Thomas Merton on Ascetism and Sacrifice, Part 1

I’m continuing to post thoughts from Thomas Merton that we are using for our time of spiritual formation at Wesley staff meetings. Tommy always causes deep reflection and a lot of discussion in our time together.

Romans 8:1-10
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus has set you* free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,* he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.* 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit* set their minds on the things of the Spirit.* 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit* is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,* since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit* is life because of righteousness.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 1, pp. 96ff)
• The spiritual life is not merely a negation of matter. When the New Testament speaks of the “flesh” as our enemy, it takes the flesh in a special sense. When Christ said, “The flesh profits us nothing,” in John 6:64, he was speaking of flesh without spirit, flesh living for its own ends, not only in sensual but even in spiritual things. As long as we are on the earth, our vocation calls us to life spiritually while still “in the flesh.”
• We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness – a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it. When we live such a life the actions of our body are directed to God by God Himself and give Him glory, and at the same time they help to sanctify the soul. The saint, therefore, is sanctified not only by fasting when he/she should fast but also by eating when he/she should eat. He/she is not only sanctified by his prayers in the darkness of the night, but by the sleep that he takes in obedience to God, Who made us what we are. Solitude not only contributes to union with God, but also God’s supernatural love for friends and relatives and those with whom we live and work.
• It gives God great glory and pleasure for a person to live in this world using and appreciating the good things of life without care, without anxiety, and without inordinate passion. In order to know and love God through His gifts, we have to use them as if we used them not – and yet we have to use them. To use things as if we used them not means to use them without selfishness, without fear, without afterthought, and with perfect gratitude and confidence and love of God.
• Self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all. Therefore, although it is true that we must deny ourselves in order to come to a true knowledge of God, we must also have some knowledge of God and our relationship with Him in order to deny ourselves intelligently. First of all, our self-denial must be humble. Otherwise, it is a contradiction in terms. It must also be supernatural – ordered not only for our own perfection or the good of society, but ordered to God.
• Although the grace of the Holy Spirit teaches us to use created things “as if we used them not” – that is to say, with detachment and indifference, it does not makes us indifferent to the value of things in themselves. On the contrary, only when we are detached from things can we really value them as we should. It is only when we are “indifferent” to them that we can really begin to love them. The indifference of which I speak must, therefore, be an indifference not to things themselves but to their effects in our own lives.

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