Monday Merton 6.10.13

For this week’s Monday Merton, I am drawing from chapters 8 and 9 of No Man Is An Island.

Providence is… more than an institution, it is a person. More than a benevolent stranger, He is our Father. And even the term Father is too loose a metaphor to contain all the depths of the mystery: for He loves us more than we love ourselves, as if we were Himself… He Who is infinitely above us, infinitely different from ourselves, infinitely “other” from us, nevertheless dwells in our souls. 132

The thing that is hardest to get our heads around about God is that He is more inside of us than we are inside ourselves. Selfishness is paradoxically to be out of touch with our true selves; it is a superficial comprehension of what our real needs and desires are.

The truth of God lives in our souls more by the power of superior moral courage than by the light of an eminent intelligence… We cannot possess the truth fully until it has entered into the very substance of our life by good habits and by a certain perfection of moral activity. 136-137

This is because truth is more than just facticity. We can come up with all sorts of clever ways of spinning a truth about our world that are all supported by facts. It’s a different thing to live in the truth.

The fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the renouncement of what is evil in itself, but also of all the precise goods that are not willed for us by God. The man who is content to keep from disobeying God, and to satisfy his own desires wherever there is nothing to prevent him from doing so, may indeed lead a life that is not evil: but his life will remain a sad confusion of truth and falsity and he will never have the spiritual vision to tell one clearly from the other. 137

It’s one thing to figure out what all the rules are and avoid breaking them so that nobody has anything on you. That could be called living a safe life. It’s different to actively seek and listen for God’s will for your life. The third servant in the parable of the talents did the former, figuring out exactly what he thought was required and not exerting himself an ounce more. To seek God’s will actively means living an inspired life instead of a safe life.

Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing… In actual fact, conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning int into a hollow formality… Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving–born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs… Tradition is creative. Always original, it always opens out new horizons for an old journey. Convention, on the other hand, is completely unoriginal. It is slavish imitation. 150-151

This is a helpful distinction. I grew up Baptist, and we were always suspicious of any kind of “ritual.” We basically assumed that tradition was always convention, and the only way to avoid “hollow formalities” was to be spontaneous. If you’re doing something that other people have always done without reflecting on its meaning for you, then you’re being conventional. To be traditional means that you have embraced an ancient path because of its meaning.

Do not ask me to love my brother merely in the name of an abstraction–“society,” the “human race,” the “common good”… There are plenty of men who will give up their interests for the sake of “society,”: but cannot stand any of the people they live with. 169

This is an important critique of what often happens in liberalism. People are infatuated with utopian ideas and scandalized by the dissonance of injustice, but none of it is derived in personal relationships. At a recent gathering at the General Board of Church and Society, we were advised to only take up causes according to the needs of people with whom we were in authentic relationships. Always start with the personal.

2 thoughts on “Monday Merton 6.10.13

  1. Bizarrely, I was reading another Merton quote on Providence when this blog post came. I copied this a long time ago, and I don’t have the book with me, and I didn’t copy it in its entirety, but because of the coincidence, I’m pasting it here. It’s from “Striving Towards Being: The letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz,” p. 38: Whatever the mystery of Providence may be I think it is more direct and more brutal in a way. But that is never evident as long as we think of God apart from the people in the concentration camp . . . Actually it is God Himself who is in the concentration camp. That is, of course, it is Christ. Not in the collective sense, but especially in the defilement and destruction of each individual soul, there is the renewal of the Crucifixion. . . People understand them to mean that a man in a concentration camp who remembers to renew his morning offering suffers like and even, in some juridical sense, with Christ. But the point is whether he renews the morning offering or not, or whether he is a sinner, he IS Christ. . . . Providence is not FOR this hidden Christ. He Himself is His own Providence. In us. Insofar as we are Christ, we are our own Providence. The thing is then not to struggle to work out the “laws” of a mysterious force alien to us and utterly outside us, but to come to terms with what is inmost in our own selves, the very depth of our own being. No matter what our “Providence” may have in store for us, on the surface of life (and this inner Providence is not really so directly concerned with the surface of life) what is within, inaccessible to the evil will of others, is always good unless we ourselves deliberately cut ourselves off from it. “

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