What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God’s likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God.
The beginning of love is truth, and before He will give us His love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them. And the most effective way of detaching us from ourselves is to make us detest ourselves as we have made ourselves by sin, in order that we may love Him reflected in our souls as He has re-made them by His love.
This is the meaning of the contemplative life, and the sense of all the apparently meaningless little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery: they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is – that we may get sick of the sight of ourselves and turn to Him: and in the end, we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…
-Thomas Merton upon entering a Trappist monastery as a novice
Part Three, Chapter Four: “The Sweet Savor of Liberty” (pp 409-10)
The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith
I hadn’t planned on writing a “part 3” to the part 1 and part 2 of “Practicing Faith,” but this quote form Merton’s book, which I did want to write about, sort of demanded it. I’ve been trying to define what “practicing faith” means which, for me, isn’t always the same as “practicing religion.”
Religion is the mechanism or the interface by which we practice our faith. For Thomas Merton, that interface was the Catholic church and eventually, a Trappist monastery. That’s not exactly my cup of tea and it may not be yours either, but it certainly was his and in the above quote, he has a point to make that I rather like.
But it’s not perfect.
On the one hand, Merton draws a sharp dichotomy between our human self and our selfless love of God. On the other hand, he reunites these two halves when he says our “purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…” Christianity tends to split the world into the secular and the Divine, devaluing the former and elevating the latter to the highest degree. This explains the rationale for Merton’s joining a “contemplative monastery” in which he could engage in the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors” that comprise monastery life as a life dedicated to our holiness while minimizing our human nature.
Judaism doesn’t support a monastic lifestyle and generally believes that everything we do in the secular has meaning and substance in the Divine realm without really being separated from it. Life is life and faith is faith; a unified whole, much as God is, not divided or relegated into different categories, meanings, or realms. If God created you to be here in the world, then He meant for you to live out your holy life in a concrete universe, not pining away for the ephemeral, spiritual heavens.
When we are confronted to lead a life of faith, we have to ask ourselves (and God) how we’re supposed to do it. For Merton, the answer was to convert to Catholicism and later, to join a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. That isn’t the answer for all of us.
If God is One and His Name is One, isn’t there just One religion or One religious sect…one and only one way to worship Him?
You’d think so, which is what allows many people in many different religions to say, “we are the one and you are not.” But I recently compared Thomas Merton and some of the things he teaches to Rabbi M. M. Schneerson and his teachings, and I think we can agree that these two men had radically different ways of practicing faith and certainly of practicing religion.
But the vision or essence behind the mechanics of their practice may have been more closely aligned than we can see on the surface. True, they would have disagreed on a good many things, but they also seemed to see and talk to the same God and I am convinced that God talked to both of them.
I don’t know how they would have tolerated each other if they had actually ever met (both the Rebbe and Merton have since passed away some time ago, so only God knows what a conversation between these two would be like), but in stripping away the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences” involved in each of their daily lives, maybe we can get a glimpse of the bigger picture.
He has an opinion of how each person should be, how each thing should be done. Those who follow his choreography are his friends, those who dare dance their own dance are his enemies; and few, if any, are left without a label.
In truth, he has neither enemies nor friends. He has only himself, for that is all that exists in his world.
“If you don’t want to be so lonely,” we tell him, “make some room for the rest of us.”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Thick Lagoon of Ego”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
I suppose I’m coming dangerously close to saying that what religion you practice doesn’t matter and that there are many roads that lead to God. That statement is bound to offend just about everyone, since we are all deeply invested (me too) in our various religions and how our particular religion is a wonderful way (or the wonderful way) to encounter God and find the meaning of our life in Him. In fact, as proof there is one and only one way, Christians will undoubtedly quote:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. –John 14:6 (ESV)
This, for the Christian, would automatically rule out the Rebbe as having the ability to come to God and for many Protestants, it would rule out Merton’s having a life of holiness as well. And yet, how can we be so sure of just who God accepts and who God rejects, based on their life and how they understand practicing faith?
Human beings can be terribly arrogant and self-absorbed. In order to feel as if we matter to God, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that God cares less for people who are not like us than for people who are like us. For God to love us more, He must love someone else less. We have to be the favorite child to feel secure, so God’s other children can’t also be “favorite.”
Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours burn any brighter. -Anonymous
If you want to get better at your faith, by all means, please practice it. But this isn’t a competition. You don’t have to worry that God has only one “gold medal” in the “holiness Olympics.” If we’re competing against anyone, it is ourselves. The only challenge is to be a better person of faith today than we were yesterday. What someone else does or doesn’t do in practicing their faith cannot and does not affect who we are and what we are doing as people who are faithful to God.
We spend all of our lives trying to understand God and understand who we are in Him. That’s a full time job. Do we really need to waste that time worrying about the other person and how he or she chooses to practice faith?
There are no things. There are only words. The Divine Words of Creation.
The words become scattered and we no longer understand their meaning. Only then are they things. Words in exile.
If so, their redemption lies in the story we tell with them. Reorganizing noise into meaning, redefining what is real, and living a life accordingly.
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
We are all journeying on our own path. We are all using our own words to tell our story about God. We each live our life according to that story. The story is our tale about how we practice our faith, and it is always different for each person…but God is the same.