More from Chapter 3 of LIFE AND HOLINESS by Thomas Merton (1963):
We must realize that our acts of virtue and our good works are not done simply in order to satisfy the cold obligation of an impersonal law. They are a personal response of love to the desire of a human Heart filled with divine love for us. The Sacred Heart of the risen Saviour communicates to our own inmost being every least impulse of grace and charity by which he shares with us his divine life. Our response is then an answer to the warm and sensitive promptings of the Lord's personal love for us. This realization not only diverts our attention from ourselves to him, but it also arouses a deeper and more vital hope, and awakens in our heart a more fruitful and dynamic faith. It fills our Christian life with the inexpressible warmth of gratitude and with a transcendent awareness of what it means to be sons of God because the only-begotten Son of the Father has loved us even to the point of dying for us on the cross, that we may be united in his love.
Not only are we grateful for our deliverance from sin by Christ, but Paul also makes clear that our eucharistic morality of grateful love is nourished by a sense of deliverance from a seemingly inescapable conflict. While we were under the law, says the Apostle (Romans 7:13-25), we realized only our incapacity to be holy and to satisfy its stern demands. But now, by the grace of the loving Saviour, we have been able to keep the law and go much farther than the law prescribed, in the perfection of love, because Christ himself has come, has put sin to death in our hearts, and has brought forth charity within us.
It is only because we have Christ dwelling in us that we can now satisfy the demands of the law. But the way of our doing so is to fix our eyes not on the law, but on Christ. We must occupy our hearts not with the thought of arduous and cold obligations which we do not fully understand, but with the presence and love of the Holy Spirit who enkindles in us the love of good and shows us how to "do all things in the name of Jesus Christ." The Christian way of perfection is then in every sense a way of love, of gratitude, of trust in God. Nowhere do we depend on our own strength or our own light: our eyes are fixed on Christ who gives all light and strength through his body, the Church. Our hearts are attentive to his Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts and in the Church. The Lord himself then gives us power and guides us in a way that we do not understand, in proportion as we are united to him through charity, as living and active members of his body, the Church.
Our only concern is to be constantly and generously loyal to his Will as manifested especially in the community of the faithful. Our whole morality is to trust him even when we seem to be walking in the darkness of death, knowing that he is life and truth, and that where Jesus leads us there can be no error. The whole Christian way is summed up by St. Paul: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh. For the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus has delivered me from the law of sin and of death. For what was impossible to the Law in that it was weak because of the flesh, God has made good" (Romans 8:1-3).
Flesh and Spirit
The only thing the Apostle asks us is to "walk" (that is, to live) not according to "the flesh" but according to the "spirit." This means several things. The flesh is the generic term not for bodily life (since the body along with the soul is sanctified by the Holy Spirit) but for mundane life. The "flesh" includes not only sensuality and licentiousness, but even worldly conformism, and actions based on human respect or social preoccupation. We obey the "flesh" when we follow the norms of prejudice, complacency, bigotry, group-pride, superstition, ambition, or greed.
Hence even an apparent holiness, based not on sincerity of heart but on hypocritical display, is of the "flesh." Whatever may be the "inclination of the flesh," even when it seems to point to heroic and dazzling actions admired by men, it is always death in the sight of God. It is not directed to him but to men around us. It does not seek his glory, but our own satisfaction. The spirit, on the other hand, leads us in the ways of life and peace.
The laws of the spirit are laws of humility and love. The spirit speaks to us from a deep inner sanctuary of the soul which is inaccessible to the flesh. For the "flesh" is our external self, our false self. The "spirit" is our real self, our inmost being united to God in Christ. In this hidden sanctuary of our being the voice of our conscience is at the same time our own inner voice and the voice of the Holy Spirit. For when one becomes "spirit" in Christ, he is no longer himself alone. It is not only he who lives, but Christ lives in him, and the Holy Spirit guides and rules his life. Christian virtue is rooted in this inner unity in which our own self is one with Christ in the Spirit, our thoughts are able to be those of Christ and our desires to be his desires. Our whole Christian life is then a life of union with the Holy Spirit and fidelity to the divine will in the depths of our being. Therefore it is a life of truth, of utter spiritual sincerity, and by that token it implies heroic humility. For truth, like charity, must begin at home.
We must not only see ourselves as we are, in all our nothingness and insignificance; we must not only learn to love and appreciate our own emptiness, but we must accept completely the reality of our life as it is, because it is the very reality which Christ wills to take to himself, which he transforms and sanctifies in his own image and likeness. If we are able to understand the presence of evil within us, we will be calm and objective enough to deal with it patiently, trusting in the grace of Christ. This is what is meant by following the Holy Spirit, resisting the flesh, persevering in our good desires, denying the claims of our false exterior self, and thus giving the depths of our heart to the transforming action of Christ: "You are not carnal but spiritual if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. If Christ is in you, the body, it is true, is dead by reason of sin, but the spirit is life by reason of justification. But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus Christ from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also bring to life your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who dwells in you" (Romans 8:9-11).
Hence, when we are united to Christ by baptism, faith, and love, there may be many evil tendencies still at work in our body and psyche, "seeds and roots of death" remaining from our past life: but the Holy Spirit gives us grace to resist their growth, and our will to love and serve God in spite of these tendencies ratifies his life-giving action. Thus what he "sees" in us is not so much the evil that was ours but the good that is his - the risen Lord and Saviour fully glorified in our lives and in our community.