Tag Archives: thomas merton

Practicing Faith, Part 3

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.

But wait!

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.

-Tzvi Freeman
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.

Light and the Lucid Crystal

Inner lightWhen 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 thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints – for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are.

-Thomas Merton
Part Two, Chapter One, “With a Great Price,” pg 186
The Seven Storey Mountain

This explains a lot. It explains how people who have no faith in God in any manner and no apparent external moral compass (at least from a religious person’s point of view) can still do good and great things for others and uphold noble causes. It also explains how some “religious people,” even though they seem to have faith in God and to uphold the teachings of His prophets and apostles, can harbor evil thoughts and feelings for others and say and do heinous things, all supposedly in the name of God.

Merton further illustrates that a person who is perfect in his or her nature because he or she was made in God’s image and who allows themselves to accept and reflect and refract the light of God as does a crystal, can be perfected beyond human standards and be elevated in a relationship with God and man. This is what it is to be holy.

I was struck with these passages in Merton’s book and remembering this was written when he was a young Trappist monk, I was astonished at how closely some of his ideas and images paralleled those of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, as I often quote them from the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. These quotes, of course, are an extension of Chasidic and even Kabbalistic thought and belief, which seems an even stranger comparison for me to make to the observations and reflections of a Catholic monk writing his autobiography in the 1940s.

I wonder if men from such different cultural and religious backgrounds aren’t on some level joined together by the light of God?

But if this unlikely and wonderful parallel between two men of such divergent faiths exists, how much more tragic that there are so many others in the religious and spiritual arena (and particularly in the blogosphere) who claim the title “saint” or “prophet” but who Merton would definitely classify as “devil?”

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling of lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands.

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book – the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine – is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation.

-Merton, pg 187

I’m not a big fan of censorship and I’m probably one of those people who would be driven out of my mind with indignation if someone should hand me a book that was declared “safe” by the Catholic church. But in reading these sentences and the ones that followed, I began to draw a comparison to what Merton could not possibly have anticipated – the proliferation of information on the world wide web.

The Internet isn’t filtered and in my humble opinion, it never should be, but the danger in this is that anyone who can create a website or blog (and this includes everyone nowadays) will create a website or blog, and they’ll spew their opinions all over the Internet so that anyone with web access can find them and read them.

If you are reasonably well educated from other sources, (such as books and reliable teachers) you can probably make your way through the maze of good content and bad, but there are so many would-be “saints” in the world who unknowingly fall into the teachings of a “devil” out of sheer ignorance.

I was once teaching a class at a congregation and was confronted with a strange thought by one of the students. In the course of the conversation, she said the oddest thing. I believe we were talking about the Tetragrammaton; the most holy and unpronounceable name of God, which many people express as “YHWH,” and she said that the reason the Jewish people were exiled was that they refused to reveal the pronunciation of “the Name” to the world and thus, lost all knowledge of the pronunciation as an additional punishment.


Yes, that sounds crazy to me, too.

I don’t remember all of the details and I probably wouldn’t publish them if I did, but apparently, there was some sort of “teacher” on the Internet who was spreading this kind of information. She gave me the URL to his site and I looked him up.

Oh my!

There were years and years and years worth of articles on his site (I really don’t remember his name) and it would have been impossible to go through all of his stuff. I searched for the information on the “Sacred Name” but didn’t find it. I looked through some random web articles and some of it was relatively sane and a lot of it wasn’t. The guy seemed like he was intelligent and even educated, but his conclusions were highly suspect.

With that memory fully recalled and in reading Merton’s book, I’m beginning to develop a new respect for the “imprimatur” concept. Not in terms of consuming data that is only acceptable to the Catholic church, but with the idea of separating the “wheat from the chafe” relative to sound versus unsound religious “research”. If I want to buy a book, I can always go to Amazon and read the reviews to get some sort of idea if the book is any good or not (although sometimes even that litmus test fails). For random craziness on the web, there often is not litmus test except keeping yourself educated with valid sources and knowing when something looks suspicious.

Even with that, some otherwise reliable and well-educated blog authors can become overly-enamored with their own self-importance, just because they get a lot of attention and some local notoriety. The curse of even marginally “famous” believers is that the temptation to forget that God is the focus can be really strong.

I occasionally get “spammed” by folks who tell me that they’ve got a direct line to the Holy Spirit of God who whispers in their ears and helps them not rely on their own intellectual prowess. That kind of makes it hard for me to say that God should be our final litmus test on information when any sort of supernatural revelation is, by its very nature, totally subjective. We can say that revelations of the Spirit should only be considered on the up and up if they jive with Scripture, but interpretation of Scripture is also extremely variable, depending on who you read, who you talk to, and who you believe. Seems like a vicious circle.

Ultimately, we each take some sort of stand and say that “this religion” or “this denomination” or “this sect” or “this viewpoint” is what we consider foundational, and we proceed from that point. None of us have it completely “right” but then perhaps none of us have it completely “wrong” either. In the intellectual “holy wars” on the web, regardless of our differing opinions, we can still rely on the words of the Master that are not ambiguous:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I am also reminded of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

And although not a prophet as we understand the term, Thomas Merton managed to crystallize something important:

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

If we open ourselves to Him, we are the breath of God. When we love others, then we are breathing, then we are alive.

Develop your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land