Thomas Merton on Christian love
In the foreword to his selection from the Verba Seniorum, The Wisdom of the Desert, (New Directions, 1970), Thomas Merton seeks to give an overview of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers. He discusses their humility, asceticism, solitude, and so forth, and when he turns to the subject of love, as understood and practiced by the Desert Fathers, Merton offers the following thoughts:
All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.
Love, of course, means something much more than mere sentiment, much more than token favors and perfunctory almsdeeds. Love means an interior and spiritual identification with one’s brother, so that he is not regarded as an “object” to “which” one “does good.” The fact is that good done to another as to an object is of little or no spiritual value. Love takes one’s neighbor as one’s other self, and loves him with all the immense humility and discretion and reserve and reverence without which no one can presume to enter into the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity. From such love all authoritarian brutality, all exploitation, domineering and condescension must necessarily be absent. The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which “the spiritual man” contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego. They had renounced everything that savored of punishment and revenge, however, hidden it might be.
The charity of the Desert Fathers is not set before us in unconvincing effusions. The full difficulty and magnitude of the task of loving others is recognized everywhere and never minimized. It is hard to really love others if love is to be taken in the full sense of the word. Love demands complete inner transformation – for without this we cannot possibly have come to identify ourselves with our brother. We have to become, in some sense, the person we love. And this involves a kind of death of our own being, our own self.
Love, for the Christian, is radical selflessness. I makes no conditions or demands. It is not instrumental. It does not objectify. It is never self-serving. It is the death of the self for the sake of the other. As such, it is a true reflection of Christ.
“Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”