November 26, 2020

The Splendor of a Higher Nature

Monday Merton Musings, Nov 14, 2011
The Splendor of a Higher Nature

All quotes are from The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

Today, we meditate on some theological thinking from Thomas Merton. These musings are found at the beginning of part two of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and provide an introduction to a period in his life when he began to gain respect for Catholic philosophy and faith.

• • •

There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is that man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.

This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it.

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gifts of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God’s work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

What is “grace”? It is God’s own life, shared by us. God’s life is Love. Deus caritas est. By grace we are able to share in the infinitely selfless love of Him Who is such pure actuality that He needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends….

When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it….

Christ established His Church, among other reasons, in order that men might lead one another to Him and in the process sanctify themselves and one another. For in this work it is Christ Who draws us to Himself through the action of our fellow men.

The book goes on to describe an important turning point in Merton’s journey of faith. In New York at age 22, he picked up a book on medieval philosophy which was marked by the imprimatur of the Catholic church, a practice that had mortified him. However, he read the book and found it made a deep impression on him.

“…I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God,” he wrote, but this book opened his eyes. Coming to terms with a true concept of God awakened in him a thirst to know and see Him.

He started looking for a church to attend in New York City that might satisfy this thirst and draw him closer to the life of grace.


  1. I grapple with the concept that God has no need. Why then all the fuss ? Why the unfathomable and excruciating lengths of the crucifixion if He doesn’t need us in any way? I know I sound theologically naive here. It’s like a 7 year old’s question. Still it seems that we are a part or extension of Him that He need and desires and sacrificed to get back. Psalm 45 says the king will greatly desire your beauty. Does not desire connote need?

    • David Cornwell says

      ” He needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends….”

      I think the key here is that God has no selfish needs. God certainly loves Creation and humanity, but in ways that is difficult for us to understand. There is a need for that which one loves. Our love as humans is often tainted by our selfishness, even though it may seem otherwise. It’s easy to see this at work in parenthood, especially parents other than ourselves. We love beauty and food, but it can turn into a obsessive kind of thing where we consume more and more of it purely for self satisfaction. True love will crowd out this kind of selfishness. Paul in Corinthians 13 describes for us the characteristics of this kind of love.

      God certainly desires us. Does He “need” us in order to be God? Since I’m human I don’t have the answer.

  2. I agree with Chris in that this is an important question…Does God need us?

    If we embrace all the characteristics of God as outlined in the Bible, then the distinct answer is no. Like David Cornwell says, He “desires” us rather than “needs” us.

    In my perspective, the question underlying all is whether or not we need God. Do we?

    People flocked to Jesus because they were well aware of their own need to be healed. Their sickness was in the forefront of their minds, and here was hope of healing. There are quite a few encounters with Jesus of individuals who did not seem to possess this driving need of healing. For the most part, they were the religious elite of the times. As Jesus said, it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, it’s the sick.

    In my mind, this is the crucial dynamic underlying all discussions of spirituality. It directly impacts the quality of our faith. Are we humble or proud? Do we need God or can we go it alone? Do we embrace the concept that we are terminally ill or do we pretend that we’re fine and healthy? Are we in need of mercy? Are we in need of healing? Do I need it today?

    • In Exodus, God calls himself a jealous God. That indicates to me a sense of need on God’s part. He desires our praise and love, and those things require feelings to experience. He’s in it with us in a way that is real and present. Glory be.

      • To be “jealous” is to express rightful desire and ownership for someone’s attention and affections. Jealousy is actually a positive emotion. Current American English usage has confused jealousy with covetousness.


  3. Thank you both for your thoughts. Very helpful.

  4. While studying to be a pastoral associate one of the various course over those years involved writing an in depth study on a topic of our choice. I chose Grace. What I uncovered and discovered for my self through my research and prayer was truly life altering and changed they way I would interpret and understand many things.

    For all the times the word grace is used here on imonk, especially in responses to posts, i have often wondered exactly what some i-monks think, believe, grace really is is actuality. I often look to find the glorious reality that IS Grace -with a capitol G on purpose, being expressed and known, yet too often I see it used as something almost abstract, some “vague” thing. Often it appears to be used simply to cancel out anything having to do with human activity so far as to include human acceptance and receptivity which are human activities/actions. My soul often screams within wondering if the Awesome Incredibly Wondrous Living Reality of Grace is truly known for what Grace is – for what the word grace truly stands for. The lack of comments on this post brings me to wonder this all the more.

    • You might define grace as “Immanuel”; God with us. Scott Peck spoke of it as a permeating presence in the world that we travel through , benefitting good and evil alike. We are saved by it when we embrace it , depend on it and turn ourselves over to it (Him).

  5. “Christ established His Church, among other reasons, in order that men might lead one another to Him and in the process sanctify themselves and one another. For in this work it is Christ Who draws us to Himself through the action of our fellow men.”

    Isn’t that a great, succinct way of describing the Church as it was intended to be! (I would only change the word “men” to “human beings” so there was no question that we ALL can help each other in this walk of life.

  6. Such youthful, monkish optimism at this point in Father Louis’ life….