Life and Holiness (Merton)

Life and Holiness (Merton)

Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness

New York: Doubleday Press, 1963.

There are few more important persons and writers for our present world than Thomas Merton, for Christians especially, but in a way for the whole world. He was a libertine-turned Trappist monk who nevertheless considered his isolated vocation as a means to serve the world and who actively engaged in thought and dialogue—at home and internationally—about our common life as humans. This book is about holiness, saintliness, a sober and unflinching conception of what perfection means in a life centered on Christ. For those who would like to know what difference the mercy and grace of God in Christ might make to our perceptions of holiness and Christian perfection, Merton has a lot of important insights to share.

The Gist

As I mentioned, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk—an order known for their vows of silence. One way of getting around that vow, of course, is to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard (though, it should be added, as quietly as possible). Merton was a prolific writer. So much so that there should be a “Rule of Merton” that says that anytime you think you’ve seen every Merton book, a simple Amazon search will turn up two or three more books you’ve never heard of. But Merton’s productivity is a blessing, because he is first and foremost a person who is deeply concerned with bringing together intense religious dedication with the social and political concerns common to all humanity. In a way there is no truer Christian orientation than this, and Merton is a trustworthy guide.

Merton claims that this book is about a few elementary themes of Christian life or spirituality. More specifically he says that this book deals with the “active life,” that is, the way in which our everyday actions—work, play, relationships, etc.—vivify our interior life and relationship with God. He’s being modest. Really, this is a book about the Christian struggle between ideality and reality, between our vision of moral perfection and model virtue and the sinners and failures that we know we are.

The message of the book could be condensed into two themes, I think. The first is that Christian perfection does not mean moral flawlessness, it means coming to terms with oneself and cultivating a desire for God through the sanctifying work of Christ. Christ is constantly at the center of Merton’s spirituality. While he takes pains to point out that this does not imply a relativistic or relaxed attitude toward sin and failures, he wants to point us to our true source of redemption and healing, which must by necessity move away from an almost narcissistic, unhealthy fixation on ourselves and the evil we do.

The second theme is the social aspect of Christian perfection. Especially in the later parts of the book Merton returns again and again to the way in which Christian perfection is not Christian perfection unless we are engaged and actively working in our communities, especially through the starting point of the Church. This is a challenging and relatively novel thing to say: that saintliness and holiness have a necessarily social element and we cannot hope to attain to real unity with Christ or restoration of our image and likeness unless we are engaged in relationships and redemptive work in the flesh and blood aspects of our lives. Its not a great sign when a monk of all people has to remind Christians in the world to not retreat from it.

What Stuck

What really stuck with me was Merton’s mature and nuanced conception of the way in which religious dedication and interior movement towards Christ works as a social and political mechanism. Many today think that’s the source of many of our political problems, with extremists using their religion as an excuse to give in to their weak and thoughtless instincts. At the same time Merton is not a proponent of secular or religious nationalism either. He’s on God’s side, so to speak. He demands that we be politically active, but not politically enraptured.            He is not a proponent of partyism or self-righteous grandstanding, but rather encourages us to work from the redemptive work of Christ in our lives to extend that same grace and “charity” (love) to our neighbors (i.e., our opponents) as we work to fix the evils that plague our communities and indeed human civilization in general.

All of this therefore moves back to the central point of the book: life and holiness. What really sticks is the message that saintliness is not about our willful rooting out of bad habits and sinful dispositions, but rather in coming to terms with ourselves as sinful beings loved and sustained by God in Christ, and cultivating that relationship and desire through personal and social works of love.

Memorable Quotes

An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsions of human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle of grace. It gets in the way of God’s will, and it creates more problems than it solves. We must learn to distinguish between the pseudo spirituality of activism and the true vitality and energy of Christian action guided by the Spirit. (8-9)

It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a person can become a saint he must first of all be a human in all the humanity and fragility of a person’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word “saint.” (24)

The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but surely he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness and pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and mercy of the divine Savior. The saint is capable, as Dostoyevsky said, of loving others even in their sin. For what he sees in all thing and in all people is the object of the divine compassion. (26)

To “be perfect” then is not so much a matter of seeking God with ardor and generosity, as of being found, loved, and possessed by God, in such a way that his action in us makes us completely generous and helps us to transcend our limitations and react against our own weakness. We become saints not by violently overcoming our own weakness, but by letting the Lord give us the strength and purity of his Spirit in exchange for our weakness and misery. Let us not then complicate our lives and frustrate ourselves by fixing too much attention on ourselves, thereby forgetting the power of God and grieving the Holy Spirit. (31)

Human nature is not evil. All pleasure is not wrong. All spontaneous desires are not selfish. The doctrine of original sin does not mean that human nature has been completely corrupted and that a human’s freedom is always inclined to sin. Humanity is neither a devil nor an angel. He is not a pure spirit, but a being of flesh and spirit, subject to error and malice, but basically inclined to seek truth and goodness. He is, indeed, a sinner: but his heart responds to love and grace. It also responds to the goodness and to the need of his fellow man. (37)

[The Christian] must learn to correct errors in himself and others without falling into an indiscreet or rebellious zeal. Arrogance is never a sign of grace. (48)

It takes great heroism to devote one’s life to others in a situation which is frustrating and unsatisfactory, and in which one’s sacrifice may even be, in large measure, wasted. (49)

This should warn us that it is useless to cherish “ideals” which, as we imagine, will help us to escape from a self with which we are dissatisfied and disgusted. The way of perfection is not a way of escape. We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all the handicaps and limitations, and submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior. (51)

Here is the meaning of faith in the New Testament, and in the early history of the Church: the willingness to sacrifice every other value rather than the basic value of truth and life in Christ. . . . But the real meaning of faith is the rejection of everything that is not Christ in order that all life, all truth, all hope, all reality may be sought and found “in Christ.” [original italics] (78)

The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate than himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism, which inflates his own ego while patronizing “the poor.” The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heart, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. . . . Moreover a shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help to keep conditions as they are—to help keep people poor. (89)

It is not enough to reach into our pocket and hand over a few dollars. We must give not only our possessions but ourselves to our brother. Until we regain this deep sense of charity, we cannot understand the full depths of Christian perfection. (90)

The Christian who is misinformed; who is subject to the demagoguery of extremists in the press, on the radio or on TV, and who is perhaps to some extent temperamentally inclined to associate himself with fanatical groups in politics, can do an enormous amount of harm to society, to the Church, and to himself. (107)


Thomas Merton wrote this book in 1963. He could have just as easily written it today. Anyone who is interested in a deeper idea of Christian saintliness and holiness that goes beyond the delusional and egotistical notion of moral faultlessness should read this book. Anyone interested in the ways in which Christian saintliness or holiness gets worked out in the common social and political concerns of humanity should really read this book.

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