The Fire of Joy: Thomas Merton on Happiness

I became a Christian largely through reading Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of many books. Initially I was attracted to Merton by what a wonderful writer he is, and then to his luminous faith.

Forty years later Merton remains a mentor to me, someone whose writing I keep returning to. What follows is a selection of his thoughts on the topic of joy.

In proportion to how much you renounce the desire to be happy, you will be happy. 

If we were incapable of humility we would be incapable of joy, because humility alone can destroy the self-centeredness that makes joy impossible. 

It is not that someone else is preventing you from living happily; you yourself do not know what you want. Rather than admit this, you pretend that someone is keeping you from exercising your liberty. Who is this? It is you yourself. 

I cannot tell if what the world considers “happiness” is happiness or not. All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction. All the while they claim to be just on the point of attaining happiness.

Ash Wednesday is full of joy. The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust. Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. 

In our day we have lost an appreciation for classicism. To cite just one example, a cardinal characteristic of the classical outlook is optimism. It presupposes that man can be developed to a point where he is so harmoniously balanced and so completely in command of his powers that he is capable of a transcendent intellectual joy. He is capable, in other words, of a very high degree of happiness. The classical outlook presupposes that life, if you live it well, can be consistently happy. 

Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual JOY. Sometimes pleasure can be the death of joy, and so the person who has tasted true joy is suspicious of pleasure. Life in this world is full of pain. But pain, which is the contrary of pleasure, is not necessarily the contrary of happiness or of joy. Pleasure, which is selfish, suffers from everything that deprives us of some good we want to savor for our own sakes. But unselfish joy suffers from nothing but selfishness. Pleasure is restrained and killed by pain and suffering. Spiritual joy ignores suffering or laughs at it or even exploits it to purify itself of its greatest obstacle, selfishness. Pain cannot touch this highest joy. And so it is a very sad thing when Christians look for little more than pleasure in their prayer lives. They lose their peace, and seeking pleasure in their prayer they make themselves almost incapable of joy. 

Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen. 

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