December 13, 2017

Merton Week: As if I were a different kind of being

Foggy Harbor, Maine 2014

Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of men?

• • •

And now I am thinking of the disease which is spiritual pride. I am thinking of the peculiar unreality that gets into the hearts of the saints and eats their sanctity away before it is mature. There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious men. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God. Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of men? Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?

This sickness is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. When a proud man thinks he is humble his case is hopeless. Here is a man who has done many things that were hard for his flesh to accept. He has come through difficult trials and done a lot of work, and by God’s grace he has come to possess a habit of fortitude and self-sacrifice in which, at last, labor and suffering become easy. It is reasonable that his conscience should be at peace. But before he realizes it, the clean peace of a will united to God becomes the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.

The pleasure that is in his heart when he does difficult things and succeeds in doing them well, tells him secretly: “I am a saint.” At the same time, others seem to recognize him as different from themselves. They admire him, or perhaps avoid him –­ a sweet homage of sinners! The pleasure burns into a devouring fire. The warmth of that fire feels very much like the love of God. It is fed by the same virtues that nourished the flame of charity. He burns with self-admiration and thinks: “It is the fire of the love of God.”

He thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost. The sweet warmth of pleasure becomes the criterion of all his works. The relish he savors in acts that make him admirable in his own eyes, drives him to fast, or to pray, or to hide in solitude, or to write many books, or to build churches and hospitals, or to start a thousand organizations. And when he gets what he wants he thinks his sense of satisfaction is the unction of the Holy Spirit.

And the secret voice of pleasure sings in his heart: “Non sum sicut caeteri homines.” (“I am not like other men.”) Once he has started on this path there is no limit to the evil his self-satisfaction may drive him to do in the name of God and of His love, and for His glory. He is so pleased with himself that he can no longer tolerate the advice of another ­ or the commands of a superior. When someone opposes his desires he folds his hands humbly and seems to accept it for the time being, but in his heart he is saying: “I am persecuted by worldly men. They are incapable of understanding one who is led by the Spirit of God. With the saints it has always been so.”

Having become a martyr he is ten times as stubborn as before. It is a terrible thing when such a one gets the idea he is a prophet or a messenger of God or a man with a mission to reform the world….He is capable of destroying religion and making the name of God odious to men.

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.

• Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

• • •

Postscript: Thanks to Ted for drawing my attention to this passage, and to providing the foggy harbor in which today’s photo was taken!

Comments

  1. It was his awareness of this pitfall of spiritual pride, of its pervasive and subtle presence, in himself and many others inside the monastic enclosure, and in religious people in general, that led Merton to stay in close communication and involvement with the outside world of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people and events, through voluminous correspondence and his other writing. His superiors were frustrated by the extensive relationship Merton nurtured with the outside world, and ironically saw it as indications that he had a hunger for fame motivated by pride. But they got it exactly wrong: Merton was trying mightily to remain merely human as he also sought spiritual wisdom, and he came to see that the only way to do this was to continue to be closely involved in the affairs of other human beings. I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being. He saw something that his superiors didn’t, about the unsuitability of much traditional monastic life for maintaining the humanity, and humility, of the monk.

    • The thing about contemplation is that it makes you, or SHOULD make you, self aware. When the Eternal is your North Star then self awareness causes you to see your own unworthiness. Merton was no higher on the holiness scale, nor the humility scale, but he WAS supremely aware of his own self estimation of such and saw it for what it was: foolishness.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The danger of “inside the monastic enclosure” is the Christianese Bubble.

      You could make a point that Cloistered Religious Life was the original Christianese Bubble.

  2. The whole excerpt is just too creepy real. I can’t read it…but I must read it. It’s like a train wreck I’ve seen many times before. Amazing insight. Great catch, Ted: but now you must throw the fish back….

    • Ted will throw the fish back. Then Ted will say to himself, “I have become the kind of person who throws fish back.”

      #guilty

      • A clarification: I mean “Ted” in a generic manner — that is, I am speaking of myself.

        I’m sure Thomas Merton was far better at getting out of his own way than I am.

        • I’m sure there’s an inside zen joke here somewhere. I don’t have a clue.

          But what is the sound of one fish being thrown back?

  3. “He thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost.”

    In the version I have, that sentence stands alone in its own paragraph, a good editing decision I think.

  4. >> There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious men.

    Skillfully sidestepping the gender trap, I pause to wonder, is the worm the problem or is it religion? I picture Merton and Luther in adjoining cells at three o’clock in the morning. “Could I borrow your flagellum when you’re done with it?” Did Jesus have this problem as he went about doing good? I’m guessing no. Was it spiritual pride when he expressed exasperation with the slowness of his disciples to catch on? Probably not. Does this let me off the hook? Again, probably not. It’s good to be reminded to watch out for the many disguises of pride, the ultimate suicide bomber. It’s good to be reminded that everyone we see around us could be Jesus, also in disguise. As to obeying “the commands of a superior”, hmmm, Houston, I think we’ve got a problem, not sure if it’s the worm or religion.

  5. This fits with Henri Nouwen’s take on the elder son his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Obedience to the father turns into resentment and “all that I’ve done for you and no party for me?!”

  6. I have come up with a fail-proof system for detecting the subtlest of prideful thoughts. It’s pretty much a mathematical device. If factor A is present – Pride. Factor A is I, Me or My. If I have done some good work and find myself reflecting too much upon it or thinking I did it independently and not as a result of all the mind boggling goodness, forgiveness and support that has been showered upon me, I simply check the narrative in my head for factor A. When I catch it I begin a dialogue (prayer) instead of a monologue. It’s much like centering prayer. Embracing the positive flow in the river of grace. I’m not saying I’m always successful or that it is easy but the one part that is easy is the simple identifying of factor A. That does help get the ball rolling in the right direction. Stop any sentence that starts with “I”, begin a new one with “You” and stick with that theme until all the amazing self awesomeness subsides or is forgotten for the moment and reality can take hold again.

    • Good stuff.

      Our current pastor has drifted into telling stories that are pretty much all about himself. “When I was in Chicago…” “When I was in Kenya…” “When I…when I…when I…” It’s not healthy at all. They’re all HIS stories.

      Healthier are the pastor who mix in testimonies and stories about others. “Here is the good that others have done…”

      • Better yet, invites them up to tell us their stories themselves….. yes, (gasp) hands the mike over to the penny stinkers…. seen this happen: it sends a great message on top of the verbal message.

        • Yes Greg, testimony is a great witness, pitfalls are like Corinth the next has to be better. Finding in chances and having made availability even though the vomiting feeling the Spirit is teaching myself with others and as soon as possible bowing my mind and thankfulness was in order. I. ……sorry I got to experience it and it was mind blowing and beyond me yet it was. My witnessing would seem small but okay because truth is not lying yet exaggeration borders it if not outright. I have seen personally exaggeration and it hurt me because Father doesn’t need it. Just like pride it couldn’t have a part in Him. Yes seeing the reflection of one’s own writing makes those aware as the mirror would show. Remembering that the mirror also shows Christ to a loving Father who said I will a lot in the OT and I believe it. Why, cross and all feasting with a reminder of bread and wine. ……….Nice post all the way around. Merton shows without embarrassment that it is hard. The pitfalls he himself shared if not outright but the reflection. Said we see through a light dimly but then face to face. I wonder how close some come face to face here……w…..Also in public forum thanks gracious one named Mike for letting me out of mods. ….You brought tears to me.

      • Thx R.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Our current pastor has drifted into telling stories that are pretty much all about himself. “When I was in Chicago…” “When I was in Kenya…” “When I…when I…when I…” It’s not healthy at all. They’re all HIS stories.

        “When I Served In Vietnam… When I Served In Vietnam… When I Served In Vietnam…”
        — then-Senator John F Kerry (becoming a cartoon of himself)

  7. Methodical discipleship breeds a type of arrogance. I am good, because I did it (discipleship) well. It seems like the type of method-based discipleship of the 1970s – 80s has no gone to seed as “Me-Christianity.” We have the answers, all of them. We know the answers with certainty. Because we have the right answers and you don’t, we are better than you. And it goes on and on. I sense that it is this me-Christianity that is behind the attempts of the religious right to now build a Christian theocracy in America. When you are confident enough of your answers, you feel obligated to impose them on the rest. That was a nice read. I didn’t know Merton and will have to read more.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      When you are confident enough of your answers, you feel obligated to impose them on the rest.

      “I KNOW I’m Right —
      I HAVE A VERSE!”

  8. I think there’s nothing wrong with feeling good when we do good, or when we manage to avoid the traps of sin. When I choose a right path instead of a wrong one, that gives me a reason to rejoice. We should just not believe this is enough to put us on the fast track to sainthood, or that puts us beyond the grasp of sin.

    Perhaps I’m not disagreeing with Merton, he might be just trying to warn us not to get too full of ourselves.

    • I mean, it’s kinda like in school: I should be happy when I get an answer right, especially without guessing (and definitely without cheating). However, passing a test, or even acing it, won’t make me an expert on the subject.

      • I think that is just the point. Keeping everything in context. Doing this good thing or that is what I am called to in Christ. Does that make me Mr. Awesome, super spiritual man? That is more often than not the temptation. Certainly there is no need to denigrate ourselves but neither is there room for the puffy ego that most of us are subject to as Merton was keenly aware. Someone like him who was sought after and praised from many quarters would be particularly subject to that temptation.

      • I believe we move on despite what we think. Love and relationships don’t depend on work. Work is the Spirit moving. Moving has to be a work .Not by me but by grace
        Grace by him and my good which I think Merton was trying to get at
        How hard to remain so humble. Yet many have followed the way

    • Yep, Been with many. …Oh many exaggerations and all…..how I felt so bad. That being said I must leave it to that which is larger. Hold me back seems to be understated but it’s okay as it is not my department. Sad I am sometimes because what I had seen and not spectacular was enough to say about His love. Ordinary also is witness as too found within the ordinary is extraordinary. Sorry HUG because I had a meltdown and asked for forgiveness in a public forum instead of behind closed doors doesn’t mean a person still drying from swimming a river couldn’t help me. …..Why are you here HUG

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    When someone opposes his desires he folds his hands humbly and seems to accept it for the time being, but in his heart he is saying: “I am persecuted by worldly men. They are incapable of understanding one who is led by the Spirit of God. With the saints it has always been so.”

    These days they don’t just “seem to accept it” any more, Tom.
    Now they lash back immediately with Pious teeth and claws.