Thomas Merton on Charity

Too often Christian charity is understood in an entirely superficial way, as though it were no more than gentleness, kindness, and affability. It certainly includes all these things, but it goes far beyond them.

mertonThus Thomas Merton begins an essay on charity in his 1963 book Life and Holiness. The Trappist monk was in his mature stage at this point in his life. Or as mature as he was going to get. His death came just five years later, on this day in 1968.

Is charity just about “being nice to” our neighbors, the people conveniently strewn in our path?

True charity is love, and love implies deep concern for the needs of another. It is not a matter of moral self-indulgence, but of strict obligation.

Patronizing people, performing symbolic acts, preaching good words–none of these imply that deep love our Trappist brother is getting at. The deep charity suggests we give ourselves to our sisters and brothers in need. Two things to ponder …


What God is seeking from us is not cosmetic, not the surface, not the exterior. But something deep. Deep in our planet is a molten, surging core. Deep in poetry are new layers of meaning. Deep in Jesus’ words and actions are intimate, understanding, and piercing nudges for us to follow.

Give Ourselves

Money–pah! Well, we should be generous with it, of course. But Thomas Merton is tapping into something in which I am sure he was formed as a monk: the importance of giving oneself to one’s brothers (and sisters) in the monastic community.

For those of us outside monasticism, what could that mean? Forming true friendships with people. Not just scooping soup into their bowl, but sitting with them and making friends. Not just writing a check for a sponsored child overseas, but taking the time one day to make a visit. Not just wrapping a gift for a needy child, but delivering it to the house.

God is not interested in receiving sixpence from any of us. But he wants what we can give: our very selves.

People dismiss monastics too easily, even in these heady days of evangelization and radical popes and apologetics and all. Monks have much to teach us in how to follow Christ. Not in the monastery, but in the world. Not in charity alone, but in the deep truth that accompanies it.

It is not enough to reach into our pocket and hand over a few dollars. We must give not only our possessions but ourselves … Until we regain this deep sense of charity, we cannot understand the full depths of Christian perfection.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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