Thomas Merton on Asceticism and Sacrifice, Part 2

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 2, pp. 106ff)
• The real purpose of asceticism is to disclose the difference between the evil use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue. We must gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.
The only sacrifice of ourselves that God accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. In order for us to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet. Peace of the soul does not depend on physical inactivity – some people are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life. Our culture does not provide ideal conditions for entering ourselves. Everything in modern life is calculated to KEEP us from entering into ourselves and thinking about spiritual things. The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. There is a world of difference between work and agitation. Work occupies mind and body and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance of order and spiritual understanding. Agitation, on the other hand, destroys the spiritual usefulness of work and frustrates its physical and social purpose. Agitation is a fruit of tension in a spirit that is turning dizzily from one stimulus to another and trying to react to 15 different appeals at one time. Work leads to peace (if there is balance). Agitation leads to the death of the interior life.
• Good habits are only developed by repeated acts – we cannot discipline ourselves to be consistent with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically. We must have structure. To desire the spiritual life is to desire discipline.
• Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real. In II Thessalonians 3, work and supernatural acceptance of ordinary life are seen by the Apostle as a protection against the restless agitation of false mysticism. We are to work and live in simplicity, with more joy and greater security than others, because we do not look for any special fulfillment in this life. We are to live in peace among transient things. It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced by perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with his glory.
• God is more glorified by one who uses the good of things of this life in simplicity and with gratitude than by the nervous asceticism of someone who is agitated about every detail of his self-denial.

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