Book Excerpts

Life and Holiness

Thomas Merton

An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsions of human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace.... We must learn to distinguish between the pseudo spirituality of activism and the true vitality and energy of Christian action guided by the spirit. (8)

[We] reduce our Christian life to a kind of genteel and social propriety. In such an event Christian “perfection” no longer consists in the arduous and strange fidelity of the spirit to grace in the darkness of the night of faith. It becomes, in practice, a respectable conformity to what is commonly accepted as”good” in the society in which we live. (18)

The mere fact that men are frightened and insecure, that they grasp at optimistic slogans, run more frequently to Church, and seek to pacify their troubled souls by cheerful and humanitarian maxims, is surely no indication that our society is becoming “religious.” (19)

If we are to be “perfect” as Christ is perfect, we must strive to be as perfectly human as he.... Hence sanctity is not a manner of being less human, but more human than other men. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life. (24)

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. (26)

To “be perfect” then is not so much a matter of seeking God with ardor and generosity, as of being found, loved, and possessed by God, in such a way that his action in us makes us completely generous and helps us to transcend our limitations and react against out own weakness (31)

In a word, the whole Christian life consists in seeking the will of God by loving faith and carrying out that blessed will by faithful love. (36)

Love implies preference and preference demands sacrifice. (36)

The Christian “method”... is above all an ethic of spontaneous charity, dictated by the objective relationship between the Christian and his brother (38)

Every man is, to the Christian, in some sense a brother. Some are actually and visibly members of the Body of Christ. But all men are potentially members of that body, and who can say with certainty that the non-Catholic or the non-Christian is not in some hidden way justified by the indwelling Spirit of God and hence, though not visibly and obviously, a true brother “in Christ”? (39)

The will of God is that all should be saved. Hence it follows that God wills us all to cooperate with Jesus Christ and with one another to bring one another to salvation and holiness.... The will of God is then that each should, according to his capacity, according to his function and position, devote himself to the service and salvation of all his brothers, especially of those who are closest to him in the order of charity. (39-40)

The norm by which we can evaluate and judge our sacrifices, then, is this precise order of charity.... The norm of sacrifice is not the amount of pain it inflicts, but its power to break down walls of division, to heal wounds, to restore order and unity in the Body of Christ. (41)

Unless we recognize that we are members of one body and that we have vital obligations and responsibilities toward other members who live by the same life-principle, we will never understand the love of God. (42)

It can easily happen that a person loses his Christian faith as a result of forcing himself to try to accept a view of the Church, or of God, or of life in Christ, which is so distorted that it is practically false.... What is necessary in such a situation is not force, not self-castigation and confused efforts to conform to second-rate Christians, so much as a clarification of the real issue and a restoration of true perspectives. (46)

It is both dishonest and unfaithful for a Christian to imagine that the only way to preserve his faith in the Church is to convince himself that everything is always, in every way, at all times, ideal in her life and activity.... The Christian must learn how to face these problems with a sincere and humble concern for truth and for the glory of God’s Church.... they have now come close to the real meaning of their Christian vocation, and... they are now in a position to make the sacrifice that is demanded of adult Christian men and women: the realistic acceptance of imperfection and of deficiency in themselfs, in others, and in their most cherished institutions. (48-49)

Perfection is not a moral embellishment which we acquire outside of Christ.... Perfection is the work of Christ himself living in us by faith. (54)

Our moral life is not legalistic, not a mere matter of fidelity to duty. It is above all a matter of personal gratitude, of love, and of praise. (64)

There is no charity without justice (88)

True charity is love, and love implies deep concern for the needs of another. It is not a matter of moral self-indulgence, but of strict obligation. I am obliged by the law of Christ and of the Spirit to be concerned with my brother’s need... (88)

Christian charity is meaningless without concrete and exterior acts of love. The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate then himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism which inflates his own ego while patronizing “the poor.” The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heat, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. Such charity is impossible without an interior poverty of spirit which identifies us with the unfortunate, the underprivileged, the dispossessed. In some cases this can and should go to the extent of leaving all that we have in order to share the lot of the unfortunate. (89)

A shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help keep conditions as they are - to help keep people poor. (89)

In our day, the problem of poverty and suffering has become everybody’s concern. It is no longer possible to close our eyes to the misery that exists everywhere in the world, even in the richest nations. A Christian has to face the fact that this unutterable disgrace is by no means “the will of God,” but the effect of incompetence, injustice, and the economic and social confusion of our rapidly developing world.... It is a duty of charity and of justice for every Christian to take an active concern in trying to improve man’s condition in the world.... In other words, Christian charity is no longer real unless it is accompanied by a concern with social justice. (90)

We may imagine that all this poverty and suffering is far removed from our own country: but if we knew and understood our obligations toward Africa, South America, and Asia we would not be so complacent. (90)

We must give not only our possession but ourselves to our brother. (90)

Christian holiness can no longer be considered a matter purely of individual and isolated acts of virtue. It must also be seen as part of a great collaborative effort for spiritual and cultural renewal in society. (93)

Work must once again become spiritually meaningful and humanly satisfying. (96)

Peace is not the work of force but the fruit of love. (113)