Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Church Sanctifies Her Members

Thomas Merton is not very fashionable today, partly because of the current theological polarization by which we are all impacted. It would be a pity, however, for his insights to slip out of sight. So, in the next few days I will be sharing some powerful passages from his book, LIFE AND HOLINESS. (It is available online HERE.)


Perfection is not a moral embellishment which we acquire outside of Christ, in order to qualify for union with him. Perfection is the work of Christ himself living in us by faith. Perfection is the full life of charity perfected by the gifts of the Holy Ghost. In order that we may attain to Christian perfection, Jesus has left us his teachings, the sacraments of the Church, and all the counsels by which he shows us the way to live more perfectly in him and for him. For those with a special call to perfection, there is the religious state with its vows. Under the direction of the Church herself, we seek to correspond generously with the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Inwardly guided by the Spirit of Christ, outwardly protected and formed by the visible Church with her hierarchy, her laws, teaching, sacraments, and liturgy, we grow together into One Christ.

We must not regard the Church purely as an institution or an organization. She is certainly visible and clearly recognizable in her teachings, her government, and her worship. These are the external lineaments through which we may see the interior radiance of her soul. This soul is not merely human, it is divine. It is the Holy Spirit itself. The Church, like Christ, lives and acts in a manner at once human and divine. Certainly there is imperfection in the human members of Christ, but their imperfection is inseparably united to his perfection, sustained by his power, and purified by his holiness, as long as they remain in living union with him by faith and love. Through these members of his the Almighty Redeemer infallibly sanctifies, guides, and instructs us, and he uses us also to express his love for them. Hence the true nature of the Church is that of a body in which all the members "bear one another's burdens" and act as instruments of divine providence in regard to one another. Those are most sanctified who enter most fully into the life-giving Communion of Saints who dwell in Christ. Their joy is to taste the pure streams of that river of life whose waters gladden the whole City of God.

Our perfection is therefore not just an individual affair, it is also a question of growth in Christ, deepening of our contact with him in and through the Church, consequently a deepening of our participation in the life of the Church, the mystical Christ. This means, of course, a closer union with our brethren in Christ, a closer and more fruitful integration with them in the living, growing spiritual organism of the Mystical Body.

This does not mean that spiritual perfection is a matter of social conformism. The mere fact of becoming a well working cog in an efficient religious machine will never make anyone into a saint if he does not seek God interiorly in the sanctuary of his own soul. For example, the common life of religious, regulated by traditional observances and blessed by the authority of the Church, is obviously a most precious means of sanctification. It is, for the religious, one of the essentials of his state. But it is still only a framework. As such, it has its purpose. It must be used. But the scaffolding must not be mistaken for the actual building. The real building of the Church is a union of hearts in love, sacrifice, and self-transcendence. The strength of this building depends on the extent to which the Holy Spirit gains possession of each person's heart, not on the extent to which our exterior conduct is organized and disciplined by an expedient system. Human social life inevitably requires a certain order, and those who love their brother in Christ will generously sacrifice themselves to preserve this order. But the order is not an end in itself and mere orderliness is not yet sancity.


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