Holy guacamole! It’s a powerful and disarming thing to see the law of perfection fulfilled before one’s eyes, as all of us who tuned into American Ninja Warrior the other day did. No one in six seasons had completed the full (insane!) obstacle course and won the competition… until now. The fact that the winner, Isaac Caldiero, not only works as a carpenter busboy but comes out wearing a Jesus costume, well, I don’t think that was an accident. Neither was it an accident that the following excerpts from Thomas Merton’s essay, “The Climate of Mercy – For Albert Schweitzer”, collected in Love and Living, came across my desk the very same day. The prose requires some concentration, but you’ll be grateful if you can summon it, especially if the glory of Mr. Caldiero has you questioning your existence. As for Brother Merton, who knew?! Not me, ht KW:

caldieroThe human existent is redeemed and delivered into the full freedom of the Christian person when it is liberated from the demonic and futile project of self-redemption – the self-contradictory and self-defeating enterprise of establishing itself in unassailable security as if its existence were identical with being, and as if it were completely autonomous. This hateful enterprise is carried on by the existent maintaining itself as “being” and as autonomous self-fulfillment, challenging and defying every other existent, seeking either to dominate or to placate all that it confronts. This implies a constant wearying effort at deception, with eager thrusts of passion and power, constantly frustrated and falling back into the cunning futility of trying to outwit reality itself.

Legal virtuousness is one of the ways in which the human existent seeks to carry out this project of deception and to gain mastery over the death that is inexorably present in the very fact of bodily life itself. There are other, more complex spiritual ways of attempting this same deception . . . All are self-defeating except the Gospel mercy, in which the self-seeking self is liberated from its search and its concern, therefore to some extent from anguish, by finding not self but truth in Christ. This “finding” is the discovery, in grace and faith, that one is “mercifully understood” and that in the Spirit of this mercy and this understanding one is enabled to understand others in mercy and pity. The weakness and defenselessness in our hearts, which make us pitiless to others, are then dispelled not by power but by trust in divine mercy, which is given us when we no longer seek to defend our defenselessness, and are ready to accept our own boundless need in a merciful exchange with others whose poverty is as great as our own!

merton+cameraMan is fallen into self-contradiction and ambiguity from which no self-study, no individualistic or social ethic, no philosophy, no mere mysticism can liberate him. His Christian calling is not a calling to self-purification or to good works, to the elimination of sensual desires, to the cleansing of concepts, to the emptying of the intellect and will, to ultimate inner tranquility, and to liberation from slavery to cravings. On the contrary, his very tendency to understand the meaning of liberation in such terms may ultimately make liberation impossible.

This is a view of life, essentially “under sin,” because it is under the old Law, by which Law gives sin and passion the appearance of liberty. For whenever the Law says, “Thou shalt not,” there springs up in the heart of the self-alienated man a doubt, and an occasion, a project of self-recovery and self-fulfillment of defiance of the Law. The promises, menaces, and demands of the Law are ambiguous because they point to self-possession and suggest two conflicting possible ways to autonomy: one by following the Law and the other by defying it. It is always possible for man under the Law, in his fallenness and confusion, to outline projects of liberty “against” the Law. But these are illusory projects which receive their apparent substance from the Law in its promises or in its threats. Thus, the Law tends to become an incitement to a despairing self-realization. It incites the self-seeking self to plunge into its own void. The very Law itself perversely and cruelly seems to define this void as “liberty” and “realization,” for it tells man that he can “choose” sin and that, therefore, sinning is a form of freedom.

lee-lorenz-please-jason-don-t-you-want-to-grow-up-to-be-an-autonomous-person-new-yorker-cartoonWhy this illusion? Because at the same time the Law offers a deceptive promise of fulfillment to the self-seeking self in legal righteousness. The Law is a guarantee of respectability, security, and power, and to keep the Law is to enter into the human and social structure which is founded on the Law and provides its rewards and sanctions. It is to share the power that belongs to the “elements of the world” (forgetting that they are at best “feeble elements”) or even worse, perhaps, the power of the archontes (Ephesians 1:21). The Law offers the self-seeking self the spurious autonomy which comes from creating a place for itself in the minds of men by human righteousness and achievements: he who is justified by the Law is understood not mercifully but righteously, not by God but by men (God says “I know you not”). He receives his reward (Matthew 6:16). This reward may be a righteous unbelief, the hardening of the heart in self-respect (“How can you believe who seek glory from another?”). At the same time, this hardening issues in a deceptive dialogue of claims and demands with others who tend to accept this self-righteousness as its own evaluation. They accept the Law or rebel against it as it appears, incarnate in those who claim they have been justified by it.

Thus, Law without mercy kills mercy in the hearts of those who seek justification solely by socially acceptable virtuousness and by courting the favor of authority. This legal holiness, in its turn, destroys the hope of mercy in those who despair of the Law.

We must, therefore, remember the religious and Christian importance of not implicitly identifying external “Law” with interior “Mercy,” either in our doctrine (and in this we usually manage to keep them distinct) or in our lives (here we tend in practice to confuse them by making the fulfillment of the Law’s inexorable demand either a condition for receiving mercy or a guarantee that one has received it).