November 25, 2020

Merton: A Path So Mundane, Can It Really Be?

Path through the Fields, Gethsemani Abbey 2011

• • •

The simplest and most effective way to sanctity is to disappear into the background of ordinary everyday routine.

• Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas


  1. the road itself
    pulls the traveler
    into green vistas

  2. Hope for the small and ordinary.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The Little Way of St Therese of Lisieux — sanctity & holiness found in everyday routine.

      A needed correction in an era of Acquire the Fire, Teen Mania, How Many Souls Have YOU Saved, et al.

  3. Well, it depends on what is your ordinary everyday routine… as long as it doesn’t let you stray too far into the darkness, the quote seems about right.

    • There have been times in history when to get lost in ordinary everyday routine was to to participate in extraordinary evil. After all, concentration camps functioned on routine, and I have no doubt that those who administered them or worked as guards quite frequently disappeared into the background. As you say, it depends on what ordinary is.

  4. Isn’t disappearing “into the background of ordinary everyday routine” the way the vast majority of people live, and have always lived? Does that mean that most people are, and have always been, on “the simplest and most effective way to sanctity”? I’m fully ready to accept this idea, but then I have a follow-up question: Given this, what is the purpose of Christianity?

    • That Other Jean says

      To make everyday life a kinder, gentler, better place for all of us to be? It’s hard, if you can really love your neighbor as yourself and pray for people who persecute you, to fill your life with hate.

      • Yes, I can see that. It’s hard enough, as you say, but it would be worthy purpose for Christianity. But there are many ways outside Christianity, other ways, that also support loving neighbor as self, and returning love for hate received. So in this, Christianity is not unique or special. I guess my question is really: Given this, does Christianity have a unique purpose that sets it apart from all other humane, compassionate approaches to living in the world, or is it at core exchangeable with all those other approaches, having only superficial differences?

        • No one can do it perfectly, hence our need for a Savior. This is Christianty’s unique purpose: to point to the One who did it perfectly.

          • Well, yes, but there are others we can point to who, while may not having done so perfectly, still serve as exemplars of how to love one another well. I guess my question would be, why do we (generically) have such great difficulty not loving others well and how does Christianity overcome this problem and allow us to do so?

            • I think the Holy Spirit has something to do with it. If everything is a gift, including our faith, then it is His Spirit that is behind anything Good that we do and His Spirit that gets the credit and glory.

              Here’s a question….If His Spirit is not the instigator of the Good Works, are they really good?

              • Would you say that an atheist who feeds a hungry person simply because they know that being hungry is painful has done something Not Good? Is it the motivation behind the act or the effect of the act that determines its Goodness?

                • Good questions (no pun intended). I would give the athiest a high five regardless. And I think God would say that you did that unto Him. But if it is His will that we believe in the One He sent, then what are good works without faith? I think of Matthew 7:23-24. Driving out demons is a good thing by anyone’s standard I think. But clearly theses “workers of lawlessness” were not depending on Jesus. I may be misinterpreting those verses.

                  • That Other Jean says

                    I hope you are misinterpreting those verses. Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time telling people what to do, and less telling them what to believe. Does God recognize good works done by people who don’t believe in Christ? I hope so.

          • Yep.

            And one thing that’s become abundantly clear to me after 31 years of walking with Christ is that Christianity’s unique purpose isn’t just pointing to the One who did it perfectly, it’s saying, “Jesus will take care of it regardless.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        It’s hard, if you can really love your neighbor as yourself and pray for people who persecute you, to fill your life with hate.

        But a lot of those in the Fundagelical bubble seem to.

    • You are right, Robert, this statement by itself is not complete. But Merton was writing it from the monastery, in the context of Christian faith and practice. So there is a lot assumed around and behind this statement, and I offer it with those same assumptions.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        More and more, I’m wondering if “the context of the monastery” was the original Christianese Bubble for the Western Church. (And for the Eastern; according to Fr Orthocuban years ago, More-Monastic-than-Thou “Monk-a-bee” fake monks (monastic stolen valor?) are the characteristically Orthodox way to flake out.)

        • If that’s the case, then the church may partly be in crisis mode as a result of very few people with monastic vocations, at least in the West. I don’t know how it is in the Orthodox world, including Greece, Russia and other nations traditionally Orthodox, but in Europe and North America (South America too?) monastic vocations are moribund. Few want to take the vows, and monasteries seem to be going the way of the Shakers.

          • I’m not saying Merton was writing only for monks here, only that he was writing in the context of Christian vocation. The words “ordinary everyday routine” should be read in the light of Christians fulfilling their daily callings.

        • Headless,

          It was the original attempt to flee nominal, “respectable” Christianity. Monastics have always undermined the status quo – most of the time in humility and for the good (but not always…).


  5. >> The simplest and most effective way to sanctity is to disappear into the background of ordinary everyday routine.

    The simplest and most effective way to realize union with God is to practice contemplative meditation. Merton might have agreed with this, but I don’t think he had the understanding of the nuts and bolts involved that contemporary teachers do. His statement assumes that “sanctity” is a worthy goal, perhaps the highest, I don’t know. To me it is an abstraction, colored by Roman Catholic tradition, tends to morph into piety, and completely ignores Paul’s addressing the whole congregation as “saints”, those set aside. Sanctity as a goal has no meaning for me. I was set aside when I said yes to Jesus. I’m still set aside even as I live in the world and seek Oneness with God as prayed for by Jesus. I would encourage everyone to read Discovering the True Self in God with Merton’s Guidance by Ilia Delio over in the sidebar to get a little more up-to-date take on these matters.

  6. I find it rather amusing that we are trying to interpret the words of a man who was alive within most of our lifetimes, discussing background and context, etc. in order to understand his meaning. Is it any wonder we often don’t fully understand a man who lived 2000 years ago?

  7. Robert,

    It’s interesting that, following your question, there quickly arose an extended discussion about moral acts. In years past, I used to argue that Christian morality was the “best” morality. I have since changed my mind, since life experience and observation have convinced me that morality is morality. (I do believe that good works done because of love, especially love of Christ, do have an effect on the person doing them, but so far I can’t explain how, other than to point to the “cup of water” verse and Matt 25.)

    Therefore, the purpose of Christianity cannot simply be to evoke morality in a person’s life. Morality is a good thing for getting along with other people and keeping a check on chaos, but it can’t be the point.

    What Christianity is “for” – what God’s plan has always been – is to appropriately unite the divine Creator with his human creations, so that humans become partakers of the divine nature by God’s gifting, bringing his blessing to all of creation and uniting all of creation in worship of the Creator. Human death and the resulting potential disintegration into nothingness (“corruption” – phthora in Greek) interrupted that – though God knew what would happen before he spoke light into being – threatening to undo God’s good plan for his creation. God himself becoming human and entering into death, shattering its power, has rescued humanity; together with his Spirit poured out to help us, we can now become the human beings we were meant to be. Which is to be like Jesus Christ, the First Human Being, who acted according to what the image of God means: the ability to give oneself up freely in favor of the good of the other (which is love).

    As one of my favorite bloggers recently wrote (afkimel dot wordpress dot com):

    “Jesus is risen!

    “This is the apostolic message that transformed the Mediterranean world. It did not refer merely to an event in the past but to an eschatological act that had made possible a new kind of discourse—a discourse of unconditional promise, liberating permission, unconquerable hope.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you are free from the bondage of sin.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you have been liberated from the power of death.

    “Jesus is risen! … and your existence is good.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you have been freed from the law and every moralism.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may joyfully subject yourself to the commandments of God.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may live in the hope that your deepest desires will be fulfilled.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may embrace your very different neighbor, of whatever color, race, or ethnicity, with extravagant love.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may dare to live in the freedom of the Spirit, despite the tyrants, plutocrats, and oppressors.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may share generously and sacrificially from your bounty.

    “Jesus is risen! … and you may dare to live the politics of the coming Kingdom.

    “Jesus is risen!”


    • That is such good news!

    • Thanks, Dana. As you’ve said, Christianity is not ultimately about moral issues, but a change in being through the risen Christ.

    • “we can now become the human beings we were meant to be.”

      Do you think this can happen completely in this lifetime?

      • What is the depth of a human being?

        St Maximos the Confessor thought each human being is its own cosmos.

        St Gregory of Nyssa thought we would keep becoming Christ-like for all eternity, since Jesus is the Eternal God as well as the First Human Being.

        So I would answer no, BUT – it’s time I get a start on it!