Merton's Life and Holiness, a review essay

Merton’s little book was an excellent read. He takes the reader through the journey to becoming a saint, saying, “The saint…seeks not his own glory but the glory of God. And in order that God may glorified in all things, the saint wishes himself to be nothing but a pure instrument of the divine will. He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world” (26). Obviously, this is much more attainable than official “sainthood.” Still Merton notes that we act against our desire to become a saint, acting selfishly and obscuring God’s goodness. What are we to do? Participate in the sacraments of the church, says Merton.

Our perfection is therefore not just an individual affair, it is also a question of growth in Christ, deepening of our contact with him in and through the Church, consequently a deepening of our participation in the life of the Church, the mystical Christ. This means…a closer union with our brethren in Christ, a closer and more fruitful integration with them in the living, growing spiritual organism of the Mystical Body (55).

If one can excuse the talk of “brethren”—personally, I think of this word fondly, as a reminder of the warmth of the church in which I grew up—I think Merton’s focus on participation in the life of the church is important. Through baptism and Eucharist, Christ is at work, drawing us to himself so that we can go forth to be Christ to others. Merton, however, cautions:

[W]e must be careful not to give the impression that sacramental mysticism is a kind of magic. …The sacraments produce no fruit where there is no love. …[A sacrament] is not fruitful unless one means thereby to receive new life in Christ and to give himself forever to Christ. And this means renunciation of sin and dedication to a life of charity. It means living up to the dignity of our new being in Christ. It means living as sons of God (63).

And this sort of living can be challenging for us humans.

Indeed, the charity that Merton speaks of requires all of our selves to be given away to others and to God. Merton writes,

Of what use is it to hold seminars on the doctrine of the Mystical Body and on sacred liturgy, if one is completely unconcerned with the suffering, destitution, sickness, and untimely death of millions of potential members of Christ? …It is not enough to reach into our pocket and hand over a few dollars. We must give not only our possessions but ourselves to our brother. Until we regain this deep sense of charity, we cannot understand the full depths of Christian perfection (90).

We must be aware of what is going on around us. And it is not enough to watch our News Feeds. Indeed, Merton notes that “responding automatically to words that are fed” to us creates a state in us that “is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration” (82-83).* We must get our hands dirty. A tough call for us moderns with our 9–5 jobs.

(This makes one think of Pope Francis’s exhortation, in which he says, “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” [The Joy of the Gospel, 201].)

For Merton, church attendance cannot suffice as the entirety of the “Christian Life” (93). Thus, Merton points us to Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistra, which speaks about the Christian life in terms of work and claims that work should not be primarily a transaction between employee and employer but “an expression of the human person” (94). On the other hand, work must not be primarily about making money (95). Merton therefore claims, “The task of restoring work to its proper place in the Christian life is then more than a personal, interior project for the individual. It is a cooperative and objective obligation of the Church and of human society” (96). So Merton returns to Mater et magistra, which “gives one fundamental theological principle on which rests the Church’s teaching of the spiritual value of work. Since the Word of God became Incarnate, the common task of the human race to build a just and truly productive society can be endowed with a more than human character” (97). Through our work, as through our charity, we can be at work redeeming the world and making ourselves into the likeness of a saint.

Again the path to Merton’s simple sainthood is difficult. It requires love; it requires work. But it also requires abandoning ourselves to the divine will of God. Merton concludes his book, saying,

The final step on the way to holiness in Christ is…to completely abandon ourselves with confident joy to the apparent madness of the cross. …The madness, the folly of abandoning all concern for ourselves both in the material and in the spiritual order, that we may entrust ourselves to Christ, means a kind of death to our temporal selves. It is a twisting, a letting go, an act of total abandonment. But it is also a final break-through into joy. 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 (119).

May we all have such fidelity!

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* Clearly, Merton had no concept of what a “News Feed” was, having died in 1968. But I think his words speak to our condition. Here’s the full quote: “It is true that man’s spirit has been degraded and debauched by the cynical abuse of means of communication. He has been reduced to the condition of a machine responding automatically to words that are fed to him. Such a machine is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration. The task of Christian renewal in society is therefore vital if men are going to recover their capacity to believe.”

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens' social media editor. A version of this review appeared on his website.