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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Reciprocation in Love

True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared. There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit. Infinite sharing is the law of God’s inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves. In disinterested activity we best fulfill our own capacities to act and be.

Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love.

Hence the paradox that unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love. Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In so doing, it perfects itself.

The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.

-from No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton (pp. 19-20)


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All things work together

When St. Paul writes, “All things work together toward good for those that love [and trust] God”, he seems to be laying out a principle of “Christian Karma”.  Is this so? Yes and no.

First of all, it’s not magic. There is no transactional relationship with the Almighty. If you think so, you are mistaken.

Second of all, God’s ways are not our ways. What we think are blessings are not necessarily what God thinks are blessings. The same is also true about misfortune. Often, when misfortune befalls us or some unexpected burden arises, we later (and frequently much, much later) come to find that there were substantial blessings hiding in those events and conditions, not the least of which is what they drew out of us.

What we really need to understand about this principle is that it is completely mysterious and under the control of God, not us. And thankfully so, because God is generous to us beyond all expectations. If we received only what we could conceive, we would be much poorer as a result.

Let’s summarize it this way:

“May we always be amazed and grateful at how God knows how to get His way without violating anyone’s freedom.”

When you look at it that way, it begins to be its own thing, rather than something resembling karma.



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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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