Merton and the Saints


Reading Merton's Ascent to the Truth, the first thing that struck me is found in the Author's Note. In this short introduction, Merton credits the work of various Carmelite writers "Regular and Tertiaries" and also acknowledges his debt to a work by Jacques Maritain - Degrees of Knowledge. Although this has little, if anything, to do with what Merton is saying in the book itself, I was struck by the fact that here we have an author, a Trappist, writing about the thought of two famous Carmelite saints, acknowledging the work of a famous, indeed distinguished, Thomist. Only in the Church could one find, under one roof, such a range of spiritualities.

All Christians are called to holiness, to be saints. We are called to final union with God and to spend eternity with Him in Heaven, striving for our final goal during our lives here on earth. Yet, there has been, throughout the history of the Church, the recognition that there are many different ways of attaining that final end to which we are called. Religious orders grew up in the Church in recognition of this variety of possible spiritualities available to us. The thing that has always interested me, and one of the things that attracted me to the Church, is that these spiritualities exist in union with the entire Church. In Protestantism the result of differences is usually schism, in the Church, it is a deep rich harmony, a building up, rather than a tearing down of the Body.

The reason for this is, I think, that all of the various Orders share certain key things in common. This commonality is especially visible in Merton's writing - his desire for the contemplative life. For Merton, this desire seemed to overwhelm other aspects of his spiritual life, but it is true, nonetheless, that contemplation is a trait of most, if not all religious orders. The Carmelites are certainly the first group one thinks of in terms of contemplative prayer, with their great saints and doctors of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. But even the so-called active groups, such as the Franciscans, are called to the contemplative life. Francis returned regularly to Mt. Alverna for the quiet necessary to enable his preaching ministry to be grounded in the Gospel.

Another thing that all of the Orders share, I think, is the understanding that the contemplative life, to be truly valid, must bring Christ to the world. We are to be in the world, not of the world. If we pray, and that prayer has no effect in converting a world badly in need of conversion, it is nearly futile. I have thought for a long time that, as bad as things seem to be in our culture today, there is a great danger of Christians drawing in on themselves and disengaging from the world. This would be to abandon our calling to be "salt" and "leaven" the call given us by Jesus Himself.

All of the Orders share, as a result of their foundation in Christian contemplation and their desire to bring Christ to the world, the desire to seek, for each of their members and thus for the Church, perfection -- "to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect." There are many ways to achieve perfection, and it is the great gift of the Church to allow these various gifts of perfection to exist and be fostered under Her tender care.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on February 15, 2004 3:43 PM.

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