Seven Words – Purity

Reading notes from Thomas Merton, Love and Living, “Seven Words”


  • Traditional language of “pure” and “impure,” specifically in the context of the body, is dead, Merton says.
  • Merton details the “juridical hairsplitting” that has made it increasingly confusing and ambiguous about what constitutes a “pure” or “impure” action. Is a “moral theologian hunting down an interesting case in the line of duty” (by looking at the Queen of Burlesque) more pure than a spontaneous erection, or even one caused by forethought? “In the long run, whether you are pure or not seems to depend on who your lawyer is.” (112)
  • “Purity” has come to refer to the asexual, the anaesthetic (insensitive, oblivious, indifferent, uncaring, Stoic). Thus, we define “purity” as the absence of sexual activity; or, purity is only found in sexual relations when “he would rather not have them, or when he has done his best to make them hateful and frustrating, or when they are strictly in the line of duty (marital intercourse).” (113) To even want sex, to any degree, is “a bit impure.” (113). But to have an erection is a no-no. To touch genitals is even worse. And, of course, to orgasm is the king of sins against purity.
  • All of this leads to that juridical hairsplitting and a “pathological and totally unrealistic obsession with bodily detail.” (113). The age old question of the pubescent Evangelical kid is “How far can I go? How much can I touch?” This is precisely the attitude Merton is describing here, an attitude that is so abstract that it isn’t rooted in human experience before, just in the late night youth group conversations about “crossing-the-line.” This is, plain and simple to Merton, a “hatred and denigration” of the human body and person.
    • An unhealthy, an disincarnated (and anti-incarnational) dualism can create the necessary “dose of self-hate and loathing for the flesh” (114) that will keep your purity in check.
    • Add to that “a lusty fascination with all forms of ‘impurity,’ and even a regular cult of sin, which of course, takes the righteous form of sin hunting, censoriousness, planting fig leaves on statues…” will create a royally anti-body and anti-human notion of “purity.” (114)
    • This is the “cult of gloom” notion of “purity” that leads to an abhorrence of life, and “worse still to a systematic effort to degrade and destroy one of the most precious of God’s gifts to man.” (114)
  • Religious people are not the only people to blame for this “atomization” or dividing up of love.
One could go on at length to develop this idea––not confined to religion by any means in which love puts the human body on the market, either as a desirable package of commodities and pleasures or as a highly dangerous compound of moral evils. Love becomes no longer an expression of the communion between persons but a smorgasbord of the senses in which one selects what he wants––or what he thinks he can get away with. (113)
  • If one does want sexual pleasure, then they should deny it. And if they do happen to “slip up” it should be indeed that––an accident. And if there is an accident, then it should be the most miserable experience possible in order to “can be sure you did not ‘want’ them with full deliberation––nobody in his right mind would.” (113)
  • These attitudes of “purity” are detrimental to becoming fully alive. Is there another way, Merton asks.
  • Otherwise, we are left with a notion of “purity” that is not constructive to true, authentic love, but rather destructive.
  • Merton’s suggestion is to not try to divide up the human person, the body, experience, and responsibility:

“For example, instead of saying that an act is pure when you remove all that is material, sensuous, fleshly, emotional, passionate, etc. from it, we will on the contrary say that a sexual act is pure when it gives a rightful place to the body, the senses, the emotions (conscious and unconscious), and the special needs of the person, all that is called for by the unique relationship between the two lovers, and what is demanded by the situation in which they find themselves.” (117)

  • There is also the need to ensure that we are not simply equating “purity” with mere “decency.” I take this to mean that it would be wrong to equate cultural expectations and norms with “purity,” to use one’s cultural ethics as synonyms for “purity.”
    • What is “right” has been all to often what is socially acceptable rather than “what will truly provide a creative and intimately personal solution to the questions raised in each special case.” (119)
  • “Authentic use of human freedom” is essential; one must be fully aware and conscious of what they are doing. Freedom is not license to do whatever one desires, but to do what is just in their personal context as determined by “personal conscience” guided by the “light of grace.” (117)
  • Merton essentially argues for re-injecting erotic love into human love: “uninhibited erotic love between married persons not only can be pure but will most probably be more pure than an anguished, constrained, and painful attack by an embarrassed husband on his patient and inert wife.” (117)
  • Sexuality is to be “joyous, unconstrained, alive, leisurely, inventive, and full of special delight…” (117)
  • “It is precisely in this spirit of celebration, gratitude, and joy that true purity is found.” (118)
  • Merton is not suggesting that “purity” is subjective. Purity comes about by the wise and thoughtful use of one’s freedom and the “objective demands” of the situation. Mere human desire cannot guide sexual love.
    • “[The sexual act] will be pure [when] all its aspects can be said to respect the true and integrity, the true needs and the deepest good of those who share it together, as well as the objective demands of others, of society, and so on.” (118)
    • “The mark of love is its respect for reality and for truth and its concern for the values which it must foster, preserve, and increase in the world. Such concern is not compatible with fantasy, willfulness, or the neglect of the rights and needs of other people.” (119)
This concept of purity is, therefore, not one in which two people seek to love each other in spirit and truth in spite of their bodies, but on the contrary, use all the resources of body, mind, heart, imagination, emotion, and will in order to celebrate the love that has been given them by God, and in so doing to praise Him! (119)

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