The Plaster Saint According to Father Thomas Merton

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)

I will present here a few faint echoes from the insights of one of the 20th century’s greatest spiritual geniuses, Father Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Trappist monk and prodigious best-selling author. Today’s theme you might call variously, aspiring to be spiritual, being religious or a devotee. Perhaps even for the select few who still choose that path, becoming holy or sainted.

In a subsection entitled “The Plaster Saint” in a little book called Life and Holiness (1964) Merton drew attention to the stereotype that both those in religious orders and the spiritually aspiring have held (hold) of the saint. Here I might add that, by changing the phraseology, Merton’s remarks can be applied beyond the less forbidding word “saint” to any fully committed and active spiritual/religious individual.

Master Thomas has it that the stereotypical saints have wrongly been depicted as the perfect ascetics, flesh-denying individuals, the ostentatiously virtuous ones, whom Merton devastates in a line as being “…without humor as they are without wonder, without feeling and without interest in the common affairs of mankind.”

They mumble the perfect platitude to silence any form of meaningful dialogue. They are the lifeless members of the cult of the intransigent absolute. In short they are unnatural and inhuman. “The saint”, says Merton, “if he ever sinned at all, became impeccable after a perfect conversion.”

No doubt some of Merton’s comments derive from the harsh, obstructive treatment he received at the hands of his superiors. However, Merton goes on to tell us that in adopting such a saintly stereotype, which has been perpetuated by pious hagiographies and the atmosphere of religious art over the centuries, we have really got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Here is his point — and it is a good one. To be religious/spiritual, devoted, committed or even saintly, we have to be *more*, not less, human. The stereotypical image of the religious individual depicts him or her as being above nature, that is, less than human, forbidding and even unattractive. So it would seem that we have not yet fully understood the complete humanity in spirituality.

No wonder, says Merton, that so many who have accepted this stereotype and followed it to the letter have ended up becoming less, rather than more, spiritual. And this, as a result of a kind of spiritual burn-out or deep fatigue due to the mechanistic, forced and repeated applications of the discipline of applying an implacable and unyielding holiness.

What is Merton’s solution? This being more human “…implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.” Elsewhere he says in as much sane prose: “Holiness presupposes….a normal human will, a trained liberty capable of self-commitment and self-oblation, but even before all this it presupposes sound and ordered human emotions.” Hmm… Before someone tells me that has always been the message, I would rejoin — more so in theory than in practice.

Adding my own footnote to Merton, we have all of us, I think, been duped by the stereotype of the religious individual. It comes with its own set of false expectations. We, in turn, foolishly expect the religious person to be perfect, to be the plaster saint or idol. In so doing, we only perpetuate a myth of perfection that can belong only to God. Such a myth, sooner or later, must die and any idols we have erected on the altar of our own imagination found to have feet of clay.

People are right to expect that persons who profess to be religious or who have adopted an ostensibly spiritual/religious lifestyle should practice what they preach; if indeed they do preach. We all need credible role models. And they are sorely lacking in today’s tainted, traumatised world.

On the other hand, people are wrong to expect that the spiritually-minded or the religious will never fail — and seriously fail at times — in their efforts to become spiritual persons or not entirely live up to their spiritual teachings. People will be doubly wrong if they condemn that individual or judge the character and quality of a whole religion by the less than perfect conduct of some of its members. But when it is done to us, no question, it becomes a real test….

What happened to Brother Thomas Merton? While conferencing with Buddhist monks in Bangkok in 1968, he was electrocuted by a fan in his room after taking a shower before an afternoon nap. That morning he presented a paper, his last, on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.” But the indications are that Merton’s life had come full circle and that he was ready. Thomas Merton died in the 54th year of his life.

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