Last night I read Thomas Merton’s describtion of his first visit to Our Lady of Gethsemani to the children. He went for Easter 1941 just after he had moved to St Bonaventure University. Reflecting upon the monks of the Abbey, Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain:
But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus.
The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!
In two paragraphs Merton puts before us the paradox of our world and the paradox of our own identity. Our identity is not tied up in what other people think of us or what other people say we are. It is in the abandoning of self to God that we find who we truly are.
Hence there must be something more in the Christian life and apostolate, than merely persuading Christian to adhere to the same doctrinal propositions, to obey the same laws, and frequent the same sacraments. If we are content with merely exterior practice of our religion we will tend to make Christianity another of the mass-movements that cover the face of the earth. Then the Christian, rather than a free man, humbled by the consciousness of his responsibility, tends to become another frantic who allows himself the worst excesses and excuses them easily on the ground that he is ‘defending the faith,’ or fighting for the Church.
Our faith in God is much more than a collection of statements I put my name to. While theology and dogma is extremely important, it is not what defines one to be a Christian: it is a living personal relationship with Jesus in his Church. Of course that relationship must be ordered, as against being chaotic, so the Church’s dogmatic definitions set the bonds of relationship but do no define it. Jesus wants all of me, all of the time!
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we choose the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!