Self-Denial and the Christian
Thomas Merton May 10, 2014 - 12:00am
JESUS CHRIST, Who demanded that His disciples leave all things, take up their cross and follow Him, insisted that He was not of this world (John 8: 23). The reason is clear. The “world," in this New Testament sense, refers to the society of those who would not and could not know the Living God because they lived according to principles that made the development of the life of grace impossible in their souls. "For all that is in the world is concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life which is not of the Father but is of this world." (1 John 2:16). Jesus told His disciples that even the professionally pious, the Pharisees, whose lives were rigid and externally austere, had made themselves incapable of receiving into their souls the Mission of the Holy Spirit because they "judged according to the flesh" (John 8 :15 ) and He added "it is the Spirit that quickeneth. The flesh profiteth nothing" (John 6: 64).
Now this Spirit of God is called by Jesus "the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot receive because it seeth him not nor knoweth him" (John 14:27). On the other hand, those who are quickened to a divine life in Christ, by this same Spirit, enter into intimate communion with the Truth. They possess the Truth. Truth lives in their souls. And the "Truth has made them free." Christ Himself is the Truth. And to achieve this union with Him, this freedom based on true values and firm adhesion to God's will, we must necessarily purge out of our hearts all attachment to the false values of the world, and all reliance on our own will. For there is no freedom in selfishness, only captivity. And there is no saving vision in the unaided intellect of fallen man. The limited truths he can still perceive seem to serve only to blind him, since in practice he never turns them to the one thing that matters, the glory of God.
Every page of the New Testament forces us to accept the conclusion which St. Paul expressed in such unequivocal language: "We are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you shall die, but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live" (Romans 8:12-13).
There are still too many people who think that Christian abnegation means giving up all the best things in life in order to pay off a grudging debt to a severe Judge in Heaven, Who has a claim on us because we have sinned, and Who means to exact punishment by depriving us of a happiness to which we would otherwise be fully entitled. It is rather a crude error. Yet even those who say they believe in a God of love are capable of making the same mistake, in a subtler and more roundabout way. God, they know, is a God of love. He wants us to be happy. But (and here is where the mistake comes in) they argue that therefore He cannot really want us to deny ourselves after all. You see, they, too, think that our happiness consists in the good things of the present life. They too, perhaps unconsciously, tend to base many of their practical decisions on what St. Paul calls the "wisdom of the flesh."
FROM the few lines of Scripture we have quoted, and from the text in which they are embedded, it is easy to see that far from making us unhappy, Christian self-denial is supposed to help us find perfect happiness by leading us rapidly to the fulfilment of our supernatural destiny. The principles on which St. John of the Cross bases his doctrine in the Ascent of Mount Carmel are doubtless rather strong meat and we do not suggest that, in practice, they should form part of the diet of those for whom milk would still be of greater profit. Nevertheless, those principles remain both clear and true. When the great Carmelite says: "In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing," he is teaching us the quickest way to happiness. The second half of his sentence is so bluntly stated that it may perhaps shock us into forget ting the first. But it is nevertheless true that the passions and desires of fallen human nature, because of their tendency to blind and weaken and exhaust the soul, constantly prevent us from fulfilling our highest capacities and therefore frustrate the need for happiness which is implanted in us all. It has been the constant and uninterrupted teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church since the very first days of Christianity that a life without asceticism is a life of illusion, unreality, and unhappiness.
ST. THOMAS teaches us, in a terrific sentence, the distance between the order of nature and the order of grace. He says that the value of grace in the soul of one just man is greater than the natural value of the entire universe. It is obvious, therefore, that if we are to realize our destinies, to make ourselves what we are intended to be, and find happiness both in this life and in the next, our chief concern should be to develop the life of grace in our souls. In order to do so we have to check and control all those impulses of that other "law in our members" which, as a matter of unpleasant practical fact, conflicts with the life of grace. "The wisdom of the flesh is an enemy to God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be" (Romans 8:7).
However, no one can really embrace the Christian program of asceticism mapped out in the New Testament, unless he has some idea of the positive, constructive function of self-denial. The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return. Self-chastisement for its own sake has no place in Christianity. The function of self-denial is to lead us to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. The Christian dies, not merely in order to die but in order to live. And when he takes up his cross to follow Christ, the Christian realizes, or at least believes, that he is not going to die to anything but death. The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The Cross is the sign of life. It is the source of all our power. It is the trellis which grows the Mystical Vine whose life is infinite joy and whose branches we are. If we want to share the life of that Vine we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning. Even healthy shoots of natural life and energy, fruitful branches of our humanity, will have to be cut away. It is not only the evil that is in us that must be renounced. We are even asked to give up many good things: but only in order to get something better. “I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman . . . every branch that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:1-2). It would scarcely be reasonable to suppose that the vintner attacks the vine with his clippers because he has a grudge against it, and wants to deprive it of its due.
There is no better or more complete manual of ascetical theology than the Missal. Quite apart from the teaching in the Epistles and Gospels, which are the actual word of God, the Church offers us in her collects and other prayers a most exhaustive and monumental theology of self-denial and supernatural living. To live the Mass that we all offer, by reading and understanding the prayers of the Mass, and incorporating them into our lives, is the best way to acquire the true Christian sense of abnegation.
CHRISTIAN asceticism is remarkable above all for its balance, its sense of proportion. It does not overstress the negative side of the ascetic life, nor does it tend to flatter human nature by diminishing responsibilities or watering down the truth. It shows us clearly that while we can do nothing without grace, we must nevertheless cooperate with grace. It warns us that we must make an uncompromising break with the world and all that it stands for, but it keeps encouraging us with the hope of the happiness that lies ahead. But what is above all characteristic of the asceticism of the Missal is that it puts heaven, so to speak, in our hearts here and now.
What is the Mass? It is a participation in the death of Christ (by which all our sins are expiated) and in His glorious Resurrection (by which His divine life is made our own) and in His Ascension (by which we enter with Him into heaven and sit at the right hand of the Father). We who offer the Holy Sacrifice and who receive into our hearts the Body and Blood of the Savior are already beginning our heaven here on earth. It is still a heaven possessed only in the darkness of faith and hope: yet the love by which Jesus unites us to Himself gives us a profound and sweet and experiential certitude of the union of our lives with His life and with one another in Him. We are already citizens of that Jerusalem that needs no sun and no moon because Christ is the lamp thereof. Here, for instance, is what a postcommunion, chosen at random in the Missal tells us about the divine life we are already leading on earth. The Church addresses the Blessed Trinity in these words, after the priest has received and distributed Communion. "Lord, may the action of this heavenly gift possess our minds and bodies so that our natural way of doing things may no longer prevail in us, but that the effects of this Communion may always dominate our lives" (15th Sunday after Pentecost).
Here we can see, first of all, that the Church clearly recognizes what her task is. God has placed in her hands divine instruments for our sanctification—the Sacraments. In fact, it is He Himself who, through the Church, works in our lives by means of these Sacraments. What is He doing in our souls? He is gradually taking over everything that we have and everything that we are, in order to gain complete possession of our souls and bodies and all our faculties, elevating them above the natural level and transforming them into Himself. In other words, He is substituting His life for our life, His thoughts for our thoughts, His will for our will. This process of transformation leads to the end for which we were created—perfect union with God. It is only when we are perfectly united to Him that we become our true selves. It is only in Him that we can find true happiness. It is only in Him that we can finally appreciate the true value of His creation. If he seems to deprive us of natural goods, we will find them all restored to us a hundredfold in Him.
Often in the course of the liturgical year the Church complains, in our behalf, that we are pressed down under the burden of our own human activity. That seems strange! To be free to do things in our own way would appear, at first sight, to be a blessing. But no. As we enter into the ascetic life and advance in the ways of self-denial, we find that our biggest obstacle and our biggest burden is this old man of the sea, this body of death, this inescapable self we carry around with us. He is not our real self at all. He is the caricature of what we ought to be. But he rides us without mercy and, without the all-powerful help of God, we will never be able to shake him off. And he is the one who makes us act according to the “wisdom of the flesh.” He is the father of all our worldliness. He is the one who prevents our liberation from “the world,” and our transformation in Christ.
AND so we must remember that our asceticism is not directed against created things as such. Our real enemy is within our own castle. It is only because this enemy surrounds himself with the images and sensations and delights of created things and thus fortifies himself against all efforts of grace to dislodge him, that we must necessarily fight creatures in order to fight him. When the Church prays, as she frequently does, that God may give us the grace to despise earthly things and desire the things of heaven, she does not mean to imply that creation is evil: but that the inordinate love of created things is evil.
How does the liturgy look at created things? Everybody knows that the Church, realizing that all creation fell with Adam, intends to raise up all creation together with man, in the New Adam, Christ. It was in Christ that all things were made in the first place. "For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth . . . and he is before all and by him all things consist" (Col. 1:16-17). To deliver creation from the power of evil, the Church has only to associate created things in man's worship of the Creator. Thus they begin once more to serve the purpose for which they were created—to lift man up, body and soul, to God. "For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4 :4). Just take a glance at the liturgy of Holy Saturday, at the Exultet (where the bees come in for their measure of praise) and at the blessing of the font (where the Church becomes positively enthusiastic about water, calling it a "holy and innocent creature"). All this tells us what respect the Church has for God's creation. But the fact remains that she has no respect whatever either for the "world" or for the "flesh" and least of all for the devil. These three forces produce mental attitudes, ways of looking at things and doing things, which must be absolutely rooted clean out of the Christian soul.
THERE are two extremes to be avoided. On one hand there is the error of those who believe that creation is evil and who therefore seek salvation and sanctity in an exaggerated asceticism that tries to sever the soul entirely from the rest of creation. This is the spiritual disease called "angelism." But on the other hand there is the error of those who act as if divine charity made no practical demands on human conduct: as if grace were merely a quality injected into our natural lives, making them automatically pleasing and meritorious in the sight of God, without any obligation on our part to live on the supernatural level of faith and Christian virtue. This attitude sometimes usurps the name of "humanism." Concerning those who cherish this view, the twelfth century Cistercian, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, wrote sardonically: "Although they do not say 'Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!' they say 'Let us eat, drink and be merry for we are full of charity!'"
True sanctity does not consist in trying to live without creatures. It consists in using creatures in order to do the will of God. It consists in using God's creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and desire gives new glory to God. To be a saint means to pass through the world gathering fruits for heaven from every tree and reaping God's glory in every field and farm. The saint is one who is in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction. He is united to God in the depths of his own soul, and he sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him. Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep pure harmonies of God's glory. Everything he touches is a sanctus bell and a call to adoration.
BUT God cannot be glorified by anything that violates the order established by His wisdom. This order demands that man's body, and all that his body uses, be in subjection to his soul, and that man's soul be subject to God. Now this order is absolutely impossible, in our present state, without the generous and even severe practice of mortification. This order was turned completely upside down by original sin. The soul that is outside the orbit of God's grace is not normally governed by reason but by passion. The mere possession of grace does not entirely deliver us from this sad state. It only puts in our hands the weapons by which we must win our freedom, helped by the power of God, through the merits of Christ's Cross, in His Holy Spirit. But the merits of Calvary cannot be applied to a soul that does not in some measure enter into the mystery of Christ's Passion and death and Resurrection. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). "They that are Christ's have crucified their flesh with its vices and concupiscences" (Gal. 5:24).
We cannot use created things for the glory of God unless we are in control of ourselves. We cannot be in control of ourselves if we are under the power of the desires and appetites and passions of the flesh. We cannot give ourselves to God if we do not belong to ourselves. And we do not belong to ourselves if we belong to creatures.
The real function of asceticism is, then, to liberate us from desires that debase and enslave our souls made for union with God in pure love and even in contemplation. The real purpose of self-denial is to turn over the faculties of our soul and body to the Holy Spirit in order that He may work in us the work of transformation which is His masterpiece, and which puts all the rest of creation to shame.
St. Gregory Nazianzen speaks of the Christian soul as an "instrument played by the Holy Spirit." The aim of asceticism is to keep this instrument in tune. Mortification is not simply the progressive deadening of natural vitality. That is too crude a view. It is rather like the tightening of a violin string. We do not just go on twisting and twisting until the string breaks. That would not be sanctity, but insanity. No: what we must do is bring the strings of the delicate instrument, which is our soul, to the exact pitch which the Holy Spirit desires of us, in order that He may produce in us the exquisite melody of divine love that we were created to sing before the face of our heavenly Father. Neglect of this truth would lead to a false, merely quantitative asceticism that would put too much stress on mere spiritual athletics, and do nothing to develop the deep spiritual capacities of the soul.
False asceticism is not in tune with the Holy Ghost because it is a perversion of grace. And it is also a perversion of nature. It does nothing to perfect the soul. It frustrates God's work and diminishes all our natural and supernatural capacities for good. The false ascetic is usually one who develops a kind of split personality. One half of his personality takes up arms against the other half and tries to destroy it. But it does not succeed. What happens then? The suppressed half of this unfortunate being withdraws into the depths of the soul, and there healthy natural tendencies turn into unhealthy and vicious dispositions of soul. That is why those who go about their self-denial in a crude and human way are often proud and irritable and uncharitable. That is why men who might have been saints have become fanatics and have persecuted the saints and burned them at the stake.
THE function of self-denial is to bring peace to the soul that is troubled by all the cares and worries and sorrows and unrest that follow inevitably from attachment to created things. Asceticism is the arch enemy of all worry because it roots out every plant from which the fruits of anxiety grow. The ascetic, then, will be a tranquil and happy man. His will be a simple and limpid soul, like a pool of clear water into which the sunlight of God's presence can enter without obstacle, to illumine and penetrate all. But this tranquility depends on the virtue of discretion. God demands that all Christians deny themselves but He does not ask the same kind of renunciation from a housewife with ten children to look after as from a Cistercian monk. In the long run, it might well happen that the housewife might turn out to be more mortified than the monk : but she is not expected to do penance in exactly the same way. Her self-denial will be measured by the duties of her state as a wife and as a mother.
Whatever may be the mode and measure of self-denial that God asks of us, (and this is a matter that cannot really be decided without prayer and spiritual direction) all Christian asceticism is characterized by wholeness and by balance. Christ admits of no division. He who is not with Jesus is against Him. There is no fellowship between light and darkness, between the temple of God and idols. God asks us to give Him everything. But we have already said what that means: using all creatures for God alone. Consequently our asceticism must always be balanced. The true ascetic is not one who never relaxes, but one who relaxes at the right time and in the right measure, who orders his whole life under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that he works when God wants him to work and rests when God wants him to rest and prays constantly through it all by a simple and loving gaze that keeps his heart and mind united with the Blessed Trinity in the depths of his soul.
To such a one the Cross is always a source of strength and peace. "Because I am nailed to the Cross wit Christ," says St. Thomas Aquinas, paraphrasing St. Paul and commenting on him, "because I am nailed to the Cross with Christ I have power to do good." Without the Cross, there is little spiritual vitality in our labors for God and His Church.
IN A WORLD in which there is so much involuntary suffering, it is not strange that there should be many men and women who begin to discover in themselves a totally unfamiliar desire to take upon themselves penances and mortifications for which there is no strict obligation. That is a good sign. Wherever the Spirit of God works, He draws men away from the "wisdom of the flesh." He lets them savor something of the sweetness of God, and this makes them aware of the corruption that is in the world around them. Pleasures and achievements that once delighted their spirit now turn to ashes as soon as they are savored, and it becomes a pleasure for these generous souls to do without the good things that most men have come to consider almost indispensable.
But the more the Holy Spirit draws these souls to God, the more they realize that sanctity is not just a matter of "ascetic practices." Fasts and penances take on their true importance when they are seen as means to an end. That end is the total gift of ourselves to God in an interior abnegation that penetrates to the very depth and substance of the soul, a holocaust that leaves nothing that our pride can still contemplate with satisfaction. Rare are the souls that travel this far. But theirs is a happiness that is sublime. Since they no longer find joy in anything but God, they find supreme joy in everything, because God is all in all.
About the Author
Thomas Merton is the author of "Man in the Divided Sea" and is a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY.