Even when I am not teaching my seminar on Thomas Merton’s spirituality, I find myself turning again and again to his writings. Merton has been dead for more than forty years. As many of you know, he was a monk in a very out of the way place in the hills of Kentucky. Every time I have been to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I am amazed at how this worldly citizen wound up in this place and stayed there for so long until he met his untimely death in a bathtub in Bangkok, Thailand.
I think the reason Merton became so popular in his own lifetime and that popularity continues now forty years later is the guy was so human, so fragile, so searching. He was a man of contradictions and, certainly, confusions. He was a monk, but at times he was not a very good monk---at least, according to his abbot. To become a monk at Gethsemani meant he took a lifetime vow of stability. And yet, he always seemed ready to chuck it all and take off for some other place. Perhaps it was fitting that he died in some far away Asian country and, yet, was returned to his beloved monastery to rest in the cemetery right outside the church walls.
As I was doing some work on the internet, I came across one of the quotations from Merton that I know fairly well. But every time I read it, it seems fresh and challenging. It engages me and, in effect, asks me what I plan to do with his words. His words are not merely his words. They are words that are about my life and your life, too, if you want to take on the challenge.
Merton quipped, “For me to be a saint means for me to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.” Those words resonate so truly with me I feel like I know exactly what he means and I am sure I have no clue what he means. I feel like I know what he means because it feels so true.
I find it very appealing to say becoming a saint is to become my self. That sounds so simple…and I believe it is simple. It is simple, but it is not easy. I suppose most Americans don’t think about becoming a saint. Can you imagine asking a little kid, “So what do you want to become?” And that kid replies, “I want to become a saint!” I would be appalled if I heard young lips utter such a sentence. And I would be only slightly less appalled to hear some older person say it. I am not sure I know anyone whose aspiration is to become a saint. But why not?
I think this is the deep question Merton poses to himself and to us. If you are a creature of God (which I believe) and if you are created in the image of God (which I also believe), why would you not want to be a saint? I am sure one of the reasons I never think this way is the stereotype I have of what a saint actually is.
My saint-stereotype is some guy or gal who is otherworldly and way-too-serious. A saint is someone who never has any fun and probably too boring to take to a party. In my stereotyped mind a saint is someone pretty out of touch with reality---at least, reality the way I live it. But my stereotype is malarkey!
Merton’s words are a stiff challenge because they are a challenge to figure out life at its deepest level and, then, live it. I like how he combines “sanctity” and “salvation.” Sanctity is nothing more than the Latin word for “sacred” or “holy.” I don’t use that language too much, but I am attracted to it.
I am aware that our world and our culture are not very holy. The opposite of sacred is profane. Sadly, I believe we live in a “God damn world” more than we live in a “God blessed world.” When we opt for profanity, we opt against becoming a saint. And if Merton is correct, not to be a saint---or want to become a saint---is to opt for life as a false self. I think he is correct.
So his words and his challenge are keen for me. To become a saint is to find myself and to discover my true self. I want to do that. Merton assumes---and I do, too---that if I find my true self, then I will be on the road to sanctity. I will be leaving and giving up profanity. Swearing is just the tip of the profanity iceberg.
If I don’t engage this pilgrimage, I may become rotten to the core. I can use perfume to hide the smelly rot, but this kind of life will truly become God-forsaken. I find good news in Merton’s conviction that each of us already has a true self. Becoming a saint is possible and preferable.
It can be done slowly, patiently and usually in a community of nurturing, supportive people who are on the saintly journey, too. It is not a heroic journey. It is very democratic---anybody and everybody can do it. If we can do it, we will become a sweet smell and savor to the God who created us and wants the best---the holy best---for each of us.