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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Zechariah vs. Mary

How different was the “How will I know?” of Zechariah and the “How is this possible?” of Mary?

They seem so similar, but the reaction of Gabriel could not be more different.


It appears to be due to the underlying nature of each one’s question. Zechariah asks a question that only masquerades as curiosity. “How will I know?” has an obvious answer: when it happens, you nincompoop. This question is not one of curiosity, but of doubt.

Mary, on the other hand, asks a question out of sincere curiosity, as she clearly does not doubt it will happen, but merely asks how.

Gabriel reads the heart of each questioner accurately, as you would expect of a supernatural being.

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Exterior imprisonment

Man without God will tend be like one who grasps the bars of a prison window from the outside, firmly convinced that if only he could get to the other side of those bars all would be well.

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Christ the warrior

What we tend to overlook is that while we rightly pity Christ for being attacked by mankind, He was actually pitying us as we were under attack by the devil. His crucifixion and death was a trap laid for the enemy of our souls. Christ stood in the breach and used his body as a shield to protect us from fatal harm when nobody else could help or save us.

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A guess about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit

Could the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit be as follows?

If in confession we are to be our own accusers, it’s clear that we are not to be our own judge (paraphrasing a Latin quote: No one is to be the judge in their own matter). Then we are neither free to let ourselves off nor free to condemn ourselves.

Could that mysterious sin be robbing God of his prerogative to pardon us by instead persisting in condemning ourselves?

It would make a lot of sense.


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Those who profess to follow Christ have a real and true claim on the forgiveness of their fellow believers. A Christian who refuses to forgive a brother in Christ has made the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ null and void for his fellow believer.

The problem is that if I make the passion of our Lord null and void for you, it is null and void, period. Its effects are no longer available to me.

That is why Christ said that if you do not forgive your brother from your heart, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you.

 And again, the fifth Beatitude says blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.



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The Mystical Body

The Lord didn’t just want to become one of us: He wanted to become all of us.


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A Body of Broken Bones

YOU AND I and all men were made to find our identity in the One Mystical Christ, in Whom we all complete one another “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ.”

When we all reach that perfection of love which is the contemplation of God in His Glory, our inalienable personalities, while remaining eternally distinct, will nevertheless combine into One so that each one of us will find himself in all the others, and God will be the life and reality of all. Omnia in omnibus Deus.

God is a consuming Fire. He alone can refine us like gold, and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect His own Triune Life forever.

As long as we do not permit His love to consume us entirely and to unite us in Himself, the gold that is in us will be hidden by rock and dirt which keep us separate from one another.

As long as we are not purified by the love of God and transformed into Him in the union of pure sanctity, we will remain apart from one another, and union among us will be a precarious and painful thing, full of labor and sorrow and without lasting cohesion.

IN the whole world, throughout the whole of history, even among religious men and among saints, Christ suffers dismemberment.

His physical Body was crucified by Pilate and the Pharisees; His mystical Body is drawn and quartered from age to age by the devils in the agony of that disunion which is bred and vegetates in our souls, prone to selfishness and sin.

. . . .

Even the innocent, even those in whom Christ lives by charity, even those who want with their whole heart to love one another, remain divided and separate. Although they are already one in Him, their union is hidden from them, because it still only possesses the secret substance of their souls.

But their minds and their judgments and their desires, their human characters and faculties, their appetites and their ideals are all imprisoned in the slag of inescapable egotism which pure love has not yet been able to refine.

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.

There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate.

Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion.

There is in every weak, lost and isolated member of the human race an agony of hatred born of his own helplessness, his own isolation. Hatred is the sign and the expression of loneliness, of unworthiness, of insufficiency. And in so far as each one of us is lonely, is unworthy, each one hates himself. Some of us are aware of this self-hatred, and because of it we reproach ourselves and punish ourselves needlessly. Punishment cannot cure the feeling that we are unworthy. There is nothing we can do about it as long as we feel that we are isolated, insufficient, helpless, alone. Others, who are less conscious of their own self-hatred, realize it in a different form by projecting it onto others. There is a proud and self-confident hate, strong and cruel, which enjoys the pleasure of hating, for it is directed outward to the unworthiness of another. But this strong and happy hate does not realize that like all hate, it destroys and consumes the self that hates, and not the object that is hated. Hate in any form is self-destructive, and even when it triumphs physically it triumphs in it own spiritual ruin.

Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardon, and they are consequently returning to their old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.

. . . .

The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. This is a prior commandment, to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love,  but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. That faith that one is loved by God although unworthy–or, rather, irrespective of one’s worth!

In the true Christian vision of God’s love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable: the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence (since no one could ever, by himself, be strictly worthy to be loved with such a love) is a true liberation of spirit. And until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, man is imprisoned in hate.

Humanistic love will not serve. As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism. We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy. That is to say we have lost the capacity to face the question of unworthiness at all. But when we are delivered by the mercy of God the question no longer has a meaning.

Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. ….

But love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.

(from New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (1961), pp. 70-76)



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