Merton’s Life and Holiness

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In 1963, Thomas Merton published Life and Holiness. The book is a brilliant, succinct encapsulation of the Christian vision with five major sections: 1) Christian Ideals, 2) The Testing of Ideals, 3) Christ, the Way, 4) The Life of Faith, and 5) Growth in Christ. There are passages which address matters of relevance in the 1960s which could have just as well been written today. Such is the timelessness of truth.

From the outset, Merton makes clear that the primary emphasis of the book is grace, “the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.” Merton also stresses “the nature of work and its place in the Christian life” and how “one’s  daily work is an important element in the spiritual life.” Merton well understood that a life of holiness is one that encompasses human activity in every sphere, not only what which we traditionally associate with the sacred.

I appreciate the ways in which Merton exhorts the reader to strive after holiness, or growth in grace. But he balances that exhortation with a reminder that God is the catalyst, the carrier, and the one who grants completion to that work. Merton writes, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness of life is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. 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.”

This notion of sainthood is one which Merton addresses directly. It is a common temptation to elevate our exemplars to heights which we believe are beyond our reach. Merton says it well:

The popular idea of a ‘saint’ is, of course, quite naturally based on the sanctity which is presented for our veneration, in heroic men and women, by the Church. There is nothing surprising in the fact that saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian, and everyone, on reflection, will easily admit that the stereotype tends to be unreal. The conventions of hagiography have usually accentuated the unreality of the picture, and pious art has, in most cases, successfully completed the work. In this way, the Christian who devotes himself to the pursuit of holiness unconsciously tends to reproduce in himself some features of the popular stereotyped image. Or rather, since it is fortunately difficult to succeed in this enterprise, he imagines himself in some sense obliged to follow the pattern, as if it were really a model proposed for his imitation by the Church herself, instead of a purely conventional and popular caricature of a mysterious reality–the Christlikeness of the saints.

Merton sees that our efforts to imitate these “plaster” saints is ultimately silly. Rather, God is calling us to become most deeply ourselves in Christ. He writes, “It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint.'” Merton points to Jesus, who “was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in him, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin. Now what is ‘supernatural’ if not the economy of salvation in and through the Incarnate Word?”

By grace God not only conforms us to the image and likeness of Christ, but while doing so mends and remakes us in the divine image, as God intended for us to be, free from sin, and freed to live for the glory of God.

One of the matters that keeps us from pursuing this kind of life is distraction. In a paragraph that has held up, Merton writes, “We must reflect more deeply than we do on the effect of modern technological life upon the emotional and instinctual development of man. It is quite possible that the person whose life is divided between tending a machine and watching TV is sooner or later going to suffer a radical deprivation in his nature and humanity.” Hello, Twitter. This observation still rings true.

What, ultimately then, is a saint? Merton states:

The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of the divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness, the pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and the mercy of the Saviour.

In my pastoral experience, those furthest down the road to sanctification are the least able to perceive it. They are too busy living a life of holiness, living a life that is focused upon God’s will and work. It is others in the fellowship who note those who shine like stars in the darkness (Philippians 2:15), who most evidence they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They whisper, maybe with awe, “That person is a saint.”

Any person who has believed on and in Jesus Christ, who has placed their faith in him, is counted among the company of the saints. A saint is not someone who has arrived, but someone who is on the way. The further they have traveled, the more brightly they shine. Sainthood is the calling of every Christian, not as a static reality, but as a dynamic relationship with the Savior who sanctifies.

What is our next step? Where do we begin? The answer remains, as Jesus said so long ago, “Come, follow me.”

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