Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
One of the most famous parts of Merton’s autobiography comes as a conversation between Merton and his close friend Robert “Bob” Lax around the question of sainthood and whether and how to become one.
Lax: What do you want to be, anyway?
Merton: I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.
Lax: What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?
[The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it.]
Lax: What you should say…is that you want to be a saint.
[A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird.]
Merton: How do you expect me to become a saint?
Lax: By wanting to.
Merton: I can’t be a saint…I can’t be a saint…
Lax: No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.
The first time I came across this passage was through a speech someone was giving at a conference. I recall it striking me much as Lax’s words struck Merton: with a sense of incredulity and naïve wonder. I had never much thought of being a saint. I would settle with being remembered at all.
The second time I came across it was as I read the autobiography itself. By this time I was familiar enough with the passage for the enchantment to have worn down. This time it struck me surprisingly as part of the ideology of Merton’s generation in general. If you work hard enough and want it hard enough, so the thought goes, it will come to you. I am unsure if sainthood has ever really been a part of the American dream, but apparently the logic applies to canonization just as much as it applies to homes, spouses, cars, and an appropriate amount of children.
Either way, I confess I still did not know what to make of this idea. It carried the simplicity that wisdom so often does. And yet this ideology that may have held true in Merton’s time is the very ideology that has disenchanted so many, myself included, today. Not only did I not know what to do with this revered section of The Seven Storey Mountain, I began to dislike it a bit.
It occurred to me, though, that sainthood has very little in common with the American Dream. And the thing that led me to realize this was, of course, the movie Aladdin 2: the Return of Jafar.
The second installment of the Aladdin series focuses on the life Jafar now leads as a genie. Jafar’s genie differs from Robin Williams’ genie insofar as Jafar’s genie is true to the historical idea of a genie (djinni) and Williams’ genie is a product of the Disney corporation. That is, Jafar does what genies have been known to do for a long time: fulfill wishes in ways unintended and unanticipated by the wisher, and often in the most inconvenient of ways. When Jafar’s first ‘master’ wishes for treasure from a sunken ship Jafar transports his master to this ship itself—underwater—forcing his master to waste his second wish to be rescued.
Now, God is not a genie who grants wishes, and is not malicious like one either. But I think that among the purposes and potentialities we were created to possess God is willing to grant our requests. God will probably not make us rich if we ask him. But if we ask God for the things of God, sainthood among them, then I think he is ready to make those desires a reality.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
There is a catch, however. If we desire to be saints God will grant that request, along with all the affiliated responsibilities, trials, temptations, and difficulties. Like the classical djinni, God will give us the things we didn’t know we were asking for, but which are all part of the deal.
Celebrity is the currency of our age. My guess is that people would rather be well-known than wealthy. I am not immune. To fall into obscurity and to have done nothing worth remembering except by those family members obliged to do so seems a fate worse than death.
Now there are different kinds of fame, or different social worlds in which we can become famous in a sort of way. I had the privilege of meeting the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in person and words cannot describe the exhilaration and anxiety this encounter generated. And yet there are plenty of people—most probably—who could care less about this guy.
I want to be renowned like that. I want the people who value the things I value to think of me as legitimate and respectable at least, if not among the higher echelons. What’s more, I want to be among the greatest in the kingdom of God. And I think God is happy to let me be as great as I want to be, provided I “drink the cup” he drank: provided I am willing to endure the shame and humiliations he endured.
That is the catch. I truly believe each one of us could become as holy as any hero of faith has ever been. It is simply up to us to tell God when we’ve had enough—at what point we can endure no further self-emptying, no further humiliations, when we can carry the cross no further. This is the paradoxical logic of Christ: if we want to be a celebrity in the kingdom of God we have stop caring about being a celebrity. Greatness in the Kingdom is defined by the denial of our egos, the bearing of the cross, and the emulation of Christ who suffered and died, but who was raised to the right hand of the Father.
So I think Merton’s friend was right. If I want to be a saint all I have to do is want to be one. God is ready to grant this kind of request. Ask and you shall receive; seek and you will find; knock on the door of sanctification and God will open it to you. I could become united to Christ, illuminated by the light of heaven, become wholly as fire, as long as I’m willing to become nothing in this world. This is a fearful reality.
So if we want to wear a crown in the Kingdom we have to learn to lay down all the other desires in our hearts that run contrary to this goal: the desire for honor, the desire for wealth, the desire for respect, the desire for celebrity, the desire for power, prestige, and everything else that gratifies our false selves. And God will help us to do so as far as we’re willing. May God help us a little more than we’re willing as well!