We live in a society whose spiritual life is dominated by Protestantism. According to a 2014 survey, 46.5% of the United States population call themselves Protestant, 22.8% claim to be unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, or unsure), and only 20.8% say they are Catholic.
As a result, this country’s most common conceptions of God tend to be small. With almost 70% of our citizens either subscribing to some diluted form of the True Church’s original teachings or dismissing those teachings altogether, our Creator is reduced, for many, to a dry abstraction, a casual relationship, or a genie in a lamp that we rub to get something we want. All of these notions greatly diminish our God who is, in reality, Infinite. Even worse, they encourage those 22.8% of Americans who have drifted onto the Unaffiliated – Agnostic – Atheist continuum to conclude that He is nothing but a figment of superstitious minds.
The Catholic Church’s conception of God is far different. It is not at all possible, of course, to convey His enormity, but we can try by describing Him as All-Power, All-Wisdom. God is Being Itself. He is all-presence, here with us, speaking to us, calling us to Him, guiding us, teaching us. The Mass, in which we get on our knees before Christ on the Cross and renew our union through Him in the Eucharist, keeps these facts ever at the forefront of our consciousness.
Now, though, a deadly pandemic has deprived us of this physical communion, and we must do more on our own to stay connected to our Father Almighty. I recommend spending some time with an author – Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) – whose books proclaim the One Living God, and who reminds us that we will never be happy, or free, or at peace in this life if we try to live without God’s grace. I just finished Merton’s 1948 spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which strives to communicate the constant Presence of the King of Glory (the bold, blue words throughout this post, as well as its title, are terms that Merton used in an attempt to convey the magnitude of God and His Son). This is the kind of book whose descriptions, accounts, and observations are so thick and rich with Catholic wisdom that it yields new insights upon each and every reading.
Although Merton was raised by mostly non-religious parents, he came to feel deeply that all humans are “born into this world with the image of God in their souls.” He wrote, “The need to worship and acknowledge Him is something deeply ingrained in our dependent natures, and simply inseparable from our essence.” One of my favorite images from The Seven Storey Mountain is this one:
The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.
How beautiful: The soul is a crystal that changes into pure light in union with God.
Yet, as the young Merton began to respond to this innate need, his encounters with Protestant teachings left him as cold as they left me during my own decades of searching. In fact, his experiences with the Protestant faith’s hollowed-out theology led him to pronounce it to be little more than “a combination of sociology and religious history.” By age 23, when Merton converted to Catholicism, he was like a parched man who has for years been wandering a desert and cannot drink enough from the life-giving waters of his new faith. So insatiable was his thirst that, at age 26, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he joined the Trappist order and then was ordained a priest eight years later.
Merton’s account of his pre-Catholic and post-conversion experiences leads me to recall the time when the priest of my parish told us catechumens that a major difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is that Protestants try to pull God down into our world whereas Catholics try to lift ourselves up to be worthy of His. Merton illustrates this point with his story of a childhood encounter with one school chaplain in England, whose religious teaching consisted of “vague ethical remarks, an obscure mixture of ideals of English gentlemanliness, and his favorite notions of personal hygiene.” This characterization would be hilarious if it didn’t imply that this clergyman probably misled and damaged real, live souls. After becoming a Catholic, Merton realized that it is the Church that is society’s true center. He came to understand that the peace we all seek requires a significant detachment from the material world — in addition to prayer, attendance at Mass, charity, and cultivation of virtue.
Merton vehemently rejected the watered-down Christianity that results from attempting to pull God down and fashion Him in our own image. “No idea of ours, let alone any image,” he wrote, “could adequately represent God,” and “we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him.” To his point, I would urge all half-hearted Protestants and the anesthetized souls on that Unaffiliated – Agnostic – Atheist continuum to consider the possibility that their apathy (or antipathy) was born of the weak and unsatisfying image of God they inherited. Would they be startled awake if they were to encounter the greatness of God who is Unfathomable Mystery?
Merton said that his friend Bob Lax viewed America as “a country full of people who want to be kind and pleasant and happy and love good things and serve God, but do not know how. And they do not know where to turn to find out.” According to Lax, Americans want and need to “find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity.”
We have those somebodies. They’re in the Catholic Church, and Thomas Merton is one of them.