Tag Archives: spirituality

Being a saint: Merton and Pope Francis

Reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and be glad, I thought of an exchange between the poet Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, soon after Merton was baptized.

Jim Forest relates it thus, in Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, based on Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain:

Walking with Lax on Sixth Avenue one night in the spring of 1939, Lax turned toward Merton and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
It was obvious to Merton that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” and “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of freshman English” were not good enough answers.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton was silent. He hadn’t figured that out yet.
“What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.”
That struck Merton as downright weird.
“How do expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to.”
“I can’t be a saint,” Merton responded. To be a saint would require a magnitude of renunciation that was completely beyond him. But Lax pressed on.
“All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is offering a call to holiness, to sanctity. “Don’t be afraid of holiness,” he writes (¶ 32) and adds (¶ 34), quoting Leon Bloy, ““the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

And so Pope Francis urges us, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness, [sanctity].”

This call, from our baptism, is to live this holiness, this sanctity, in daily life – to be a saint in the ordinary.

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. (¶14)

The letter of Pope Francis is direct and practical. It is well-worth the read, a good choice for Easter reading. But even more for Easter living.

Above all, be a saint.

To get started, take a look at the video.

Religious and spiritual

All too often people say that I’m spiritual, but not religious, trying to separate their relationship with God from “organized” religion.

I think this is a mistake and today’s lectionary readings help us understand why.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word that means “bind.” Religion is meant to bind us to God in community with others.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23), the religious leaders would bind people to customs and outward practices. But Jesus warns them,  “The worship they offer me is worthless, for what they teach are only human rules.”

As Gustavo Gutiérrez explains in Sharing the Word Though the Liturgical Year (p. 214):

Defilement has nothing to do with not washing our hands. Instead, it comes from harming others, forgetting their needs and believing that we are clean.
…One way to water down the gospel is to transform it into a series of formal rules which need to be obeyed only externally.

So often I hear people arguing over rules and rubrics, missing the point that they are meant to help the people be a people who are “wise and intelligent,” as Moses notes in the first reading (Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8).

But it is James (1: 27) who puts it most clearly:

Religion pure and undefiled is taking care of widows and orphans in their need and keeping oneself uncorrupted from the world.

A religion that just insists on rules might overlook the marginalized in their midst and fall into the trap of a religion that is far from the Word that became flesh and lived among us.

Such a religion lets itself be corrupted by the world of conformity to rules and selfishness.

Megan McKenna puts it nicely when she notes, in Breaking the Word, p. 163:

It is important to remember that when the word ‘world’ is used in the Scriptures, it primarily means the dominant political, nationalistic, economic and social structures that demand obedience to their rules and regulations to the detriment of what is right and just.

Religion that lets itself be formed by the worldly powers of greed, selfishness, exclusivity, and pride is not religion. It does not tie people to each other and to God but sets us up to consider ourselves as pure and despises others.

A spirituality that does not tie us to God and others is other-worldly and does not represent the loving God, Jesus, who lived among us as a flesh and blood human.

Give me both – spirituality and religion – but with integrity.