Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of men?
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And now I am thinking of the disease which is spiritual pride. I am thinking of the peculiar unreality that gets into the hearts of the saints and eats their sanctity away before it is mature. There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious men. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God. Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of men? Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?
This sickness is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. When a proud man thinks he is humble his case is hopeless. Here is a man who has done many things that were hard for his flesh to accept. He has come through difficult trials and done a lot of work, and by God’s grace he has come to possess a habit of fortitude and self-sacrifice in which, at last, labor and suffering become easy. It is reasonable that his conscience should be at peace. But before he realizes it, the clean peace of a will united to God becomes the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.
The pleasure that is in his heart when he does difficult things and succeeds in doing them well, tells him secretly: “I am a saint.” At the same time, others seem to recognize him as different from themselves. They admire him, or perhaps avoid him – a sweet homage of sinners! The pleasure burns into a devouring fire. The warmth of that fire feels very much like the love of God. It is fed by the same virtues that nourished the flame of charity. He burns with self-admiration and thinks: “It is the fire of the love of God.”
He thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost. The sweet warmth of pleasure becomes the criterion of all his works. The relish he savors in acts that make him admirable in his own eyes, drives him to fast, or to pray, or to hide in solitude, or to write many books, or to build churches and hospitals, or to start a thousand organizations. And when he gets what he wants he thinks his sense of satisfaction is the unction of the Holy Spirit.
And the secret voice of pleasure sings in his heart: “Non sum sicut caeteri homines.” (“I am not like other men.”) Once he has started on this path there is no limit to the evil his self-satisfaction may drive him to do in the name of God and of His love, and for His glory. He is so pleased with himself that he can no longer tolerate the advice of another or the commands of a superior. When someone opposes his desires he folds his hands humbly and seems to accept it for the time being, but in his heart he is saying: “I am persecuted by worldly men. They are incapable of understanding one who is led by the Spirit of God. With the saints it has always been so.”
Having become a martyr he is ten times as stubborn as before. It is a terrible thing when such a one gets the idea he is a prophet or a messenger of God or a man with a mission to reform the world….He is capable of destroying religion and making the name of God odious to men.
I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.
• Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
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Postscript: Thanks to Ted for drawing my attention to this passage, and to providing the foggy harbor in which today’s photo was taken!