Thomas Merton on Love

“Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.” – Anna Quindlen

When we are leading a life based on real love (or mature love), we are living life in a way that deals with fear and stress differently than a life where our love is not yet mature or genuine. Because a life of genuine love is texturally different than a way of life based on immediate stress reduction and appeasing our fears and constantly seeking security. When we truly love another and those around us (and ourselves as well), we think and see the world differently, we don’t see the world from the standpoint merely of the self and what’s in it for me and what we like and dislike; rather, we see and engage the world in broader terms, from a larger set of considerations and a much larger perspective. And in doing so, we are motivated to take on ourselves—our smaller self, our own narcissism and pettiness; we are motivated to take on what’s worst in us—and to try heroically and courageously to push past our (neurotic/unrealistic/overgeneralized) fears and limitations and biases and character flaws (shortfalls in the virtues) that lead us to make some pretty bad and unloving decisions–including decisions we make in order to lessen the stress in our lives no matter what the cost and consequence to those around us now and in the future and to ourselves down the road. When we truly love—when we’re motivated by real love—we don’t let ourselves get away with sketchy fear-based, self-centered, me v the world, win-lose, immediate gratification thinking and decision-making. What’s best in us has a say. And what what’s best in us has to say usually involves us taking on ourselves and our fears and trying to deal with our stresses and stressors in a more mature and noble way and to extend or stretch ourselves for the sake of those we claim to love.

When we say that we love, but we refuse to take on what’s worst in ourselves and address it and give it up, then we do not love, and we are only obfuscating matter with our words and lying to ourself and others.

But when we say that we love and we do confront ourselves—what’s worst and weakest in ourselves—and we’re willing to heroically and courageously sacrifice or override that part of ourselves that lives in fear and we’re willing to make the stretch and extend ourselves beyond that part of ourselves and instead live from what’s best and most loving in ourselves, then we are indeed loving another in deed and not word only. Our talk is not cheap, and we are not living in our head; instead we are embodying our highest values and aspirations and we are making a real change.

“God is love, and whoever abides in love remains in God and God in him. By living in this way, love is brought to perfection among us, and we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because as He is, so too are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment (and with loss and the past), and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. If anyone says, “I love God,” but does not love his brother, that person is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” – 1 John 4:16-18, 20, (my parenthetical)

The remainder of this post is abridged and adapted and modified from “Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message?” by Thomas Merton, from his book “Love and Living,” pp. 25-37—

Love is not just something that happens to you: it is a certain special way of living and being alive.

Love is an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life. We do not live merely in order to safely vegetate through our days until we die. Nor do we live merely in order to take part in the routines of work and amusement that go on around us.

We are not just machines to be cared for and driven safely until they run down.

In other words, life is not a straight horizontal line—or the safest and shortest distance—between two points, birth and death.

Rather, life curves upward—or can—to peaks and plateaus of intensity, to higher points and regions of meaning and value, where all of a person’s latent creative possibilities are called into action and the person transcends him- or herself in encounter, response, and communion with another human being.

And it is for this communion and self-transcendence that we came into the world.

We do not become fully human until we give ourselves to another in love.

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own safe and isolated meditations. The meaning of life has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.

And if this love is unreal, then the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us.

We will never be fully real to ourselves or another until we let ourselves fall fully in love—either with another human being or with God.

Our attitude to life invariably is also going to be, in one way or another, our attitude toward love.

Our conception of ourselves is bound to be profoundly affected by our conception—and our experience—of love.

And our love—or our lack of it—our willingness to risk it, or our determination to play it safe and avoid it, will be an endless expression of ourselves: of who we think we are, of what we want to be, of what we think we are here for.

This will not be something that merely goes on in our head. Our attitude toward love and toward life affects our entire life.

And genuine love is a personal revolution—it transforms our entire life. Real love takes your ideas, your desires, and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is a new you.

And you may prefer to keep this from happening.

You may prefer to keep your thoughts and desires and acts in separate compartments, but if you do so then you will be an artificial and divided person, and such a life and way of living will not make sense, and is not likely to be happy or healthy.

Most of us do not consciously reflect and contemplate on what love is and is not. Instead, we consciously or unconsciously tailor our notions of love according to the patterns we are exposed to day after day in movies, TV, music, advertising, and in our reading.

And one of the most prevailing ready-made attitudes or approaches toward life and love in our culture is what might be called the “package” concept of love.

In it love is regarded as a deal. In order to make a deal you have to appear in the marketplace with a worthwhile product or self—or if the product that you are doesn’t seem worth very much, then you can dress it up in a good-looking package (Chris Rock’s “representative”). Thus we unconsciously consider ourselves and others to be objects for sale on the market. We want to be wanted, we want to be needed, we want to be desired, we want to attract potential customers, we want to look like the type of product that makes money, has curb appeal, et cetera. Hence, we waste a great deal of time and life modeling ourselves on the images presented to us by our affluent marketing society.

And in doing this we come to consider ourselves and others not as persons but as products—as “goods,” as “packages.” We commodify each other and appraise each other commercially. We size each other up and make deals with a view to our own profit, benefit, and security. We do not give ourselves in love: instead we make a deal that will enhance our own product or standing or security.

The long word for all of this is narcissism. And psychologists have had some pretty rough things to say about the immaturity and narcissism of our love in our marketing society.

The moment one approaches love in terms of “need” and “fulfillment,” love has to be a deal. And what’s worse is that since we are constantly subjected to the saturation bombing of our souls and senses and imagination with suggestions of perfection, more ideal fulfillments, better forms of psychological security and gratification, we almost cannot help but be acommittal and constantly revising our estimate of the deal we have made. We seem to be unable to help ourselves from going back on our word and seeking to make a “better” deal with someone else who is more satisfying, in tact, alluring, secure, beneficial to us.

The trouble with this commercialized idea of love is that it diverts our attention more and more from the essentials of love to the accessories or periphery of love. You are no longer able to really love the other person, because you become obsesses with your own standing, security, and advancement—you become obsessed with the efficacy of your own and the other’s package, your own and the other’s product, your own and the other’s market value.

And this is not love. What this is is narcissistic; and it’s dehumanizing.

The truth is that this whole “package” concept of life and love and is self-defeating; it actually undermines the development of real love. To consider love merely as a matter of need and fulfillment, as something which works itself out in a cool and calculating deal, is to miss the whole point of love—and of life itself.

To regard love as merely a need to be fulfilled, as something to get, reflects and immature and regressive and stunted view of life and other people.

The plain truth is that love is not a matter of getting, and certainly not a matter of always getting what you want. Quite the contrary. The insistence on always having what you want, on always being happy and satisfied and secure, on always being fulfilled, makes love impossible. To love you have to climb out of the cradle where everything is “getting,” and grow up to the maturity of giving, and without nearly as much concern for getting anything special in return. Love is not a deal, it is often self-sacrifice. Love is not marketing, it is a form of worship, reverence, appreciation, and gratitude.

In reality, love is a positive force, a transcendent spiritual power or motivation. It is, in fact, the deepest creative and courageous power in human nature. Love flowers spiritually in response to a deep encounter with another person. It is a living appreciation of life as value and as a gift. Love has its own wisdom, its own science, its own art, its own way of exploring the inner depths of life in the mystery of the loved person. Love knows, understands, and meets the demands of life insofar as it responds with warmth, abandon, surrender.

When people truly love each other, they experience far more than just a mutual need for each other’s company and consolation. In—or through and because of—their relationship with each other they become different people: they become more than their everyday selves; they become more alive, more understanding, more abiding, more enduring, more patient, more courageous. They become better people. They are made over into new beings. They are transformed by the power of their love.

Love is the revelation of our deepest person potential and meaning and value and identity.

But this revelation or revealing remains impossible as long as we are the prisoner to our own egoism and fears.

I simply cannot find myself in myself: only in another. My true meaning and worth are shown to me not by my own estimate of myself, but in the eyes of the one who loves me; the one who loves me as I am, with my faults and limitations, revealing to me the truth that even these faults and limitations cannot destroy my worth in their eyes; that I am therefore still valuable and lovable as a person in spite of my shortcomings, in spite of the imperfections of my exterior “package.”

As we deepen in love, the package becomes less and less important until it becomes unimportant altogether. What matters is this infinitely precious message which we can discover only in our love for another person.

This mutual revelation of two persons in their deepest secret is something entirely private. And it cannot be communicated to anyone else until it is embodied in the child who becomes, as it were, a living word, a physical manifestation of their shared secret.

Love is a transforming and redeeming power of almost mystical intensity which endows the lovers with qualities and capacities they never dreamed they could embody.

Where do these qualities come from?

From the enhancement of life itself, deepened, intensified, elevated, strengthened, and spiritualized by love. Love is not only a special way of being alive, it is the perfection of life. He who loves is more alive and more real than he was when he did not love.

That is perhaps one of the reasons why love seems dangerous: the lover finds in himself too many new powers, too many new insights. Life looks completely different to him, all his values change. What seemed worthwhile before has become trivial; what seemed impossible before has become effortless and easy. When a person is undergoing that kind of inner cataclysm, anything might happen. And thank God, it does happen! The world would not be worth much if it didn’t.

The power of genuine love is so deep and so strong that it cannot be deflected from its true aim even by the silliest of wrong ideas. When love is alive and mature in a person, it does not matter if the person has a false idea of himself and of life: love will guide him according to its own inner truth and will correct his ideas in spite of himself.

The trouble, however, is that our wrong ideas may prevent love from growing and maturing in our lives.

Once we love, our love can change our thinking. But until then, wrong thinking can inhibit love.

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "The Velveteen Rabbit", 1 John 4:16-18, Anna Quindlen, Chris Rock, Conscious Love, Courage, Emotional Maturity, Intimate Relationships, Mature Love, Mental Health, Real Love, Schnarch, Self-Extension, Spiritual Growth, Thomas Merton, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Thomas Merton on Love

  1. Cat Forsley says:

    beautiful piece
    Thomas Merton has always moved me …..
    right to the heart …..
    beautiful expression here ….
    best to you …

  2. I really like how u think, the truth u speak to n the way u express it. U express it very eloquently. I will say that I disagree with one comment : i simply cannot find myself within myself. I believe that the only place u find urself is within urself… u are not elsewhere. This suggests an external you, found outside of self. If u mean that within a relationship u become confronted with the self u deny n don’t want to recognize then I agree as relationships do tend to bring out the hidden n ugly self but also the wonderful self. Thkyu so much for what n how u express these challenging thoughts. I ll b back

    • John says:

      Hello M4N, I’m very happy you found my blog! Thank you for reading and commenting. And I took Merton to be saying what you were saying in the second part of your comment (it’s similar to what Krishnamurti harps on over and over — that relationship is or can be a mirror where we are faced with ourselves directly if we have the stomach for such honesty.) rather than the more “co-dependent” approach to relationship — though I recognized that Merton was vague enough that both interpretations could be plausibly made.

      Thank you for reading and for your very insightful comment, and I hope to read more from you!

      Kindest regards,


  3. Pingback: Love & Our Two Selves | What Is Real True Love?

  4. Ruth Rapley says:

    Yes I agree with Merton that love lifts one to the very pinnacle of spirituality. And it’s a very hard path to take, whether seeking God, or loving another human being. I confess I love someone like that, for a year now, and am utterly changed. We are not together but our souls are united and I don’t know if he loves me as much as I love him. That to me isn’t important. This love was put into me and I am powerless so far to uproot it, much though I would like to – it is an agony and an ecstasy. What is your comment? I write poetry about it. Not bad stuff, some of it.

  5. jeff houck says: prophetic spoken word about love and how we can really help one another love one another Thomas Merton is a true saint and a true prophet amazing amazing

  6. Pingback: While I am not a particularly religious man anymore, I have always found this essay by Thomas Merton to be very insightful. | sailorpoet

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