It has long been on my list to read at least one book by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard. I stumbled upon No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton at the thrift store, and as I flipped through it, I kept appreciating the excerpts I read – so I decided to buy it. It proved to be a worthwhile read.
You can google Thomas Merton if you have no familiarity with him. No Man is an Island is a collection of spiritual/Christian essays. The book is divided into chapters that focus on a particular topic, but within each chapter the thoughts are numbered. Perhaps this sounds choppy? But it was not, and I thought it helped the book flow.
We live in age (since the late 1800’s in particular) where the self has been idolized, and Merton presents a more balanced and Christian view of self. The extremes of over-emphasizing the self are apparent, and Merton points out the problems with extremist views. Of course, a self-centered approach conflicts with Christianity. We are to deny ourselves and live for Christ. However self-denial can go wrong too – and ironically end up more about us than about God! As a monk, Merton had keen insight here.
I am not Roman Catholic, but I found that I appreciated Merton. I know some evangelicals who would not even consider reading him, which is sad. You really lose out when you limit yourself to reading only from the narrow niche of authors from your specific faith tradition. Parts of the book are philosophical, and someone without religious faith would find content to appreciate. However, the book is distinctly Christian.
Those struggling about the meaning of life will find much to consider. Only when we begin to see things through the right framework will we find direction and hope. We also live in age where it seems everyone is chronically busy, and Merton has wise words about the perils of busyness. This book is profound, but also very readable.
Some of the chapter titles are: Love can be kept only by giving it away, Sentences on hope, Pure intention, The word of the cross, Asceticism and sacrifice, Vocation, Mercy, Silence. Here are some excerpts to give you a feel for Merton:
“To live exclusively for myself, I must make all things bend themselves to my will as if I were a god. But this is impossible. Is there any more cogent indication of my creature hood than the insufficiency of my own will? For I cannot make the universe obey me.” (chapter 3, #1)
My brief thought: Maybe that sounds an obvious point to you? “Of course I can not bend the universe to my will!” But there is indeed a whole philosophy of thinking that teaches this very thing – it began with New Thought in the late 1800’s and became the “positive thinking” movement in the mid 20th century. New Thought is alive and well today in The Secret. This mode of thinking has infected and influenced Christianity, overtly and subtly. I wrote a book about it.
“Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt a need of forgiveness. A life that is without any problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.” (chapter 2, #9)
Merton warns against “selfish obedience that does God’s will merely for the sake of my own profit…If I seek some other reward besides God himself, I may get my reward but I cannot be happy.” (chapter 4, #3)
“To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility…Useless and hateful in itself, suffering without faith is a curse. A society whose whole idea is to eliminate suffering and bring all its members the greatest amount of comfort and pleasure is doomed to be destroyed.” (chapter 5, #2,8)
“Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” (chapter 6, #13)
“Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.” (chapter 7, #3)
“Our vocation is precisely this: to bear witness to the truth of Christ by laying down our lives at His bidding.” (chapter 8, #4)
“If we wait for some people to become agreeable or attractive before we begin to love them, we will never begin.” (chapter 9, #6)
“But the hope of Christians is not merely focused on heaven. Heaven itself is only the prelude to the final consummation revealed by Christ. The doctrine of the general resurrection teaches us that the glory of God’s love is to be in a certain sense the common good of all things, not only of the souls of those who are saved by Christ but also of their bodies and the material universe.” (chapter 9, #16)
My brief thought: This is exceptional theology, and accurate eschatology! Far too many evangelicals make our destiny all about heaven, and forget the resurrection of our bodies and the New Heaven and Earth.
I could share many more excerpts, but will end it there. Get a copy for yourself!