Seven great Merton paragraphs

There is a paradox that lies in the heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our own natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.

This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it.

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God’s work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

What is “grace”? It is God’s own life, shared by us. God’s life is Love. Deus caritas est. By grace we are able to share in the infinitely selfless love of Him Who is such pure actuality that He needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends. Indeed, outside of Him there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by His free gift of its being, so that one of the notions that is absolutely contradictory to the perfection of God is selfishness. It is metaphysically impossible for God to be selfish, because the existence of everything that is depends on His gift, depends on His unselfishness.

When 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. And the greatest saints are sometimes the most obscure–Our Lady, St. Joseph.

(from The Seven Storey Mountain, Part Two, Chapter One)

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The problem of evil

God has answered our question about the problem of evil with a lifelong question each of us must answer for ourselves:

Was Good Friday really good or not?

We may need to go through much pain to get to our answer, but the answer to that question is the answer to the problem of evil.

Everything in our life is riding on it. And it is inescapable.

Posted in Faith, Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, Power of God, Sorrowful Mysteries, Suffering, Theological Virtues | Tagged | Leave a comment

Obey Christ’s instruction: Ask, seek, knock

Strive to see this as the perfection and wisdom of God’s will for your life:

Ask with bold trust for the super-abundant gift God wants to give: the Holy Spirit; and you shall receive Him, and all else besides.

Seek first the hidden kingdom of God, in which the Holy Spirit is the primary Gift, and you will find all else is an occasion of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Knock humbly on the secret temple of the Holy Spirit, which is now yourself, and it will be opened to you, revealing the joy you are welcome to have because you have welcomed all as a free and glorious gift.

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The fires of Hell are the fires of God

The fires of Hell are the fires of God to those who never made the journey that results in becoming on fire. When God’s full glory is revealed, if we are not yet on fire, it will be too late and we will experience God’s fire as something foreign, fearsome, and altogether “other”.

We are like candles. But these candles have an inner, hidden unlit core that is like a crystal. When lit, it will be an unconsumed ember. But it can only be lit gently, as the candle finishes burning off the last of its wax. The wick continues down into the crystal-ember. When the fires come at the end, that fire is too intense and the wick is destroyed in an instant and not able to get the ember going. And so, such a one remains a perfect crystal that never takes part in the fire it was made for.

The problem is to discover that the wax of the candle is not our true selves. We derive no benefit in preserving our wax. It will be melted away in an instant at the end, if it is not already lit. If it’s lit but not yet completely burned away, we will be given a chance to burn it down to the crystal. This is Purgatory. This is God’s mercy giving us a chance to finish what has started. We will gain admittance once we are ready, once the crystal is finally lit. If we were exposed to God’s fire before we were ready, that would prevent the crystal from being lit, as the wax and wick would burn away too soon. Making us wait to be ready, while requiring patience on our part, is pure mercy on God’s part.

So in this life on earth, we need to be lit and stay lit. This corresponds to being in the state of grace, having a share of God’s life within us. Unlike the wax which goes away, and is meant to go away, we are to give away the flame. But of course you lose nothing by giving away your flame: your flame is not halved, or even diminished at all.

Now, if you discover how to burn down your wax more quickly, you may not only use up all of it, but your crystal will begin the process of becoming an ember, which means that when the fire of God comes, you are ready to safely be in its presence and it is experienced as friendly, not hostile. How is this discovered and done? By increasingly trusting in God’s mercy now, instead of waiting for its effects until Purgatory.

But for those who were never lit or not lit when the fire came, their crystal will be engulfed in the flame, but neither lit nor destroyed. Thus they never experience the fire as friendly because, not having been lit, and not getting to the ember state, they remain uncomprehending of the friendliness of the fire. And they will live forever in dread of that which they perceive as a never-receding threat, which has already consumed the wax they falsely felt was valuable, was their true self, which they had always tried to preserve. This is not unlike the servant who fearfully hid his one and only talent. We behave the same way when we do not trust in God’s mercy.

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Prayer and Mercy

If we want to follow the pilgrimage of prayer all the way to the end, we must not be frightened by the threats of the world. We have already seen how St. John of the Cross calls such worldly forces wild animals. They try to frighten the prayerful man or woman because these forces are frightened of the holiness of God. The trick to not succumbing to fear is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and His great love for us. This means we must search for His love everywhere, even in those places where it seems most absent. What does that mean? St. John of the Cross says “where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.”

It is in this radical availability to God that the Lord is achieving His greatest work: the perfection of His creation is the human person fully alive. Human beatitude is the ultimate purpose of God’s creative and salvific act. Such beatitude is not brought about by rising above our frail humanity but by becoming more vulnerably human. To thrive, to really live to the fullest, one must become fully oneself, fully human.

Forgiveness and Beginning to Pray

One obstacle to beginning to pray and living within is the struggle to forgive. Whenever someone hurts us in a serious way, there is a spiritual wound that remains. As we begin to pray, it is common that we find ourselves going back over these wounds again and again. What is most frustrating is that many times we thought we had already forgiven the person who hurt us. But when the memory comes back, we can sometimes feel the anger and the pain all over again.

What do we do with the wounds so that they no longer impede our ability to pray? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “It is not in our power not to feel or forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming hurt into intercession” (#2843).

Beginning to pray for those who have hurt us is difficult. In Scriptural terms, those who hurt us are our enemies, and this is true even when they are friends and close family members. Christ commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. Betrayal, abandonment, indifference, scandal, abuse, scorn, sarcasm, ridicule, detraction, and insult — these are all bitter things to forgive. The Lord grieves with us and for us when we suffer these things. He has permitted us to suffer them for a profound reason.

The Lord explained to his disciples that those who hunger and thirst for the sake of justice, those who are merciful, and especially those who are persecuted for righteousness and for the Lord, are blessed. Their mysterious beatitude only makes sense when we see through the eyes of faith the injustice and persecution they have endured. Somehow, trusting in God in the midst of such things makes them in the likeness of Christ. Trusting God means to pray for those who harm us, to seek to return good for evil. When this act of trust is made, the power of God is released in humanity. For two thousand years, this is what every martyr for our faith has revealed to the Church.

God Permits the Persecution of those He Loves

In his mysterious wisdom and profound love, when the Father allows someone to hurt or oppose us in some way, He is entrusting that person to our prayers. When our enemy causes us to suffer unjustly, our faith tells us that this was allowed to happen so that we might participate in the mystery of the Cross. Somehow, like those who offered their lives for our faith, the mystery of redemption is being renewed through our own sufferings.

We have a special authority over the soul of someone who causes us great sorrow. Their actions have bound them to us in the mercy of God. Mercy is love that suffers the evil of another to affirm his dignity so that he does not have to suffer alone. Whenever someone hurts us physically or even emotionally, he has demeaned himself even more. He is even more in need of mercy.

From this perspective, the injury our enemies have caused us can be a gateway for us to embrace the even greater sufferings with which their hearts are burdened. Because of this relationship, our prayers on their behalf have a particular power. The Father hears these prayers because prayer for our enemies enters deep into the mystery of the Cross.

-from Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer by Anthony Lilles (Ch. Ten: Prayer and Mercy, pp. 170-172)

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Merton on facing despair

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.

(from Thoughts in Solitude, pg. 8)

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Journey through the Wilderness

The man who does not permit his spirit to be beaten down and upset by dryness and helplessness, but who lets God lead him peacefully through the wilderness, and desires no other support or guidance than that of pure faith and trust in God alone, will be brought to the Promised Land. He will taste the peace and joy of union with God. He will, without “seeing,” have a habitual, comforting, obscure and mysterious awareness of his God, present and acting in all the events of his life.

The man who is not afraid to abandon all his spiritual progress into the hands of God, to put prayer, virtue, merit, grace, and all gifts in the keeping of Him from Whom they all must come, will quickly be led to peace in union with Him. His peace will be all the sweeter because it will be free of every care.

Just as the light of faith is darkness to the mind, so the supreme supernatural activity of the mind and will in contemplation and infused love at first seems to us like inaction. That is why our natural faculties are anxious and restless. That is why they refuse to keep still. They want to be the sole principles of their own acts. The thought that they cannot act according to their own spontaneous impulsion brings them a suffering and humiliation which they find it hard to stand.

But contemplation lifts us beyond the sphere of our natural powers.

When you are traveling in a plane close to the ground you realize that you are going somewhere: but in the stratosphere, although you may be going seven times as fast, you lose all sense of speed.

As soon as there is any reasonable indication that God is drawing the spirit into this way of contemplation, we ought to remain at peace in a prayer that is utterly simplified, stripped of acts and reflections and clean of images, waiting in emptiness and vigilant expectancy for the will of God to be done in us. This waiting should be without anxiety and without deliberate hunger for any experience that comes within the range of our knowledge or memory, because any experience that we can grasp or understand will be inadequate and unworthy of the state which God wishes to bring our souls.

-from New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (pp. 239-240)

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Storms of Destruction

One thing that is especially dangerous to the solitude required for real prayer is what a psalm describes as “storms of destruction.” The context of Psalm 57 is David hiding from Saul in a cave. Saul was given to irrational fits of rage, especially because his jealousy toward David. David had to flee for his life in the face of Saul’s instability: “In the shelter of your wings I take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.”

The context of Psalm 57 suggests the storm of destruction is not so much a natural disaster as much as it is the violent irrationality of someone close to us. It is so easy to allow irrational aggression to stir up all kinds of hostility in us. This is a trap which, once sprung, robs the soul of the freedom to pray.

Anyone who has struggled not to lash out in anger when irrationally attacked by someone knows that such self-mastery requires special assistance from God. Sometimes there is just no reasoning with someone who is intent on harming us. The humiliating word or scornful look, when we are unsuspecting, brutally strikes to the core. In the heat of such battles, we do not always know how to be merciful. It seems like anything we try to do in some circumstances will betray God’s mercy. So we must withdraw into the “shelter” of God’s “wings.”

Biblically “wings” — whether of eagles, angels or God — are a metaphor for power. Just as a bird soars over the earth, the power of God is over this world including all the events and people He allows into our lives. In the face of all kinds of violence — spiritual, emotional, verbal and also, as in David’s case, physical — it is possible to find rest in God. Divine power is the best shield against every form of malice. But we must seek this, and above all trust in Him.

If we are being tested and our weakness is beginning to show, it is only because He desires to show forth his loving power. God’s power hides us in the shelter of true solitude and a stronghold of spiritual silence, even in the midst of difficult trials and persecution. How He does this in each set of circumstances is always different. Yet, He never fails to deliver from those storms of destruction anyone who clings to Him.

Withdrawing into solitude, seeking places where time can be spent in silence, is something that we must do, not only physically, but especially spiritually, by begging the Lord for his protection and trusting in his power to establish us in peace. He is the one who makes the kind of peaceful stillness in which a profound encounter with Him can take place. Prayer is less distracted and more focused when both the ears of our body and the ears of our heart are sheltered in His peaceful stillness. Such God-given liberation from noise, especially violent noise, helps prayer mature and become fully human. In the sacred silence of God’s own peace, the soul begins to discover the most beautiful and subtle canticles of Divine Love.

- from Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer by Anthony Lilles (Ch. Six: Prayer as Spiritual Combat, pp. 117-118)

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