Thomas Merton and the way of salvation

I am glad I picked up a fresh copy of Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for my reading this time around. I am able to concentrate more on the full text and not let my eyes skim because I’ve marked up the other book so much I only read my markings.

Every time I come to the conversion of Merton I am moved to tears. This time through I was also drawn into how salvation truly works in the life of a believer… and how utterly wrong we have made it in American evangelicalism.

Merton came to a place in his life where all seemed to be going well but the spiritual struggle was too deep. It was truly a leading of the Spirit that led him to find a small Catholic church nearby and attend a Mass. The experience overwhelmed him, even though he had been intellectually opposed to Catholicism up to that point.

He could not get away from the stirring of the Spirit after that moment and returned to the church to seek out the priest. His statement was simple: “Father, I want to become a Catholic.”

Then, his story diverges completely from our standard “true Christian” (which is what we mean when we say something as an evangelical) experience. In the way we’ve seen “salvation” work, the priest would immediately lead Merton in the “sinners prayer” and that would be that.

This is not the “way of salvation.” It’s the American way of salvation.

The next several pages of Merton’s autobiography beautifully illustrate what should happen in our lives. It is the way a church could engage people more thoughtfully and thoroughly and have true disciples rather than converts. Our problem in American Christianity is that is too easy to count converts. So we so that and stop.

Merton confesses his desire to join the Catholic church. The priest, rather than leading Merton in the “sinners prayer” sends Merton home with books to read. The challenge to Merton was to read them, pray through them, think about them, and in a couple of weeks see where things stood.

“Come and see.” THIS is the invitation.

There is cost to following Jesus. There is a cost to NOT following Jesus. And that is worth exploring.

Merton was then placed into instruction. Twice a week he met with a priest who guided Merton into the meaning of following Christ. (Again, this is in the context of the Roman Catholic Church… but why not find that path for ANY church?)

Several weeks of instruction then led Merton to the place of preparation for baptism. Then, communion.

Baptism, by the way, is a necessary step because it includes in the liturgy an exorcism. It is a renunciation of the works of the devil. Merton relates his experience and the knowledge that indeed he knew demons left his being in that renunciation.

Merton then related what followed because Baptism was only the beginning. It was not the end.

He had a list of “wishes” in which he looked back and thought, “I could have done that better earlier so I would be more established in Christ.”

Some are applicable to even Protestant churches. Some are more Roman Catholic. Yet, think of the impact of discipleship if we had this available!

  1. Go to communion daily early on.
  2. Seek out spiritual direction and immerse yourself in it early on. A place to ask questions and receive basic instruction.
  3. Learn to pray earlier and get to the work of prayer.

The lessons from Merton should challenge us in the American church. We are far too shallow and ask for too little. Merton knew the challenges as he looked back.

The place he had come from in his life, his spiritual “Egypt” had one way of living. He couldn’t just take that way of living into his spiritual promised land. He needed a different way of living.

His final thought on what could be added:

“Above all, eat your daily Bread without which you cannot live, and come to know Christ Whose Life feed you in the Host, and He will give you a taste of joys and delights that transcend anything you have ever experienced before, and which will make the transition easy.”

We need a depth of discipleship and commitment for people who seek the Lord that we are not willing to ask of others… possibly because we, as leaders, aren’t willing to go there ourselves.

This is not the time for the shallow “call” of American Christianity any more. It won’t work. It hasn’t really worked… we just don’t truly recognize it as yet.

But in this time of pandemic and time of heightened awareness about racism (yet again), we need something more. It is not “more of Christ.” It is more from us. We have basked in our privilege and ease and we need to step up to something more in this time… and the time ahead.

This is the lesson I am seeing in the life of Merton as I read through his life once again.

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