Thomas Merton: The Letter and the Spirit

In the epilogue of his book on the Psalms – Bread in the Wilderness – from which I drew upon in an earlier post, Thomas Merton summarises the central argument that runs throughout the book by discussing the Pauline verse ‘the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6, KJV), and does so in light of Saint Augustine’s meditations on the same topic:

The Law tells us: “thou shalt not covet.” No hidden sense here. The literal meaning is plain enough. Selfish desires are the root of all evil. But, says Saint Augustine, to know this truth without conforming our lives to the commandment not to covet, is to be killed by that commandment. If we have never known our responsibility we could not have been held guilty for not living up to it…

…Everyone knows the ten commandments. Few keep them, because few love them. Men do not love the Law of God because they cherish a contrary love, a contrary law, in their flesh, which defeats and denies the Law of God. Knowing His Law, they still fall short of knowing it, because they only possess the wisdom of the flesh, which cannot be subject to the Law of God. It is foredoomed to rebel against Him, because it has refused, in advance, to love Him.

Bread in the Wilderness (1953), p.129, Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd.

            There are hints of Romans 5 here, where Saint Paul states that ‘sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law’ (v.13). Merton, following Saint Augustine, hones in on this aspect of our relationship with the Law, and sees (as did Saint Paul) that to have the benefit of knowing its precepts is also to be at a disadvantage, for there is no excuse for not keeping it anymore. What Saint Paul doesn’t allude to in this passage (although he does in many others) is that this burden only comes upon us because we do not love the precepts we have been given – our rebellious natures are such that we feel them as an imposition upon our freedom. We do not love goodness as deep down we know we should.

Thus we enter into a slight paradox, wherein the Law can only be kept if it is loved, and it can only be loved if we conform our lives to it (the practice of virtue feeds the love of virtue). Something is needed then to deliver us from this circle – if we have refused, in advance, to love God and His will, we require a new impulse to bring us into the relationship of love that alone can free us from condemnation:

Without grace, the ‘letter’ of the Law, the truth of the Law, serves only to condemn us, because even though we understand it we do not keep it. But the ‘spirit,’ grace, fills us with charity, gives us the power to love what the Law tells us. Loving the truth, we are able to live by the truth. When we live by the truth, our lives themselves become true. We become what we ought to be. We not only exist, we live. We not only hear the word, we keep it, and therefore we fulfil it. He is manifested in us. He is glorified in us.

ibid, p.130.

            We see again then, that at the heart of our redemption is Love. God so loved the world that he sent His only begotten son to die for us on the Cross; and it was this same love that sent the Holy Spirit (c.f.; John 16:6ff) to His people, in order that they may be given new hearts (c.f.; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Jeremiah 31:33-34), set free to fulfil the Law out of love, not duty. The Law, as Merton (via Augustine) says, can only be truly understood when it is kept, and it can only be kept when our souls are purged of their selfishness and perfected by the Spirit of charity.

It is useful to distinguish between charity and love here – though often used interchangeably, the former term stresses a disinterested love of God for His own sake, because He is pure Goodness; love of neighbour, and of all other good created things, then flows from this. Charity is the essence of God Himself, and it is this which the Holy Spirit pours out into our hearts (c.f.; Romans 5:5) – when we receive grace, we receive Him.

It is only as we cooperate with the divine life that God gives to us that we are able to love His will, and to fulfil the Law. This is the essence of the New Covenant (a.k.a. the New Testament) – it is not just a book, it is a life; a new life, lived in harmony with the Love of God. It is for this life that we were made – to be taken up, by the Spirit of Christ, into the life of the Holy Trinity, which is eternal and unchangeable love, and enabled to become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). By being baptised into the Body of Christ, we are able to share in the sonship of Jesus, and say with Him ‘Abba, Father!’ (c.f.; Galatians 4:4-7). It is only insofar as we realise the incredible privilege of this relationship we now have with God that we can fully enter into it, and fully love His will, to love what He loves because He loves it.


One thought on “Thomas Merton: The Letter and the Spirit

  1. Pingback: Silence | Journey Towards Easter

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