Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton

My late friend and spiritual mentor, John Therkelson, gave me a copy of Thomas Merton’s Life and Holiness as a Christmas gift in 1993. Like almost all the books John recommended, Life and Holiness left a lasting impression on me.

Recently, as part of my daily devotional, I re-read Life and Holiness, each day reading one of the 24 short essays it contains. As I worked my way back through this book, it occurred to me that many of my friends and family may not be familiar with Thomas Merton. Or maybe you are familiar with Merton but have shied away from his writings because you consider them too mystical or contemplative or maybe just too “Catholic.”

If you find yourself in one of these groups, I would highly recommend you consider reading Life and Holiness. You can purchase the book for $7.95 on Amazon. To make your journey through the book a little more interesting, I invite you to read along with me over the next few weeks. Every week or so, I’ll post a review of one of the book’s five sections. To get you started, I’ll provide a brief introduction to the book in this post.


Life and Holiness is much more practical than many of Merton’s books. It concerns itself with the nuts and bolts of living “actively” as a Christian in the modern world. And Merton’s intended audience for this short work is the “non-religious” (a Catholic term meaning those who are not priests, nuns or monks; the equivalent Protestant term would be “laity”).

The overriding challenge put forth by Merton in this book is for modern Christians to resist the tendency to be “normal” Christians or, said another way, to be “nominal” Christians. Instead, Merton invites us to allow our faith to thoroughly affect our day-to-day activity. He maintains that our faith should not simply be one of many variables that we take into account when making decisions. Instead, our faith should be the fundamental driver of our all our behavior and activity. As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, faith “means holiness of heart and life” (emphasis mine). True faith finds its expression in the “mundane” activities that constitute our day-to-day lives.

In the Introduction to Life and Holiness, Merton points out that the active life has as its source and its power, the Christian life’s “most common and most mysterious aspect: grace.” He goes on to provide a beautiful definition of grace. Grace is

“the power and light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.”

Merton notes that it is in response to, and through the power of grace that we “act in the world as [God’s] instruments.” The energy that we rely on is not derived from our own will power, but rather from the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit working through us. In this way we are empowered to join God in realizing his intentions for the human race.

White Dove in Flight
White Dove (see attribution and links below)

I find it helpful to view our Christian life as joining God in the work that he is already doing around us. In reality, we are never the initiators of God’s activity in the world. Wherever we go, we can be assured that God is already there and is at work.  We simply need to make ourselves available to join Him. God will then gently and lovingly set us to work in a way that makes use of our unique abilities and gifts. In this way, we become active participants in God’s work in this world. This is Christian holiness. As Merton states in the introduction:

Christian holiness in our age means more than ever the awareness of our common responsibility to cooperate with the mysterious designs of God for the human race.”

But what about our work, our occupation, how we make a living? How is that work related to or connected with the work of God? Merton warns us that it is a dangerous thing to section our lives off based on the spiritual and non-spiritual. Our work (here meaning employment), if it is healthy, can contribute positively to the spiritual life and lead to holiness. However, unhealthy work can be spiritually harmful. This is a topic Merton returns to later in the book.

Now, perhaps more than ever in my lifetime, it seems our culture is in need of women and men who walk in holiness and love. Holiness without love comes across as arrogant. Love without holiness in empty. Merton’s Life and Holiness is a highly practical book that can help us to to effectively join God in his work to reconcile man and creation to Himself. I hope you will join me as we read this work together.

Images: Featured image Thomas Merton by On Being licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Life and Holiness cover by Robert Littrell; White Dove by Ian Burt licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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