities must become genuine schools of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love.” . . . It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.”

John Paul cites several reasons why this turn to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of “Christendom” has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality, which is sometimes met by turning to non-Christian religions. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and “show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (NMI 33, 40).

Recognizing how challenging this call is, John Paul makes clear that it will be difficult to respond adequately without availing ourselves of the wisdom of the mystical tradition of the Church — that body of writings and witness of life that focuses on the process of prayer and stages of growth in the spiritual life. He tells us why the mystical tradition is important and what we can expect it to provide for us.

This great mystical tradition…shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.

How is this extraordinary depth of union with the Trinity possible? It. is indeed the answer to this question that the Catholic mystical tradition gives us. John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn’t just for a few unusual people (“mystics”) but is a call that every Christian receives from Christ Himself “This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14:2 1).”

“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?

John Paul identifies four principles that are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey

  1. Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet we know also that God is eager to give this grace and bring us to deep union. Without Him, we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible (cf. John 14:4-5, Luke 18:27, Philemon 4:13). Without God, successfully completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there, He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Colossians 3:3)
  2. At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The saints speak of disposing ourselves for union. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really value something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach the goal. And yet without God’s grace we cannot even know what’s possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It’s God’s grace that enables us to live the necessary “intense spiritual commitment “You will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
  3. As the Gospel tells us, it’s important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessarily painful moments. The pain of purification is called by John of the Cross the “dark night.” It is important not to be surprised by the painful moments of our transformation but to know that they’re a necessary and blessed part of the whole process. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
  4. And finally, we need to know that all the effort and. pain is worth it! Infinitely worth it. The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been light, compared to the weight of glory that we were being prepared for (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).Deep union (the “nuptial union” or “spiritual marriage” or “transforming union”) is possible even in this life. Teresa of Avila tells us that there’s no reason that someone who reaches a basic stability in living a Catholic life (“mansion” three in her classification system) can’t proceed all the way to “spiritual marriage” in this life (mansion seven).

We all probably know in some way that we’re called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response. Everyone seems to pass the buck on this: lay people pass to those priests and nuns, priests and nuns who feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and have such a busy pace of life might suppose that it’s the cloistered orders who are truly in a good position to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness.

What really holds us back is not really the external circumstances of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we’ll be alive on this earth? We don’t know how long we’ll live or what the future holds. Now is the acceptable time. The very things we think are obstacles are the very means God is giving us to draw us to depend more deeply on Him.

The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects, and the sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to truly love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.

Finally, it’s important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God. Holiness isn’t an “option.” There are only saints in heaven; total transformation is not an “option” for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God.

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we’re transformed the happier and the more “fulfilled” we’ll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.

I know when our little RCIA group finished up at St Lukes, we all wanted to continue in some way and I realize now we were asking for our parish to become a school of prayer so our “training in holiness” could continue. I moved on to another parish and entered another program, neither which really answered this need. Perhaps the closest I have come to it is this self-argument I have mounted here on this blog.


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