Today’s Monday Merton is a chapter in Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island that talks about “pure intention,” which is the term Merton uses for coming to a place where our will is synchronized with God’s will.
Our happiness consists in doing the will of God. But the essence of this happiness does not lie merely in an agreement of wills. It consists in a union with God. 52
When we do God’s will, we are better able to love and understand God and the closer we grow to God. Intimacy with God is the ultimate happiness that we’re really seeking in all our fleshly activity. I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said that every man caught in a whorehouse is really looking for God. The problem is that we usually look for this primal intimacy in all the wrong ways.
There are religious men who have become so familiar with the concept of God’s will that their familiarity has bred an apparent contempt. It has made them forget that God’s will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power that is given to us… to be the life of our life and the soul of our own soul’s life. It is the living flame of God’s own Spirit, in Whom our own soul’s flame can play, if it wills, like a mysterious angel… The will of God is not a static center drawing our souls blindly toward itself. It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and being and direction to all things. 53
I think the word “will” is almost misleading, because it makes us think that all we’re talking about is obeying a “Thou shalt” or a “Thou shalt not.” The mistake of religious legalism is to reduce God’s will to a finite set of rules which can be followed to the letter in a way that often betrays their spirit. When we talk about God’s will, we’re talking about the way that His creation most naturally flows. He is constantly reconciling the world to Himself and bringing it into a more perfect state of harmony. His will is the rhythm of the universe. To follow God’s will is to discover the beautiful song of creation and clap in time with it or sing in harmony with it; to not follow God’s will is like making a bunch of dissonant noise that disrupts the cosmic song.
Our intentions are pure when we identify our advantage with God’s glory, and see that our happiness consists in doing His will because His will is right and good. In order to make our intentions pure, we do not give up all idea of seeking our own good, we simply seek it where it really can be found: in a good that is beyond and above ourselves. Pure intention identifies our own happiness with the common good of all those who are loved by God… An impure intention is one that yields to the will of God while retaining a preference for my own will. It divides my will from His will. 54
I would add the word beautiful to “right and good” to complete the classical triad of truth, goodness, and beauty. What’s “right and good” doesn’t have to be ugly. Many Christians today think that unless something is harsh and austere, it’s not “right and good.” Modernity has given us the false impression that being “objective” or “altruistic” must involve a renunciation of my own subjectivity or advantage.
Obviously when you’re doing a science experiment, you need to put parameters on it to make sure that you don’t manipulate the results to support whatever conclusion is most advantageous to you; the problem occurs when we apply this attitude about “objectivity” universally throughout life so that I can only trust that something is God’s will if it goes against my will. This is actually a subversive form of maintaining a preference for my will, even though I begrudgingly go against my will.
People who need for God’s will to be onerous see following God’s will in sacrificial/transactional terms: they give up what they want to do so that God will reward them with salvation as compensation for their sacrifice. God wants us instead to discover the beauty of His will and actually desire what He desires so that we view doing His will as a gift that is its own reward rather than expecting some other form of compensation like greedy little capitalists.
He does not need our sacrifices, He asks for our selves. And if He prescribes certain acts of obedience, it is not because obedience is the beginning and the end of everything. It is only the beginning. Charity, divine union; transformation in Christ: these are the end. 63
Some Christians love the word “obedience” and hate the word “love.” There’s a “yes but…” on the tip of their tongues every time someone says anything about God’s love. Such people reveal that they are stuck in a sacrificial/transactional paradigm for doing God’s will. And God says to them, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Johannes Tauler somewhere makes a distinction between two degrees of pure intention, one of which he calls right intention, and the other simple intention… When we have a right intention… we seek to do God’s will… to please Him. But in doing so we still consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside Him… When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment, and hope for a reward from God. But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done. We do all that we do not only for God but so to speak in Him. We are more aware of Him who works in us than of ourselves or of our work… The man of right intention makes a juridical offering of his work to God… The man of simple intention… works always in an atmosphere of prayer… A simple intention rests in God while accomplishing all things. It takes account of particular ends in order to achieve them for Him: but it does not rest in them. 70-72
This is another way of narrating the distinction between thinking of God’s will as a sacrificial duty to obey and thinking of it as a harmonious delight to embrace. My friend Jonathan Martin talks about worship as our delight in the Father who delights in us. To have what Merton calls simple intention is to trust that God really does delight in us before we do anything to demonstrate our delight in Him. We want to please Him not because we’re anxious about His approval but because we love Him and believe in His plan.