December 4, 2020

Another Look: Merton – Before We Can Become Gods We Must Be Human

December Frosty Morning (2018)

Thomas Merton contended that human beings have lost a great deal in modern, technological society. What we have gained in efficiency and productivity has, in many ways, sucked the humanity and spirituality from our inner beings. In this meditation from Seasons of Celebration, the monk laments that we have separated ourselves from intimacy with the cycle of seasons. No longer do these annual patterns exert much influence over the course of our lives. Instead, we simply “keep moving.”

He suggests that the first step for many of us is not to seek spiritual formation through religious practice, but rather to get reacquainted with our humanity by restoring our connection to the natural world. Perhaps then, we can begin to appreciate the “cycle of salvation” reenacted in the liturgical year.

The modern pagan, the child of technology or the “mass man,” does not even enjoy the anguish of dualism or the comfort of myth. His anxieties are no longer born of eternal aspiration, though they are certainly rooted in a consciousness of death. “Mass man” is something more than fallen. He lives not only below the level of grace, but below the level of nature—below his own humanity. No longer in contact with the created world or with himself, out of touch with the reality of nature, he lives in the world of collective obsessions, the world of systems and fictions with which modern man has surrounded himself. In such a world, man’s life is no longer even a seasonal cycle. It’s a linear flight into nothingness, a flight from reality and from God, without purpose and without objective, except to keep moving, to keep from having to face reality….

To live in Christ we must first break away from this linear flight into nothingness and recover the rhythm and order of man’s real nature. Before we can become gods we must first be men. For man in Christ, the cycle of the seasons is something entirely new. It has become a cycle of salvation. The year is not just another year, it is the year of the Lord—a year in which the passage of time itself brings us not only the natural renewal of spring and the fruitfulness of an earthly summer, but also the spiritual and interior fruitfulness of grace. The life of the flesh which ebbs and flows like the seasons and tends always to its last decline is elevated and supplanted by a life of the spirit which knows no decrease, which always grows in those who live with Christ in the liturgical year. “For though the outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. . . . For we know if our earthly house of this habitation be dissolved that we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” (II Cor. 4:16; 5:1)


  1. I wonder if this has something to do the innate hostility some Americans have to even the concept of climate change – after we have “conquered” nature, to cut back our consumption and live closer to its rhythms seems like a retreat… a sign of weakness on our part.

    • I read yesterday that no other country on earth comes anywhere near the usage of paper towels that the U.S. does. In the rest of the world, people use mops, rags, sponges, and other recyclable means to clean up their messes. But Americans head straight for paper towels. Also, more affluent Americans, who can afford the considerable cost of using paper towels on a regular basis, are much more likely to use them than the poorer classes, who tend to use the same means as the rest of the world.

      Of course, some have raised the question of whether or not the energy and other resources necessary to launder and clean those recyclable means is actually less burdensome to the environment than the use of paper towels, but that’s a whole other issue — things are complicated.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Agree, there is certainly something there; some kind of control issue.

      There is also the Comfort Addiction: living in 45% humidity between 65F and 75F at all times, everything else feels intolerable. There is certainly a cohort in my life who live 99.44% within the confines of Climate Control, and are loathe to step outside it.

      It’s sad, all Spirituality aside, weather and seasons are fun. And we are well adapted|designed to thrive within them.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      There are trees in my back yard and my front yard. I don’t know anything about them, except that the roots of one of them has broken through a sewer pipe and is endangering the usually invisible process of separating my family and I from our bodily wastes. My great-grandfather knew the names of the species of trees on his farm, and was aware of the benefits that accrued to his property by the existence of each one of them. He especially mourned the elms that were at that time succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and are almost entirely gone now, or so I am told. I couldn’t tell an elm from a beech from an ash tree. I would have to pay somebody to make those distinctions for me.

      When someone mentions the word “modern” to me, Heaven help me, but I usually think not of plumbing, but of unbelief, and for some reason, promiscuous women and unmanly, passive-aggressive men, as well as my entire lack of metaphorical mental furniture stemming from an intimate knowledge of the natural world, yet I wonder how much pain in my dentistry I would accept (although those painkillers and antibiotics usually either are or are analogues of chemicals produced by plants) in order to restore it.

      There is Something Else at work here, something Lewis put his finger on in The Abolition of Man when he spoke about Men Without Chests.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > and for some reason, promiscuous women and unmanly, passive-aggressive men

        I am confident both of those things predate indoor plumbing. 🙂

        > my great-grandfather knew the names of the species of trees on his farm,

        The last of my great grandfather’s hickory trees comes down this week – due to insurance companies [now there is a uniquely modern horror].

        • Burro (Mule) says

          I am confident both of those things predate indoor plumbing.

          True, that; but widespread approval of them is a different story.

      • If Men with Chests weren’t generally such ###holes, I might be more amenable to that line of argument, That, and Jesus was hardly a drum-beating macho man Himself.

        More to the OP, why is modernism to prone to “unbelief”? I *might* have something to do with all this comfort, all this separation from the natural world (and therefore dependence on God). I seem to recall there ARE a number of biblical warnings along those lines…

        • Burro (Mule) says

          When I think of a Man With A Chest, I don’t think about a wifebeater or a fratbro, both of whom are as effectively chestless as the most dithering and vascillating nu-male cube-dweller or policy wonk.

          I think about David Dawson’s portrayal of King Alfred the Great in The Last Kingdom.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > or policy wonk.

            You do realize that “wonk” is a compliment? It refers to someone who knows what they are talking about.

            > dithering and vascillating nu-male cube-dweller

            I don’t get it. A whole lot of men make honest livings via the work performed in cubes. That’s how planes land safely and on time. That’s where the trains are dispatched. That’s where the architectural drawings of sky scrapers and bridges come from.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              You do realize that “wonk” is a compliment? It refers to someone who knows what they are talking about.

              Maybe a better word would be “Fanboy”, in the sense of a tunnel-visioned obsessive; won’t change their mind and can’t change the subject.

              > dithering and vascillating nu-male cube-dweller

              I don’t get it. A whole lot of men make honest livings via the work performed in cubes. That’s how planes land safely and on time. That’s where the trains are dispatched. That’s where the architectural drawings of sky scrapers and bridges come from.

              This is starting to sound like the lead-in to a He-Man Hypermsaculinity of Seventies Guns & Ammo editorials or Soldier of Fortune Magazine in general. Or Mark Driscoll. All were obsessed with PROVING they were Rugged Real Men, and not “Baby-Fat Sissies”. Alpha Males, NOT Omega Cucks.

              And Hypermasculinity usually redefines maleness in terms of “Shooting Guns, Picking Fights, and Getting Laid”.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > why is modernism to prone to “unbelief”?

          Is it? That’s my questions.

          A very strong majority of American’s believe in “God”. A majority believe in the “Devil”.

          I do know I no longer believe this Modernism-ain’t-Spiritual narrative. I no longer believe it because it is does not exist in the data.

          Religious Thinkers blaming Modernism for the decline of their influence sounds to me more and more like the executives of the major retail conglomerates blaming Amazon. Nope; online commerce is steady at sub-10% of the market. Much better explanation: they have failed to provide a compelling experience. Nobody and nothing is cannibalizing their share. Perhaps religious leaders would be better to start with a look in the mirror.

          • Yes, lots of books and other resources, lots of seminars and workshops and conferences, involving spirituality and religion, their practice and study, Christian and non, are sold to lots of very spiritually-minded Western residents of modernity. There’s a lot of religious belief among moderns, just as much as among pre-mods; on the other hand, there’s a lot less trust and involvement in traditional religious institutions. The fact is moderns will and have believed almost anything; it might be better if they were a little less prone to belief.

          • Burro (Mule) says

            I should have used the term “opposition to Christ” rather than “unbelief”, an anti-Christian Christendom as it were.

            The problem is not that modernism produces no religion, it’s that it produces bad religion.

            The cube-dwelling denizens are probably morally-neutral. The hydrocarbon-driven complexity of the life we have developed in the last 125 or so years had made cube-dwelling as inevitable as agriculture made the ploughboy. Much evil proceeds from the cubes as well, and as far as wonks knowing what they are doing, I will agree with you.

            But everything else being equal, I prefer people who disagree with me to be incompetent rather than capable, as they do less damage.

            • Pre-modernism produced plenty of bad religion too. As far as modernity producing “opposition to Christ”, in one form or another Christianity is more widespread globally and has more adherents than ever before. Unless you exclude those places that are not as technologically developed as the West as not being modern — and there is no defensible warrant for such an exclusion, since Third World people and places are as modern as Europe or America, despite their lesser degree of technological development (btw, those less developed modern places and people suffer from just as much bad religion as the developed Euro/West does) — you’re just wrong on that count. Unless of course you mean that your brand of Christianity is the only real Christianity.

  2. He suggests that the first step for many of us is not to seek spiritual formation through religious practice, but rather to get reacquainted with our humanity by restoring our connection to the natural world.

    For many of us this may be the case? But what about all the poor of the earth, including here in the U.S., who live and are confined to cities, who lack resources or affluence for escaping that confinement, whose whole lives have been lived in that confinement and who can no more afford or imagine spiritual formation through re-connecting with nature than through regular retreats at a monastic house? Are they perpetually fated to live below the level of their own humanity, as Merton describes it, as long as they lack the resources and opportunity to reconnect with nature?

    Or are there ways to reconnect with nature, and thereby our humanity, even in the midst of urban (and suburban — let’s not pretend the suburbs are closer to nature than the cities, because they’re not — they’re actually further from the rhythms of the natural world than cities, though they give the illusion that they are closer — it’s an illusion bought with the price of the modernity that Merton says has alienated us from nature and our own humanity) landscapes, ways of attending to its rhythms that do not require special means or resources on the part of those seeking their own humanity?

    • Correction: For many of us this may be the case.

    • Affluent suburbanites (and affluent urbanites, for that matter) who seek their own humanity by attempting to reconnect with the natural world should be aware that they are likely doing so by exercising their ability to purchase new experiences, an ability they’ve acquired because of the affluence and opportunity they’ve received via the very modernity that has alienated them from their humanity and the natural world. Irony abounds.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        That seems like something I am certain Mr. Merton was aware of, even if at that point in time we didn’t yet tend to discuss Privilege so directly.

        • Yes, Fr. Louis had a keen sense for detecting the ironies of modernity, including those in his own life. He knew how deeply ironic it was that he became a monk and joined a monastic order to “flee” from the modern world and all its superficial attractions and come-ons, including celebrity and the lust for fame and power, and yet from within his monastic cell was in almost constant and voluminous written communication/correspondence with thousands of people around the world, many of them very influential culture shapers. But, after all, you have to start somewhere…

      • David Greene says

        True but even an affluent suburbanite can without cost go outside and enjoy the rain, or walk barefoot in the yard, or observe the flocks of birds migrating overhead. I am trying to enjoy more of these simple nature things but I am also saying that after a recent vacation to Yellowstone 😉

        • It’s true, nature is everywhere, even in the midst of suburb and city, wealthy and poor. Covered-up, besmirched, manicured and managed, but there nevertheless. A blade of weed in a sidewalk crack, a wide river running across the edge of neighborhood, melting snow on a dead end street — and not least of all in our own bodies, which are full of rhythm and season, that we can see in them if we know how to attend.

    • I think the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings might have understood Thomas Merton:

      ““We cannot live without the Earth or apart from it, and something is shrivelled in a man’s heart when he turns away from it and concerns himself only with the affairs of men”
      (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek)


      “Enchantment lies in different things for each of us. For me, it is in this: to step out of the bright sunlight into the shade of orange trees; to walk under the arched canopy of their jade-like leaves; to see the long aisles of lichened trunks stretch ahead in a geometric rhythm; to feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it. This is the essence of an ancient and secret magic. It goes back, perhaps . . . . to all half-luminous places that pleased the imagination as a child. It may go back still farther, to racial Druid memories, to an atavistic sense of safety and delight in an open forest. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home. An old thread, long tangled, comes straight again.”
      ? Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek

      as for myself, am going out into winter’s cold, scissors in hand, to cut deep green shiny leaves from the camellia bushes and fire-red berries from pyracantha bushes . . . so my wooden mantel will be touched with natural decorations and in the middle of them, some votive candles to mark the ‘season’ . . . . a labor of love, no expense for ‘artificial’ needed, as more the beautiful could not be had anywhere.

  3. senecagriggs says

    “Anxiety is the waking nightmare of the 21st century. It lingers with us in our homes, in our workplaces, and even our social events. As time goes on, its roots penetrate deeper into the soil of our minds:

    “Almost 40% of Americans are more anxious than they were at this time last year, according to a new American Psychiatric Association (APA) poll.”

    The human psyche is failing us in our modern social and cultural conditions.

    Anxiety, do you feel it? Breathe, take a step back. What pops into your head when you read the word “modern”? The Internet? Social Media? Expansive Cities? Artificial Intelligence? These modern realities can all be lumped
    into one general category: Technology.”


    • What pops into your head when you read the word “modern”?

      Indoor hot and cold running water, daily showers, toilets — and toilet paper.

    • Never mind the Expansive Cities, if you live in the even more Expansive Suburbs, that requires far more Technology than the Cities. Those trees you see across the road are really a century back in time; but your home and its location, that all can be attributed to technology and ultra-modernity.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Almost 40% of Americans are more anxious than they were at this time last year

      Meaning 60% are only as, or even less, anxious than at this time last year.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    He suggests that the first step for many of us is not to seek spiritual formation through religious practice, but rather to get reacquainted with our humanity by restoring our connection to the natural world.

    Because the first alternative leads to Gnosticism, becoming so Spiritual(TM) that you cease to be human. Like a Silicon Valley Zillionaire uploading his consciousness into the Cloud at Singularity, shedding the Meat in Meatspace to live forever as a digital string of ones and zeros.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Unfortunately, that sort of thinking may result in a widespread outburst of vegetable gardening or beekeeping, two endeavours that led to a cumulative four weeks bedrest and physical therapy for me.

  5. Headless U Guy, I have achieved zero level status and only shred my meat on special occasions . My cloud of singularity has no silver lining. I live in an unnatural world.

  6. Ronald Avra says

    Personally, I’m inclined to think Fr. Merton has it right on the cycle of the seasons and allowing nature to permeate your conscious living. Also, for me, this is a low intensity option, and at the moment I’m decidedly drawn to low intensity options.

  7. senecagriggs says

    Adam, Robert F., you don’t think anxiety is a problem in the American culture?

    • I think anxiety has always been a problem in human societies. Imagine how anxious you’d be a thousand years ago if the crop didn’t come in, and you had nothing to eat through the winter.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Ditto. Yes, it is a problem, it should be taken seriously. However, it is not unique to our time.

  8. This is one place where I disagree with Merton, and he would probably understand. It’s the perspective of Orthodoxy (at least as I understand the theology) that a person baptized into the death & resurrection of Christ becomes more human as s/he becomes more like Christ. Because Christ is the First Truly Human Being, our telos is not only to become more God-like, but also to become more human – the human beings we were made to be, made in the image of Christ who assumed our human nature. So God always intended for us to acquire both godlikeness and true humanity, and this happens basically at the same time.


  9. I’ll never forget a very painful time in my life when I realized that I had to step out of the clouds and plant my feet in the mud. It was the start of my wilderness experience. I realized that I was completely out of touch with my humanity and that it was creating a very unhealthy situation.

    • Oddly enough the start of that journey was to a spend month at a Trappist monastery. Doesn’t sound very muddy but it was one step toward extricating myself from fundamentalism, which then in turn was followed by drunkenness and debauchery to round it all out. In basketball jargon I was getting my head right with ball.