Some gems from Thomas Merton

I was flipping through my journal for the past year and I found some quotes I had written down from Thomas Merton when I did a retreat at Richmond Hill this past February. They’re all taken from his book Love and Living. I had not realized how powerfully this book influenced my thoughts of the past 7 months.

“Love is not a problem, not an answer to a question… It is the ground of all, and questions arise only insofar as we are divided, absent, estranged, alienated from that ground.” 17

There is a primacy to love that this sentence expresses. It is a basic innocence from which we fall and to which we can only return through Christ’s atonement. My son Isaiah knows this innocence better than I do when he grins at me for no reason except that he’s sitting on my lap and knows that his daddy loves him.

“Often our need for others is not love at all but only the need to be sustained in our illusions, even as we sustain others in theirs.” 23

The only true form of loving another human being is sacramental, that is to say, we love the other person for the sake of the God whose image is refracted through that person. When we cling to other people as the answers to our problems rather than fellow lovers of God and conduits of His love, then we’re living in idolatry and illusion.

“To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves… Yet at the same time time, in order to become one’s true self, the false self must die.” 196

What we fail to understand living in the modernist delusion of the autonomous individual is that we are not truly ourselves until and unless we exist in Christ. We are simply accidental collections of social influences who behave in predictable, manufactured patterns. To be born into Christ is to discover true freedom which is rising above our accidental socialization to move according to the lead of the Holy Spirit.

“The rebirth of which Christ speaks is not a single event, but a continuous dynamic of inner renewal.” 199

I blogged about this concept. I’m convinced that Christianity is a journey of perpetual conversion. We must continually confess Jesus Christ as Lord. It is not a one-time event, though it may be helpful to our journey to be able to retroactively describe a transformative moment that we call “when I got saved.” We get saved by Jesus every day. Paul writes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). It’s a perpetual process. Likewise he writes: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor 4:10-11).

“The perfection of the new birth is reached when there is no more selfishness, there is only love… There is no more ego-self; there is only Christ.” 199

This is the asymptotic perfection toward which we strive and approach. Having only Christ inside signifies being a perfect vessel of God’s love.

“The mercy of God in Christ is more than forensic absolution from sin… Mercy is, then, not only forgiveness, but life.” 203

It is such a horrible reductionism to make the mercy of God into merely the forensic absolution of sin. Mercy is the source for a whole different way of living.

“The human existent is redeemed and delivered into the full freedom of the Christian person when it is liberated from the demonic and futile project of self-redemption — the self-contradictory and self-defeating enterprise of establishing itself in unassailable security as if its existence were identical with being, and as if it were completely autonomous.” 214

This statement captures how salvation really is our deliverance from self-justification. We are rescued from trying to be our own gods, a state of existence which will be torture to us if we have persisted in it when we come to stand before the One who truly is God.

“The claims of mercy are demands in a totally new sense: demands not that the debt be properly measured and then generously paid, but that the whole root of indebtedness be laid open to the light that understandeth mercifully and thus be seen to be quite other than we thought.” 217

Mercy insists upon throwing out the whole system of measurement. Paul writes, “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32). Being put under the reign of God’s mercy means that we are forcibly disempowered from judging others and exacting debts from them when our debts have been forgiven.

“Mercy heals the root of life by curing our existence of the self-devouring despair which projects its own evil upon the other as a demand and an accusation.” 217

Only under God’s mercy can we live in peace and love with our fellow humanity. When we live, by contrast, under our own self-justification, every problem has to be somebody else’s fault.

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