SACRIFICE: Asceticism And Sacrifice by Thomas Merton


From No Man Is an Island

There is no such thing as a sacrifice of ourselves that is merely self-destruction.  We sacrifice ourselves to God by the spiritualization of our whole being through obedience to his grace.  The only sacrifice he accepts is the purity of our love.  Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful.  A renunciation that may be noble in itself is useless for us if God does not will us to make it.

In order to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet.  The peace of a soul that is detached from all things and from itself is the sign that our sacrifice is truly acceptable to God.

Bodily agitation agitates the soul.  But we cannot tranquilize our spirit by forcing a violent immobility upon the flesh and its five senses.  The body must be governed in such a way that it works peacefully, so that its action does not disturb the soul.

Peace of soul does not, therefore, depend on physical inactivity.  On the contrary, there are some people who are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life but who would go crazy if they had to keep themselves still in absolute solitude and silence for any length of time.

It is for each one to find out for himself the kind of work and environment in which he can best lead a spiritual life.  If it is possible to find such conditions, and if he is able to take advantage of them, he should do so.  But what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions!  Such conditions have never been within the reach of most men, and were never more inaccessible than in our modern world.  Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things.  Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestions of advertising and propaganda.

The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis.  Even our monasteries are not free from the smell and clatter of our world.

Bodily agitation, then, is an enemy to the spirit.  And by agitation I do not necessarily mean exercise or movement.  There is all the difference in the world between agitation and work.

Work occupies the body and the mind and is necessary for the health of the spirit.  Work can help us to pray and be recollected if we work properly.  Agitation, however, destroys the spiritual usefulness of work and even tends to frustrate its physical and social purpose.  Agitation is the useless and ill-directed action of the body.  It expresses the inner confusion of a soul without peace.  Work brings peace to the soul that has a semblance of order and spiritual understanding.  It helps the soul to focus upon its spiritual aims and to achieve them.  But the whole reason for agitation is to hide the soul from itself, to camouflage its interior conflicts and their purposelessness, and to induce a false feeling that “we are getting somewhere.”  Agitation – a condition of spirit that is quite normal in the world of business – is the fruit of tension in a spirit that is turning dizzily from one stimulus to another and trying to react to fifteen different appeals at the same time.  Under the surface of agitation, and furnishing it with its monstrous and inexhaustible drive, is the force of fear or elemental greed for money, or pleasure, or power.  The more complex a man’s passions, the more complex his agitation.  All this is the death of the interior life.  Occasional churchgoing and the recitation of hasty prayers have no power to cleanse this purulent wound.

No matter what our aims may be, no matter how spiritual, no matter how intent we think we are upon the glory of God and his kingdom, greed and passion enter into our work and turn it into agitation as soon as our intention ceases to be pure.  And who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen!

In order to defend ourselves against agitation, we must be detached not only from the immediate results of our work – and this detachment is difficult and rare – but from the whole complex of aims that govern our security, from pleasures and possessions, from people and places and conditions and things.  We have to be indifferent to life itself, in the Gospel sense, living like the lilies of the field, seeking first the kingdom of Heaven and trusting that all our material needs will be taken care of into the bargain.  How many of us can say, with any assurance, that we have even begun to live like this?

Lacking this detachment, we are subject to a thousand fears corresponding to our thousand anxious desires.  Everything we love is uncertain: when we are seeking it, we fear we may not get it.  When we have obtained it, we fear even more that it may be lost.  Every threat to our security turns our work into agitation.  Even a word, even the imagined thought we place in the mind of another, suspecting him of suspecting us – these are enough to turn our day into a millrace of confusion and anxiety and haste and who knows what other worse things besides!

We must, first of all, gain a supernatural perspective, see all things in the light of faith, and then we will begin the long, arduous labor of getting rid of all our irrational fears and desires.  Only a relatively spiritual man is able even to begin this work with enough delicacy to avoid becoming agitated in his very asceticism!

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