It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace.
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of who I am and of discovering my true self.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
This is probably my favorite picture of Thomas Merton, because he’s not wearing monastic robes, he doesn’t look all serious and pious, he’s not gazing out into the wide blue heavenly yonder. He’s strong, he’s dressed for the outdoors, he’s grinning. He’s a real person. That’s true of him, and of the actual monks I know. They’re real people.
Why do I insist on this? Because when Merton writes, as he does here, about sanctity and being a saint, he doesn’t mean some abstract airy idea. He’s talking about living an actual life. And what he’s saying is, You have to live an authentic life; that’s the very first step. You have to be yourself, not some plaster goody-goody. You have to deal with struggle and temptation and evil-doing, and all the messy stuff of real life. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be willing to confront it all, good and bad.
Merton may never make it to official sainthood. The public loved him, but not all the religious establishment did; and he certainly lived a full life, to put it mildly. But I’ll buy his definition of sanctity and sainthood; and by that standard, the man’s already there, so far as I’m concerned.
Need another reason? Merton was one of the first Christians to feel the attraction of Eastern religion and publicly respond to it. The cloistered Trappist monk, an accomplished photographer, meditated, went to Asia, wrote a magnificent journal while on his trip. He even died there, in a ludicrous accident. He took his religion, Western and Eastern, very seriously indeed. But he could also write this and mean it:
This is not a hermitage — it is a house. What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. Who said Zen? Wash out your mouth if you said Zen. If you see a meditation going by, shoot it. (Merton, Day of a Stranger)
It took him a long time (like it took Suzan-Lori Parks, like it usually takes people) to find out who he was, and to become it, but he did it wholeheartedly. He took religion seriously, yes. But he didn’t take himself too seriously, which makes him more than saintly. It makes him lovable.
(P.S. In case you thought that writing about a near-saint had quieted my kvetching about the weather, it didn’t, exactly. But at least I’m trying to joke about it a little.)