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Seasons of Celebration

Seasons of Celebration

by Thomas Merton

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This work, originally inspired by the liturgical renewal brought on by Vatican II, contains Thomas Merton's meditations on the seasons of the liturgical year. He examines the words, songs, ceremonies, signs, and movements that are designed to open our hearts and minds.


This work, originally inspired by the liturgical renewal brought on by Vatican II, contains Thomas Merton's meditations on the seasons of the liturgical year. He examines the words, songs, ceremonies, signs, and movements that are designed to open our hearts and minds.

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Seasons of Celebration LITURGY AND SPIRITUAL PERSONALISM 1. The Personal Aspect of Liturgical Renewal

The Second Vatican Council, while recalling that the liturgical worship of the Church “accomplishes the work of our Redemption,” especially emphasizes the fact that the Liturgy is the chief means “whereby the faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” (Constitution on Liturgy, Introduction, n. 2.) For this reason the Council attaches very great importance to liturgical renewal, considering it to be essential to the frankly admitted aim of the Council: the reform of the entire Church by a renewal of Catholic life in all its depth and all its manifestations. This renewal is itself essential for another aim expressed by the Council “to promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” (Ibid., n. 1.)

The Constitution on Liturgy does not merely show the Church’s approval of what has already been done by the Liturgical Movement. It is the beginning of a broad and general Liturgical reform which, it is hoped, will accomplish the most striking and significant changes in every form of Catholic Worship. This is to be, and in fact already is, the greatest development in liturgy since the Patristic age and the most thorough reform in liturgy the Church has ever known.

This reform starts from a basic idea of the nature of Liturgy as public worship, as an activity of the Church carried out by Christ Himself in union with His Church. The very nature of this activity demands the “full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful.” Not only that, but the task of bringing every Catholic to participate actively in Liturgical Worship is one that takes priority over everything else since a liturgical reform imposed by means of constraint from above would lack all genuine significance. Indeed no such authoritarian reform is envisaged by the Council. On the contrary, the Constitution on Liturgy foresees that the great liturgical renewal is to be carried out by the faithful themselves—Bishops, clergy and also laity. Therefore “in the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”

The present essay is concerned with the meaning of liturgical renewal not only as participation in new modes of worship, but as the creative joint effort of all Catholics to attain a new understanding of worship itself.

Liturgy is not just the fulfilment of a natural duty. It is the celebration of our unity in the Redemptive Love and Mystery of Christ. It is the expression of the self-awareness of a redeemed people. If the people themselves are not aware of their status and of their nobility as sons of God in Christ, how can they convincingly affirm and exercise their full spiritual rights as citizens in the Kingdom of God?

To understand this we have to go back to the classic Greek concept of Liturgy.

Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity. Leitourgia was a “public work,” a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis. As such it was distinct from the economic activity or the private and more material concern of making a living and managing the productive enterprises of the “household.” Political life was the public and responsible domain of the free citizen—and was restricted to him alone.

Private life was properly the realm of those who were not considered to be fully “persons,” like women, children and slaves, whose appearance in public was without significance because they had no ability to participate in the life of the city. As far as public life was concerned, they did not exist. In the days of the Athenian republic, public activity was at the same time political and religious, since the life of the city-state was basically religious.

The earliest notion of liturgy does not rest on a distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” An example of “liturgy” in the Athenian democracy, would be the act of providing for the dithyrambic dance and procession, or the representation of the religious drama-cycle which developed out of the dithyramb. Note that here too, “art,” “culture,” and “religion” all coalesce in Leitourgia.

It is important, for our present purpose, to replace the term “liturgy” in its classical, hellenic context, where it is most clear and meaningful. Liturgical celebration in this ancient and original sense is a sacred and public action in which the community, at once religious and political, acknowledges its identity in worship.

This is essential for our theme, “Liturgy and spiritual personalism.” Unless we begin by returning to the root meaning of liturgy, we will be led astray by the repercussions and confusions of modern controversy. Indeed, the superficial opposition so often created between liturgical prayer and “personal” prayer—an opposition which has no basis in reality—makes all genuine understanding of either liturgy or meditation practically impossible: as if liturgy were thinkable without some meditation, and as if meditation did not presuppose and complement the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of our redemption.

Liturgical prayer is, or should be, eminently personal because it is public. To judge by polemical statements made on one side or the other one would almost imagine that there were thought to be two opposing ways of prayer and Christian fulfillment: the one exclusively public and corporate and the other exclusively private and individual. No wonder that the results are confusing! In the Christian city, every mature individual is a free citizen; no one is prevented by a servile condition from participating in the life on the polis, the Holy City, or better, the People of God. Each person, as a member of Christ, has a voice in the public worship of the Church, in that “leitourgia” which is the most exalted and most excellent of “public works” and which is at the same time the most perfect expression of the “economy” of that household which is the family not only of man but of the Heavenly Father. In this family none are slaves, all are “sons” and all have the privilege of free and spontaneous speech (parrhesia) in the Father’s Presence, either alone or in the company of the other children and heirs of the Creator.

Therefore in this essay we are not trying to settle the largely misleading dispute about “public” and “private” prayer. We are not concerned with it at all. Rather, we are concerned with liturgical worship as the action of fully developed Christian persons, free citizens of the Christian polis, which is the City and house of God, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Liturgy is an expression of their personality because in it they affirm their divine sonship and exercise their rights of citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem; the eschatalogical and redeemed community of those who are one in Love, freed from the bonds of sin and death.

2. Public Service

It is our contention that unless the liturgy is the activity of free and mature persons, intelligently participating together in the corporate cultus which expresses and constitutes their visible spiritual society, it cannot have a real spiritual meaning. That is to say, of course, that from the moment corporate worship ceases to be genuinely communal and becomes, instead merely collective—as soon as it ceases to be the collaboration of free persons, each offering his own irreplaceable contribution, and becomes the mechanical functioning of anonymous units, whose identity and individual contribution are of no special worth—then it loses its right to be called liturgy or Christian worship. It is no longer the public witness of free and responsible personalities—it has become a demonstration by mass-men, or slaves.

It is true that the Lord in the Gospel speaks of His faithful as “sheep,” but that does not entitle us to assume that the liturgy is merely the organized bleating of irrational animals herded together by constraint and trained by an ingenious discipline until they can carry out seemingly human actions which they are not capable of understanding.

On the other hand, liturgy in the full sense of the word cannot be merely the performance of a group of specialists in the presence of passive spectators. It is not merely theater. Liturgy demands the intelligent and active participation of all the mature members of the Assembly. The only spectators and “listeners” are the catechumens or public sinners who join in the liturgy of the word, the foremass, in which presumably all participate by listening and responding, each according to his ability. After this, the catechumens originally left the Assembly, though today they remain as “spectators.” But this does not mean that the faithful are mere spectators like the catechumens. They have work to do. They are free citizens, and they have something very important to say in what is going on. They have responded to a divine summons. They are in a broad sense “celebrating,” together with the officially deputed ministers, the mystery which expresses the unity and the solidarity of all the members of the One Christ. They participate in the eucharistic sacrifice by sacramental communion, and by all the rites and symbolic actions which manifest their grasp of the meaning of what they do, thus bearing witness to their faith and charity. They vocally express their presence and active consent by responses and chants. They bring their gifts to the altar. They join together in the sacred meal in which Christ gives them His Body and Blood to unite them in His love. This is their active share in the mystery.

From the very first moment in which a man becomes a Christian and begins to express himself as a vocal and active member of the Body of Christ, the liturgy reminds him of his personal and we might say “political” responsibility in the City of God. The Church is the Assembly of those who have been called together by God. As the catechumen approaches the font, the liturgy asks him his name, and demands that he declare freely and personally what he seeks from the Church. On the threshold of his new life, the catechumen delcares that he, as an individual, has responded to the personal vocation, the call of Christ to enter into the Christian polis and to labor together with the other members of the Church to establish the reign of Christ’s holiness, of the Holy Spirit, upon the earth, and to strive to bring all other men together with himself into eternal life.

Every liturgical act implies a renewed awakening of this basic Christian consciousness, and a fresh acceptance of this primal and personal responsibility. The Eucharist, the fulness of the Christian life and the center of Christian liturgy, is the great communal act by which the mystery of salvation is celebrated by the Church, and by her members, personally, together with her. It is the mystery in which Christ Himself, invisibly present in the midst of His faithful, spontaneously assisted by their free and sanctified love, and acclaimed by their unanimous consent, accomplishes His work of Redemption, announcing the full establishment of His Kingdom and sharing with all the fruits of salvation. The Second Vatican Council has stated this in the following terms:

The Liturgy through which the work of our redemption is accomplished . . . is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the true nature of the Church.

(Constitution on Liturgy,
Introduction, n. 2)

The Council especially emphasizes the presence of Christ in the assembly of the faithful called together by Him to celebrate with Him the liturgical mysteries:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations;

Christ always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified;

In the Liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.

(Idem., Chapter I, n. 7)

Hence it is altogether insufficient to treat the liturgy merely as the corporate expression of “subjection” which man as a social being owes to God as his Creator. Although correct, this is far too abstract an expression of the liturgical mystery. It is incomplete first of all in reducing liturgical worship to an ethical concept. It also leads to the misconception that liturgy is worship carried out by “society,” by “the group” as opposed to the individuals who compose the group. Hence the confusing deduction that the individual’s chief function is to lose himself, to submerge himself, to divest himself of every trace of individuality and personality in order to vanish into the group, so that in this way the collectivity may more perfectly express its subjection to God. The individual subjects himself to the group by prostrating himself and vanishing from sight, and the group prostrates itself before God. In this way society as such, in the abstract, pays a debt due in justice to God.

According to this conception, the Christian life is primarily one of servitude. But we must remember that according to our classical analogy of leitourgia, liturgy and servitude are mutually exclusive. A slave cannot offer public service because he is not free or responsible and has no way of making his entry into the public realm. He is a non-person. And liturgy is by no means a parade or demonstration of non-persons! To say that liturgy gives glory to God by the abject submission of slaves is, as a matter of fact, to misunderstand the real Biblical notion of the glory of God.

The glory of God is the effulgence of His own presence manifested in mystery, and men “give Him glory” by the sacred awe and the spontaneous exultation, with which they recognize and acclaim His presence in fear, trembling and holy joy. It is the freedom of man and his free submission to God in love that “give glory to God.” What glorifies God, in man’s submission to God, is not the fact of submission alone, but the far deeper truth that by submitting to God man gains his freedom. By “renouncing” his private and “economic” self for love of God man finds his true self. This is one of the characteristic experiences of Liturgical worship which purifies and ennobles those who participate in the objectivity and sacredness of the common celebration, even where this may mean a certain sacrifice of intimacy and subjective warmth. Actually, the loss is only apparent. The growth of freedom in divine service brings with it a more mature fervor and deeper capacity for the inner awareness of God’s love, manifested to the worshipping community in the sacred mysteries.

In the sacred liturgy, therefore, the faithful act not as mere spectators, as inert and passive figures, or as servants and slaves. The liturgy everywhere implies awareness that we are the friends and collaborators with Christ in His great work of Redeeming and sanctifying the entire cosmos. The Lord Himself sets great store by this awareness and He has explicitly affirmed His desire for it. “I do not speak of you any more as my servants; a servant is one who does not understand what his master is about, whereas I have made known to you all that my Father has told me; and so I have called you my friends. It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you. The task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure; so that every request you make of the Father in my name may be granted you. These are the directions I give you, that you should love one another.” (John 15:15–17, Knox Version.)

3. A Royal Priesthood

Hence we can easily understand the words of St Peter to the laity, the laos, the people of God, the citizens of the Holy City: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God means to have for Himself; it is yours to proclaim the exploits of the God who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Time was when you were not a people at all, now you are God’s people; once you were unpitied, now pity is yours.” (I Peter 2:9–10.)

Here we have one of the innumerable texts of the New Testament which gives us in a few words the whole politeia of the Christian person in the City of God. His personal dignity, his freedom, his citizenship in the holy people, are the gift of God. His citizenship has been received by a personal response to a personal calling. The “political activity” of the holy People, which is centered mainly in the liturgy, consists in “proclaiming the exploits” of the God of mercy, the Redeemer and sanctifier of man and in sharing, by love and sacrifice, in His work of Redemption. The highest personal and spiritual dignity of the Christian is his participation by baptism in the priesthood and sonship of Christ: this of course surpassed by the even greater dignity of sacramental ordination in which certain Christians are anointed and signed with the priestly character to consecrate the sacrificial offering in the name and Person of Christ. But this does not mean that they are to carry out the liturgy alone and unaided, with the people present only as mute and passive spectators. On the contrary, it is upon all that the obligation falls to proclaim the great works of God, the magnalia Dei, since all alike, without distinction, have been called out of darkness into His admirable light.

The distinction between priest and people which is so evident in the sacramental liturgy is less emphatic in the liturgy of the Word, and for that reason it is very much to be desired that all the faithful once again fulfill active roles which have for centuries been restricted in various ways. All can participate in singing and some may read the sacred texts to the others. The Council states that the layman should have an “office to perform” in the liturgical celebration. (Chapter I, nn. 28, 29, 30.) In fact the Council encourages Bible services to be conducted by deacons or by lay-people approved by the Bishop, not only on vigils or on weekdays in Advent and Lent, but also on Sundays, especially where no priest is available for Mass. These Bible services are liturgical celebrations, not mere para-liturgical devotions (see Chapter I, n. 35). Note that laymen will play an active part in the Institutes of Pastoral Liturgy which the Council foresees as an important element in the work of liturgical reform. (Chapter I, n. 44.)

Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly affirm that freedom is the characteristic of the member of the People of God. As a matter of fact, this People first came into existence when the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and called out into the desert to be educated in freedom, to learn how to live with no other Master but God Himself. The crossing of the Red Sea was, however, only a prophetic type of the final freedom that was to be conferred upon those who shared in the pascha Christi, the “passover” in which Christ “crossed over” from death to life and from this world to the Father.

Just as in a civic holiday a political community renews its awareness of its own identity, affirming its character by recalling and celebrating its origin and its special achievements, so in Liturgy the members of the supernatural politeia, the citizens of the City of God and members of the Body of Christ, affirm their character by proclaiming their faith in the acts by which God, entering into history created for Himself a holy people.

The difference between a civic and liturgical celebration is that the latter is concerned with a radically different aspect of history—a totally different kind of event. Liturgy is centered on a divine event in human history, the entrance of a saving and transforming power into the life and the affairs of men. As St Gregory Nazianzen says: “We celebrate not our sickness but our cure.” (Oratio 38.)

The liturgy is precisely the public act by which the whole Church reenacts the Christian pasch, the passage from death to life in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. In so doing, the faithful Assembly, and each individual member of the Assembly, recognizes the permanent, undying efficacy of the great salvific act of the Redeemer, which is the guarantee of each Christian’s individual spiritual freedom, and at the same time constitutes the People of God. We must remember that the liturgy does much more than merely commemorate the sacred redemptive mystery. On the contrary, it is the privilege of each member of the sacred Assembly to co-operate with the Church and with God Himself, in some manner, in the celebration of the sacred mystery. Hence active participation in the liturgy means not only an intelligent following of what is done by the sacred ministers, but far more than that—a spiritual co-operation in the very work of God Himself as the Head and Ruler of the Holy City. In the words of Pope Pius XII:

Marvelous though it appear, Christ requires His members. . . . In carrying out the work of Redemption, Christ wishes to be helped by the members of His Body. This is not because He is indigent and weak but rather because He so willed it for the greater glory of His unspotted Spouse. Dying on the Cross He left to His Church the immense treasury of the Redemption; toward this she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this task of sanctification with His Church but He wants it in a way to be due to her action.

(Myslici Corporis)

It is of course to be clearly understood that man’s co-operation with God in the divine mysteries takes place on very different levels. We all “work with” God as members of Christ, but there are different degrees in which we share in the priesthood of Christ. The baptized faithful offer the holy sacrifice in union with the ordained priest, but in a different sense. He offers it by virtue of his priestly power, as a mediator and representative of Christ. They offer it by uniting their prayers and desires with His. In the words of Innocent III, quoted by Pius XII in Mediator Dei,“What the priest does personally by virtue of his ministry, the faithful do collectively by virtue of their intention.” Hence the laity are not priests in the strict sense of the word. But it is clear from the Vatican Council and the great modern encyclicals that liturgical activity of the faithful, their participation in the sacred mysteries, is by no means supposed to be passive, inarticulate, a mere matter of “receiving” grace. On the contrary, they offer sacrifice, and in this offering the Covenant between God and His people is renewed. This is the highest expression of the Church’s communal life as well as of the Christian’s personal dedication. Indeed the Catholic believes this to be the most significant and indeed the most sublime act possible to man, for it is the expression of that love in which God draws man to Himself in order to share with him a life and light that infinitely transcend man’s nature. But the renewal of the covenant in the Eucharistic sacrifice demands the free and intelligent co-operation of all the people of God.

The Second Vatican Council has emphatically rejected the mentality that has been characterized half-humorously by the word “validism.” This is a view of liturgy which concentrates on the exact fulfillment of rubrical prescriptions by the priest, in order that certain guaranteed effects may be produced in the faithful ex opere operato. This requires nothing more than minimal dispositions in the faithful, amounting to their physical presence and the essentials of good will. The Council says:

Pastors of souls must therefore realize that when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by its effects.

(Chapter I, n. 11)

Hence, as the Council makes clear (Chapter I, n. 14.), the very nature of the Liturgy demands “the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful.” This teaching had already been brought out sixteen years before by Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei:

It is desirable that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day dreaming but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest according to the Apostle: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’ And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.

(Mediator Dei)

For all the members of the sacred Assembly, mature participation in the liturgical worship of the Church implies a high level of spiritual freedom, responsibility, understanding and even wisdom. This is true of all the faithful. It may be an ideal that sometimes falls far short of realization. But certainly in the priest himself, trained and consecrated for the sacred ministry, we must expect to find that depth of understanding, that fully developed spiritual personality, that maturity in the liturgical life which implies a deep and humble awareness of his mission and of the fact that he is not only a “person” in his own right but “another Christ,” appointed to represent the Risen Savior and to “act in the person of Christ.” Surely the priesthood demands a high degree of Christian personalism. Such personalism is more than professional poise, or official competence. It implies holiness of life, profound humility, and a selflessness which leaves the priest capable of faithful and enlightened obedience to the Holy Spirit.

If the priest is, in this highest and most perfect sense, a Christian “person,” then there is more chance that the liturgy over which he presides and in which he officiates will be carried out in a similar spirit of personal and enlightened participation by the faithful. This is not merely a matter of liturgical “zeal” or of enthusiastic promotion of ceremonies. We must be on our guard against a kind of blind and immature zeal—the zeal of the enthusiast or of the zealot—which represents precisely a frantic compensation for the deeply personal qualities which are lacking to us. The zealot is a man who “loses himself” in his cause in such a way that he can no longer “find himself” at all. Yet paradoxically this “loss” of himself is not the salutary self-forgetfulness commanded by Christ. It is rather an immersion in his own wilfulness conceived as the will of an abstract, non-personal force: the force of a project or a program. He is, in other words, alienated by the violence of his own enthusiasm: and by that very violence he tends to produce the same kind of alienation in others. This type of zeal does great harm to the liturgy. It tends to offend the good sense and taste of those who seek in liturgical worship much more than a “cause” or a “program.” They seek their full dignity as free participants in a sacred, public act directed to God alone—seeking His glory and not the glory and satisfaction of men.

Certainly the strong emphasis of the Vatican Council on liturgical reform will lend a new perspective to this zeal for new directions in worship. It is no longer a question of a “liturgical movement” in the sense of a “cause” espoused by an enlightened minority, and in which general interest remains optional. The Council has declared that liturgical reform is essential to the reform of the Church itself, and that the active participation of all the faithful in the Liturgy is essential to liturgical reform.

This brings out what we have said about the “political” character of liturgical participation, with the word “political” being used in a special sense—the activity of concerned citizens of the city (or polis) of the Church.

The faithful Christian who participates actively in liturgical reform is in fact playing a very important and active part in the public or “political” life of the Church. He is offering his personal contribution to the great work of Christian renewal undertaken by the Council.

In one word, to participate intelligently in liturgical worship is now to participate actively in the reform of the whole Church.

4. True and False Personalism

If individualism and subjectivism are so widely suspect among us, there is perhaps a very good reason for it. We live in a climate of individualism. But our individualism is in decay. Our tradition of freedom which, as a matter of fact, is rooted in a deeply Christian soil, and which in itself is worthy of the highest respect and loyalty, has begun to lose its genuine vitality. It is becoming more and more a verbal convention rather than a spiritual conviction. The tendency to substitute words about freedom for the reality of freedom itself has brought us to a state of ambivalent spiritual servitude. The noise with which we protest our love of freedom tends to be proportionate to our actual fear of genuine freedom, and our guilt at our unconscious refusal to pay the price of freedom. The agitated and querulous license with which we abandon ourselves to our own fantasies is a purely subjective and fallacious excuse for freedom.

The illusory character of the freedom which we have tried to find in moral and psychological irresponsibility, has become inescapable. Our abdication of responsibility is at the same time an abdication of liberty. The resolution to let “someone else,” the anonymous forces of society, assume responsibility for everything means that we abdicate from public responsibility, from mature concern, and even from spiritual life. We retire from the public realm of freedom into the private world of necessity, imagining that the escape from responsibility is an escape into freedom. On the contrary, it is, in Erich Fromm’s words, an “escape from freedom.” But when we turn over the running of our lives to anonymous forces, to “them” (whoever “they” may be, and nobody quite knows), what actually happens is that we fall under the tyranny of collective fantasies and delusions. There is no more tyrannical dictator than convention, fashion, and prejudice.

We are beginning to understand that we live in a climate of all-embracing conformities. We have become mass-produced automatons. Our lives, our homes, our cities, our thoughts, or perhaps our lack of thoughts, have all taken on an impersonal mask of resigned and monotonous sameness. We who once made such a cult of originality, experiment, personal commitment and individual creativity, now find ourselves among the least individual, the least original and the least personal of all the people on the face of the earth—not excluding the Russians. In this desperate situation, the ideal of individuality has not been laid aside. Rather it has taken on the features of an obsessive cult. People “express themselves” in ways that grow more and more frantic in proportion as they realize that the individuality and the distinctive difference they are attempting to express no longer exist. To adapt the old French proverb, the more we try to express our difference by “originality,” the more we show that we are the same: plus ça change, plus c’est la mème chose. There is nothing so monotonously unoriginal as the capricious eccentricities of atoms in a mass-society.

What is the real root of personality in a man? It is obviously that which is irreplaceable, genuinely unique, on the deepest spiritual level. Personalism is the discovery, the respect, but not the cult, for this deep reality. Secular personalism is a kind of craze for individuality, a rage for self-manifestation in which the highest value is sought in the recognition by others of one’s own uniqueness.

But the great paradox of Christian personalism is this: it consists in something more than bringing to light the unique and irreplaceable element in the individual Christian.

On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secret of our being become manifest or public to all. We do not even have to see it clearly ourselves! We are more truly “Christian persons” when our inmost secret remains a mystery shared by ourselves and God, and communicated to others in a way that is at the same time secret and public.

In other words, Christian personalism does not root out the inner secret of the individual in order to put it on display in a spiritual beauty-contest. On the contrary, our growing awareness of our own personality enables us at the same time to divine and to respect the inner secret of our neighbor, our brother in Christ.

Christian personalism is, then, the sacramental sharing of the inner secret of personality in the mystery of love. This sharing demands full respect for the mystery of the person, whether it be our own person, or the person of our neighbor, or the infinite secret of God. In fact, Christian personalism is the discovery of one’s own inmost self, and of the inmost self of one’s neighbor, in the mystery of Christ: a discovery that respects the hiddenness and incommunicability of each one’s personal secret, while paying tribute to his presence in the common celebration.

Now it is precisely in the liturgy, the public prayer of the Christian Assembly, that the Christian best discovers the secret of his own inviolable solitude, and learns to respect the solitude of his brother while at the same time sharing it. This is not possible without the public celebration of the mysteries: public of course to the faithful assembly, though not necessarily to the uninitiated.

The Christian person finds himself and his brother in the communal celebration of the mystery of Christ. But what is manifested, proclaimed, celebrated and consummated in the liturgy is not my personality or your personality: it is the personality of Christ the Lord who, when two or three of us are gathered together in His Name, is present in the midst of us. This presence of Christ in the liturgical celebration leads to our discovery and declaration of our own secret and spiritual self.

But let us above all remember and admire the discretion, the sobriety and the modesty with which the liturgy protects this personal witness of the individual Christian. In the celebration of the liturgy, each one of us should give his personal and unique response to the call of God, the word addressed to him by the Lord in and through the Church. Yet this witness of our own inmost self, given publicly with complete honesty and sincerity, nevertheless remains “secret.” Our spiritual modesty is protected by the reserve, the universality and in some sense the objective “impersonality” of the liturgical action.

Far from displaying a “characteristic difference,” far from “standing out” as “unusual” by reason of our gifts, our style, and our “personality” in the popular sense of the word, we approach the sacraments with disciplined reserve. We sing alike, we pray alike, we adopt the same attitudes. Yet oddly enough this “sameness” does not wound our individuality; certainly it does nothing to diminish our fervor. On the contrary, it is the providential guarantee of a chaste, spiritual enthusiasm which is all the more pure because it does not have to display itself, or even be aware of itself at all!

The liturgy, then, is public: but not in the sense that a market place is public. Our singing, our attitudes, our personal testimony, are not put on display as it were for sale, for their market value. We are not trading our inmost secret for anything: for approval, for consolation, for ambition’s sake, for self-gratification.

“What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” That sentence is the very heart of Christian personalism. Our soul is irreplaceable, it can be exchanged for nothing in heaven or on earth, but until we have heard Christ speak, until we have received His call from the midst of the Christian Assembly (every vocation to the faith comes at least implicitly through the Church) and until we have given to Him that secret and unique answer which no one can pronounce in our place, until we have thus found ourselves in Him, we cannot fully realize what it means to be a “person” in the deepest sense of the word.

Until we have found Christ and entered into the true spirit of the liturgy there will always be the temptation to “sell our soul.” There will always be a depraved urge, excited by the contagiousness of secular mendacity, to pry into our inmost secret, to put our superficial self on display, inviting others to manifest what is unique in us by offering to “buy” it.

Secular personalism is therefore at the same time degrading and frustrating. It cheapens and betrays our soul by putting it on sale. It does so by its impertinent confusion of the public and private realms. It mistakes the “private” for the “irreplaceable” and invades the region in which we are weakest and most trivial in order to put our nonentity on display, to make it “public.” At the same time it supposes that anyone who is tough enough to stand up under this violation is a genuine “person.” This is our modern form of idolatry—a religion not fit for free men, because it enslaves.

In conclusion, it is precisely because it is public in the classical or “political” sense of the word, that the liturgy enables us to discover and to express the deepest meaning of Christian personalism. We must first emerge from the private realm, the “household” which is the realm of necessity and the proper domain of children and slaves who have not yet a mind of their own and who are therefore completely absorbed in their own bodily and emotional needs. We must be able to put aside the “economic” concern with our superficial selves, and emerge into the open light of the Christian polis where each one lives not for himself but for others, taking upon himself the responsibility for the whole. Of course no one assumes this responsibility merely in obedience to arbitrary whim or to the delusion that he is of himself capable of taking the troubles of the whole Assembly on his own shoulders. But he emerges “in Christ,” to share the labor and worship of the whole Christ, and in order to do this he must sacrifice his own superficial and private self. The paradoxical fruit of this sacrifice of his trivial and “selfish” (or simply immature) self is that he is then enabled to discover his deep self, in Christ.

This discovery suggests a further step, which goes beyond the limits of liturgy in the strict sense of the word. The public life and worship of the Church are not yet all. There is contemplation, which is neither liturgy nor privacy, because it transcends them both.

The liturgy, as such, may lead to contemplation; but it is not yet contemplation, and those who proclaim that “the liturgy is the highest form of Christian contemplation” are in error. Or at least they should take the trouble to make a few distinctions that will clarify their meaning.

The liturgy is, as the Fathers taught, a work of the active life. It prepares us for contemplation, which is the final perfection of Christian personalism since it is the intimate realization of one’s perfect union with Christ “in one Spirit.” The highest paradox of Christian personalism is for an individual to be “found in Christ Jesus” and thus “lost” to all that can be regarded, in a mundane way, as his “self.” This means to be at the same time one’s self and Christ. But this is not to be ascribed solely to personal initiative, “private prayer” or individual effort. Contemplation is a gift of God, given in and through His Church, and through the prayer of the Church. St Anthony was led into the desert not by a private voice but by the word of God, proclaimed in the Church of his Egyptian village in the chanting of the Gospel in Coptic—a classic example of liturgy opening the way to a life of contemplation! But the liturgy cannot fulfill this function if we misunderstand or underestimate the essentially spiritual value of Christian public prayer. If we cling to immature and limited notions of “privacy” we will never be able to free ourselves from the bonds of individualism. We will never realize how the Church delivers us from ourselves by public worship, the very public character of which tends to hide us “in the secret of God’s Face.”


 Copyright © 1950, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965 by the Abbey of Gethsemani
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Meet the Author

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century. Though he lived a mostly solitary existence as a Trappist monk, he had a dynamic impact on world affairs through his writing. An outspoken proponent of the antiwar and civil rights movements, he was both hailed as a prophet and castigated for his social criticism. He was also unique among religious leaders in his embrace of Eastern mysticism, positing it as complementary to the Western sacred tradition. Merton is the author of over forty books of poetry, essays, and religious writing, including Mystics and Zen Masters, and The Seven Story Mountain, for which he is best known. His work continues to be widely read to this day.

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