Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 2 of 3

Sin & Salvation

Last post I introduced Thomas Merton and his spirituality. Today we will explore the role of sin and salvation from the perspective of Merton.

Sin, for Merton, is that which conceals our true self. “To say that I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask.”[1] Because Merton associates sin with the mask of the false self, salvation is exposing the false self and an allowing the true self to emerge. “To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[2] Merton understands salvation to be a returning to the true self, here we experience union with God. Merton writes, “I shall find myself. I shall be ‘saved.’”[3] While salvation for many within western Christianity has become primarily about the afterlife, for Merton salvation involves realizing that you are beloved of God – you are already loved and accepted as you are – this realization will lead us to union with God in the present (this idea has most likely shaped my personal spirituality in more ways than anything else!).

In other words, salvation is a reality to be experienced in the here and now as we become aware that we are already inside of God’s love.

It may seem that Merton is suggesting that salvation is obtained through human effort, but this is actually a gift one receives. Merton writes:

And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers…It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God, Who, in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in His One Word, and that Creating Spirit dwells in us, and we in Him. That we are “in Christ” and that Christ lives in us.[4]

For many salvation is obtained by “believing the right things,” but for Merton, salvation is obtained by a growing awareness (or even experience) of reality. Salvation, a realization of our true self, is a gift given by God when God “enlightens our minds and hearts” to recognize that “we are in Christ.” For Merton, there is no massive gulf that needs to be bridged, there is no sacrifice to appease an angry God, there is no hoop’s you need to jump through. Salvation is resting in God’s loving presence as this love exposes our false self.

Note: think about the life of Jesus. Every single time he encountered someone who felt they were a “sinner,” or felt unworthy or ashamed, Jesus extended love, compassion, and grace. My greatest critique for the majority of the church in the west, is that it often seems to think that it is through shaming, then one will be “saved.” The only people Jesus consistently struggled with were those who tried to create extra barriers and hurtles along the spiritual journey.

I think it is through an encounter with love, compassion, forgiveness and grace that we are transformed. What else could the story of the prodigal son mean?

I think it is important to note here that salvation is an ongoing process, not an instantaneous act where one becomes enlightened and then remains in that state from then on. It is more accurate to state that Merton believed it was a progressive movement by which a person becomes increasingly aware of their true self.

Next post I will conclude with Merton’s teaching on the role of contemplation in the process of spiritual formation.

 

 

 

[1] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 33.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

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