Merton on Money

The true ‘Law’ of our day is the law of wealth and material power. The fate of men, indeed of mankind itself, depends on the laws of economics. It is the market that in reality determines the existence, indeed the survival, of all men and dictates the ideals and actualities of social life. In our time the struggle of mercy is, then, not against rigid and inflexible morality but against a different and more subtle hardening of heart, a general loss of trust and of love that is rooted in greed and belief in money. What irony t hat this faith in money, this trust in the laws of the market, this love of wealth and power should have come to be identified with Christianity and freedom in so many minds, as if the freedom to make money were the freedom of the sons of God, and as if…money had demonically usurped the role in modern society which the Holy Spirit is supposed to have in the Church.

Seven Words – War

Reading notes on Merton, Love and Living, “Seven Words”


  • Almost everyone would agree “that [war] is our greatest single evil” but despite this near universal notion, “there is little significant resistance to it except on the part of small minorities who, by the very fact of their protest, are dismissed as eccentric.” (129)
  • The human dismay at the prospect of war is “inefficacious;” our fear and disavowal of war (in words) is rarely followed by creative avenues of non-violence in order to avert war. We fear war and the consequences but are impotent at doing anything differently.

War represents a vice that mankind would like to get rid of but which it cannot do without. Man is like an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him but who always has a reason for drinking.

  • War, violence, is an addiction of the human person on an individual level, but also on a collective level (societies).
  • Merton finds the argument that wars are necessary to create peace utterly irrational and “perfect nonsense.” Despite this, people still voluntarily go to war, “they even go so far as to sacrifice their lives and their human dignity and to commit the most hideous atrocities, convinced that in so doing they are being noble, honest, self-sacrificing, and just.” (129)

The only possible conclusion is that man is so addicted to war that he cannot possibly deal with his addiction. (129)

  • Merton then uses the bombing of Dresden by English and American air forces during World War II as an example for his discussion on the irrationality of war and the nonsense of going to war for peace.
  • War-markers are not reasonable and thus appeals to reason to stop a war from being started are pointless because the war-makers do not use reason themselves in make their decision to go to war. “…war is, in fact, a complete suspension of reason.” (131)
  • War is often said to be the “last resort” after all negotiations (reasoning efforts) have failed. But because the use of force is said to be the last ditch effort once reason has been exhausted points to the irrationality of war.
  • Moreover, Merton argues that reason “inhibits itself…(in all the trivialities of political and military [games]) in order that it may break down, and in order that resort to force may become ‘inevitable.'” (131)
  • What war boils down to is the human instinct for violence.

Merton on the word “World”

Reading notes from Merton, “Love and Living”


  • The perennial question of many Christians is “How do I live in but not of the world?” The answers have, of course, been numerous, and some have been positive and others negative.
  • What is the “world”?
    • Merton first states that the world takes on personal and subjective dimension: “We are the world.” (120)
      • We are connected to the world, bodily, sensually, intellectually, emotionally.
      • We have the power to change the world, but also to be changed by the world.
      • “From the moment we sit down at the table and put a piece of bread in our mouths, we see that we are in the world and cannot be otherwise than in it, until the day we die.” (120)
    • Next, Merton claims that while we are in the world, and are indeed a part of the world, we are able to “distinguish between ourselves and the world.”
      • We are capable of making the distinction between “I” and the “Other.” Or, between “myself” and “the rest of the world.”
      • We have our own identity apart from the world, but it is also necessary to recognize that our personal identity lives in relationship with the world that informs our identity. There is a dialogue between the “I” (me) and the “Thou” (the rest of the world).
    • “Contempt for the world” was in many ways an affirmation of the freedom of the human person. But this also meant that the human person was free to “make new ways and new attitudes…and to make new discoveries which changed the world.” (121)
      • Thus, “contempt” was actually, paradoxically, “love.”
      • …the great religions which taught flight from the world also laid the foundation for world views which established man int he world as its master and its renewer.” (121)
      • It appears that Merton is equating “contempt,” in this context, with detachment.
    • What is the world, then?: “Simply the human and non-human environment in which man finds himself, to which he is called to establish a certain definite relationship.” (121)
      • What is this “definite relationship”?
        • A relationship of submission to the norms, expectations, and identity provided by the world.
        • A relationship of dialogue between “I” (me) and the “Thou” (the world) in which we are able to critique the world, and offer constructive ideas for renewing it.
      • The dialogue between the individual and the world is one that is defined as work.
        • This is not work in the sense of a 9-5 job (although it may take that form for some).

One of the greatest problems of our century is not merely that of finding work for the unemployed but that of developing a new concept of work that will prevent practically everybody from becoming unemployable. (122)

  • The worlds within the World.
    • It would be problematic to see the World as one monolithic entity as there are many spheres and dimensions that are a part of the World, but not the World as it really is in its totality.
    • The World is not just “natural and physical forces, [or] societies moved by orderly economic laws…” (122)
    • (Merton only talks about one world within the World, but I made it plural here.)
    • What is this other world that Merton is referring to?

This world is a complex dynamic of power, of need, of ambition, of obsession with gain and with lust. It is particularly marked by obliviousness to and contempt for all that does not fit in with its own peculiar power constellation. It has no patience with anyone who does not totally submit to and identity with that constellation. (122)

    • This world within the World that Merton speaks of “offers an easy solution to the man who wants to fabricate a crude identity for himself without too much trouble and with a minimum of personal responsibility.” (122)

This world says, “Work for me and I will take care of your identity.”

    • This world insists that we offer ourselves to it in “total submission,” giving up our freedom.
    • This is precisely the world that the New Testament calls upon Christians to reject.
    • In his redemptive framework, Merton calls attention to the “true world” that is preached by Jesus and His Church: a world that is being reformed, refigured, renewed, and redeemed.

The Christian’s dialogue with the world can, then be summed up as followers. First, he is created in the world. The world of his time is the place of salvation to which he has been called by God, in which God has put him, in which God has a task for him to accomplish. If he merely rejects and disparages the world of matter in which he is, the Christian can never really begin to understand his task in it, and he will not be able to do the work God asks of him. (123)

  • But, this dialogue also requires a certain level of detachment which allows the Christian to be differentiated from the “power constellation” of the world.
  • Without detachment, the Christian can become an accessory to the “power constellation” (as the Church has done in the darker moments of its history).
  • When the Christian realizes that the world is the redeemed venue of Christ, then they are able to relate to the world and the people within the world in a way that sees these people “as loved and sought by Christ.” (124)

There is no simple ‘ethical’ answer to the problems arising from this attitude. The Christian does not learn a new set of unworldly laws which he opposes to the ways of the world, but by the Cross and Love of Christ and the indwelling Spirit of freedom, he learns to live in the world as Christ did, in perfect liberty [detachment?] and with unlimited compassion and service. (124)

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)