Category Archives: Philosophical

The New Man

The New Man

by Thomas Merton (1961)

This is the least informal writing I have yet seen from Merton. And the most philosophical. Neither trait hurts the book, but I did find myself taking longer than usual to decide whether I would finish the book. Then about a third of the way through I began to start realizing that this could be one of his strongest works ever.

The topic is about Adam vs. the New Adam, Christ. And the Fall. And Baptism. It does not sound all that original, as St. Paul covers this quite well in his epistles. But in his usual fashion, Merton finds something new to say, and a way of saying it that holds the reader’s interest.

Let’s supply some excerpts to demonstrate the point. From the chapter “Life in Christ”:

Everything that has the power to make us real, to bring us to the fulfilment of our destiny, to perfect happiness, and peace with ourselves and one another, is contained in God’s will for us: first His will as implanted in our very nature, and then His will as supernaturally revealed. To want to know something besides this one great good, to desire to add the knowledge of evil to the knowledge of good by turning away from God, is to turn away from life itself and from reality. We die the death.

(pg. 185)

And again from the same chapter:

[T]he patience of the charitable man [is not] merely a hidden weapon by which he shames and defeats his enemies. It is the strength which knows the difference between good and evil, and which knows how to overcome evil with good. Without this strength, this alchemy which silently and inexorably destroys evil, the passive aspects of Christian charity would have no reason for existence. They are never really negative. They are the negation of evil, and evil is a negation. Hence even the passive elements in charity are positive, constructive forces. Very often they are more constructive than the more obvious and affirmative acts of the charitable man.

(pp. 191-192)

So as not to spoil it for you, I will omit the part where Merton gives the best explanation I have ever seen as to why Adam (and we along with him) lost his immortality.


The Science of the Cross

The Science of the Cross

by Edith Stein (1983; original delayed publication in 1950; written 1942)

Edith Stein (a.k.a. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote this shortly before she was taken to her death by the Nazis. She was a brilliant philosopher before she converted from atheism to Catholicism almost overnight, when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila while staying at a friend’s home one night. The keen intellect of this Carmelite nun is on display in this work, which is no easy read, but not impossible. She takes the reader through the writings of John of the Cross, quoting him liberally, but doing it in an organized sequence, elucidating much that would escape the casual uninitiated reader of St. John.

Here is a substantial excerpt from Chapter 6, “Purgation through Hope”:

The perfect purgation of the soul is received passively from God. All the soul has to do is prepare herself to receive it: whatever the senses present “must not be stored in the memory…but she must leave them immediately and forget them, and put as much effort into this as one would to remember other things. No image of remembrance should remain in the memory, as though these things  had never existed. The memory should be left completely free and unhindered, and one must not seek to engage it in any meditation on heavenly or terrestrial things. . . . One should leave . . . these things and remain forgetful of them, counting them but a hindrance on the way.”

A spiritual person, on the contrary, who “still wishes to make use of natural knowledge and discursive reflection of the memory in the journey to God” will experience three kinds of harm. She will suffer from manifold miseries concerning things of the world, “for instance, falsehoods, imperfections, appetites, inclinations to criticize, waste of time, etc. . . . ” If one allows the memory to occupy itself with what has been perceived through the senses, one falls “into imperfections step by step. For some emotion will cling to these sensory objects, now of sorrow and fear, soon of hate and vain hopes of vainglory, which will remain in the soul. . . . all things that hinder the perfect purity of the soul and perfect union with God. . . . These imperfections are better overcome all at once through complete denial of the memory.” It is best “to learn to silence and quiet the faculties of the soul so that God may speak to her.” Then “a river of peace will descend on her . . . and . . . in this peace, God will remove all the misgivings, suspicions, disturbances, and darknesses which awakened in her the fear that she is already lost or is near to being lost.”

Further harm comes from the intervention of the devil. He “can add to the soul’s knowledge new impressions, ideas, and reasonings, and by means of them move her to pride, avarice, anger, envy, and so on, and thus seduce her to unjust hatred and vain love . . . By far, most of the great delusions and evils that the devil causes in the soul spring from the knowledge and thought processes of the memory. When therefore, this faculty is shrouded in the complete darkness of forgetfulness and its activity is halted, the gates remain locked against the diabolical influence . . . and this leads to great blessings for the soul.”

The third kind of harm to the soul consists in this: the natural content of the memory can be “an impediment to moral good and deprive one of spiritual good.” The moral good “consists in bridling the passions and curbing the inordinate appetites, and then in the soul’s resulting tranquility and peace, as well as in the moral virtues engendered in her.”

All confusion and disturbance in the soul is caused by the contents of the memory. The soul that lives in restlessness, and that gets no support from moral good, is “incapable of receiving any spiritual good, for the spiritual good can abide only in an even-tempered and peaceful soul.” Should the soul value the contents of the memory and turn to them, “it is impossible for her to be free to receive the Incomprehensible, Who is God.” If she wishes to go to God, she must “replace the mutable and comprehensible by the Immutable and Incomprehensible.”

Then in place of the harm so far described, the soul will gain the opposite advantages: rest and peace of spirit, purity of conscience and of soul, and therewith the best preparation “for the reception of human and divine wisdom and virtues.” She is preserved from many suggestions, temptations, and disturbances caused by the evil enemy, for whom those thoughts provided a handhold. The soul becomes receptive for the motivation by and inspirations of the Holy Spirit.”

– pp. 82-84

(NOTE: The soul is referred to in the feminine pronouns, but only in the same way that ships are, not because the author is female–in fact, most of these references are from John of the Cross–but only because all creatures, and indeed creation itself, are seen as feminine in relation to the Creator.)

If you are interested in a well done movie on the the life of Edith Stein, The Seventh Chamber, starring Maia Morgenstern (who played the mother of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), is a worthwhile film. It is in Italian with English subtitles.

Back to Virtue

Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion

by Peter Kreeft (1992; originally as For Heaven’s Sake , 1986)

Dr. Kreeft (pronounced “crayft”) is a Boston College philosophy professor and C. S. Lewis enthusiast/scholar. And he is one heck of a writer. He has a talent for clearing up a confusion the reader was not aware they even had, until he cleared it up for them. That is quite an achievement. It takes somebody of both talent and advanced education to accomplish that, without making the reader feel inferior or without introducing yet another confusion in the process.

The strongest part of the book is the latter half where he pits the Seven Deadly Sins against the Beatitudes in a match-up whose outcome is clearly never in doubt, but also never lacking in interest to the reader.

Here are a couple excerpts from Chapter Seven, “Poor in Spirit vs. Proud in Heart”:

Pride is not the same as vanity. In fact vanity, though it is a sin, shows some humility. For if I think I need your admiration, then I do not feel wholly independent of you, above you. The truly proud person couldn’t care less of what others think of him.

– pp. 99-100

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis says that God appears to us like an uncle to a slum child playing with mudpies in the street, offering us a vacation at the seaside, but we stick to our mudpies. We are too easily content. Poverty of spirit is not mediocrity and cheap contentment; it is exactly the opposite; it is detachment from the mudpies for love of the sea. The Buddhist and the Stoic and the “peace of mind addict” teach detachment for the sake of tranquility or nirvana, but the Christian wants to be unclothed with the world and the goods of the body and the body itself only to be reclothed with Heaven and the resurrection body. Christ opposes selfish desire only to replace it with unselfish desire, not with emptiness. We are to be spiritually poor only for the sake of becoming spiritually rich, detached from what we can own so that we can be attached in a different way to what we cannot own, detached from consuming so that we can be consumed by God.

– pg. 106