December 2, 2020

Before We Can Become Gods We Must Be Men

Monday Merton Musings, December 5, 2011
Before We Can Become Gods We Must Be Men

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. Indeed the paradox is that being heavenly requires groundedness; keeping our feet dirty. Gritty spirituality.

  2. Quixotequest says

    Even in theosis, do we really “become gods”? I don’t think so.

    Nevertheless I see the greater point about groundedness; Tom Wright deals with it really well with the ramifications of a material ultimate heaven in his book Surprised by Hope. But for this once-upon-a-Mormon I get my guard up about nuances when I hear phraseology of men becoming gods.

    • This was a more of a literary turn of phrase for Merton in this passage than a theological statement.

      • Yet the literary turn of phrase stems from a theological precept. Our ‘godness’ while still on the earthly plain, is always in an earthen vessel and does not appear to our or anyone else’s eyes in its full radiance. Just as well because we couldn’t handle it. I don’t know about Mormons or anyone else for that matter but I think Merton was cognizant of the precept and the high calling. He probably looked at it with sufficient humor. That is the joy and the richness of it. That Christ would choose this group of stooges and bumblers to display His glory. I believe theosis is the true calling but the moment we fix on it, it dissolves like a handful of sand. Only when our eyes are fixed on the Author of our faith is our book actually being written, much like Moses’ hands being held up to gain the victory in battle. As soon as our eyes wander off to see how godly we are, the LP starts skipping. If our eyes are fixed on Christ there is a miracle of grand proportions taking place in an earthen vessel. The heavenly and the earthly are wed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      But for this once-upon-a-Mormon I get my guard up about nuances when I hear phraseology of men becoming gods.

      This F&SF fan and gamer doesn’t have a problem with that phraseology. It comes down to the difference between a Big-G God and small-g gods.

      You see, fantasy and gaming background universes often use a fantasy theology called “Remote Monotheism”, i.e. there’s one Big-G God who delegates day-to-day operations to lesser supernatural beings, i.e. small-g gods. The best-known type example of Remote Monotheism is by J.R.R.Tolkien in the Silmarillion. Iluvatar is God, the Maiar are analogous to angels, but the Valar are the “small-g gods” — supernatural beings powerful and glorious enough “that men often call them gods”, yet still finite and fallible. I have no problems with Valar- or Maiar-equivalents; I’d accept them as created beings (“Children of Iluvatar”) like myself, except supernatural or preternatural.

      Pop culture type example (subtype Brony): Princess Celestia of Equestria, from the latest My Little Pony reboot — she is immortal, the sun and moon rise and set on her command (whatever they want to call her, those are the credentials of a god-figure), yet she is still finite and fallible; her best analog is an equine Vala whose delegated authority is over the races of ponies and their world.

  3. The more church years I live through, the more the reality of my finite time on earth hits me….but, also, a sense that my life WILL go on, just in place (I pray) where it is always a beautiful spring day. I think that is one of the (many) reasons that living in Florida did not make me happy or centered; there are no real seasons in Orlando, (unless you count “Hurricaine” as a season).

    Here in Virginia, there is a balanced parade of seasons, all fairly mild where I live, that remind me of the passage of time. Just when I cannot stand any more heat, the leaves put on their show. The first snowfall is magic, and by the annoyance of the darned fifteenth snow~ the tips of spring bulbs are poking out. Then everything blooms and grows until it gets really hot……

    And God is ever the same, and ever new.

    • Yes, that is just what I was thinking. I’ve lived in Arizona for the past 35 years. I remember the seasons of spring, summer, winter and fall from my childhood, but I don’t really experience them any more.

      We do have “seasons”, they’re just more subtle, timed and marked differently. Dryness and heat, heat, heat. Scorched brown landscaped relieved by some rain, sometimes. Impossible wildflowers appear in the “spring”. Century plants launch massive spears upwards. Some years, anyway. Good years with adequate moisture are proven by families of quail running together across the road. Dry, hard years see a couple of adult birds herding few babies. “Winter” is blue, blue skies that one can finally look into because the sun is cooler, less oppressive, tamed.

      Anyway, the post reminds me of the saying that a person can be so heavenly-minded that he’s no earthly good. So true.

      • Anyway, the post reminds me of the saying that a person can be so heavenly-minded that he’s no earthly good. So true.

        this was my experience when sincerely pursued the hyper-charismatic, prophetic/rhetoric movement…

        it is still being promoted today with the em-PHA-sis on the uber-spiritual, make-believe realm totally removed from the day-to-day reality…

        i have contemplated this aspect of our ‘spirituality’ with what i perceive as mutually exclusive elements: the true spirituality that is internal vs. that which is addressed as external…

        being preoccupied with the ‘external’ elements of spiritual warfare, prophecy, spiritual gifts projected at external things, demonology, generational curses, or even taking up ‘offenses’ of the past (American Native Indians or African slaves) in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ geographical areas & release from curses, is misdirected IMHO. in other words, there is a point where an individual simply “thinks more highly of themselves as they ought” & they believe they are impacting grander spiritual dimensions than they truly can…

        this preoccupation & intense focus no different than fantasy gamers living out vicarious lives in their detailed fantasy role playing. all the associated praying/intercession, fasting, corporate gatherings & various esoteric elements do not automatically make the individual a spiritually healthy disciple/saint…

        Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

    • Having moved here to VA from further north, I’m still getting over the confusion of short sleeves in December. Thank you for giving me hope for a bit of winter!

  4. Is it OK if we also become women?

    Will there ever come a time when we stop referring to humans as “men”?


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Classical English defaults indeterminate/mixed gender to male. English has no animate neuter or animate-indeterminate/mixed-gender personal pronoun (though it does have little-used feminine forms of masculine nouns), despite all attempts to do so. (And I’ve seen a lot of attempts in various F&SF and Furry fiction — “s/he”, “hir”, “sahn”, etc.)

      Regardless of the awkward convolutions and equivocations (i.e. global replace string “man” with string “person”) of Gender-Neutral Newspeak

    • Remember that Merton wrote in the mid-20th century. You’d have the same complaint if I quoted C.S. Lewis.

    • And sadly, gender-neutral language does nothing to promote true equality between the sexes. Kyrgyz culture is terrifically sexist — to the degree that girls are given names like “Mistake” and “May-Our-Luck-Turn” — and yet it has only one third-person singular pronoun covering he, she, and it and no grammatical gender of any kind. Even when grammar doesn’t distinguish, people still find a way to.

      So presumably the converse is true: we can perhaps give Merton and Lewis the benefit of the doubt and accept their grammar distinctions without assuming sexism on their part. I’m not saying you are, Ninure — this is just something I’ve had to think through myself.

  5. flatrocker says

    Not sure of the author – but a seemingly appropriate time to share
    The next time I complain about the heat, the rain, the snow, the ice, the leaves, etc., etc…..

    Calm my Anxious Heart

    It was spring but it was summer I wanted; the warm days and the great outdoors.
    It was summer but it was fall I wanted; the colorful leaves and the cool dry air.
    It was fall but it was winter I wanted; the beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.
    It was now winter but it was spring I wanted; the warmth and the blossoming of nature.
    I was a child but it was adulthood I wanted; the freedom and the respect.
    I was twenty but it was thirty I wanted; to be mature and sophisticated.
    I was middle-aged but it was twenty I wanted; the youth and the free spirit.
    I was retired but it was middle-age that I wanted; the presence of mind without limitations.
    My life was over but I never got what I wanted.

  6. I grew up Lutheran and then spent my college years asking tough questions (I called myself a Deist during this time). The last few years I’ve been trying to regain my footing as a Christian. I read some Merton earlier this year and it was like he was writing directly to me. His works have helped light my way again (and have made me wonder whether I might in fact be Catholic). I had communion in a Lutheran church for the first time in almost a decade this past Sunday. I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t fully understand what happened but it was transformative. Thanks for sharing this. I’m going to look for a copy of ‘Seasons of Celebration’ immediately.

  7. Merton was a writer who happened to be a monk.


  8. I appreciate Merton’s main point as valid; It would appear that the chief pursuit of our culture is to isolate from vicissitudes of all forms.