Perhaps you have heard of some of the more famous Christian mystics from the Middle Ages, many of whom have now been sainted by the Catholic Church… Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckart, Hildegard of Bingen? We rarely consider, or hear about, more recent and equally influential mystics in our midst, but I assure you that they have and do exist.
I’ve chosen just three to delve into – Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Kathleen Norris – but there are many others.
Meister Eckart said, “Theologians may quarrel, but mystics of the world speak the same language.” This is how we know the mystics. They speak the same language… they tell us that God is unconditional, universal, unbounded, untethered Love, they speak of metaphors, poetry, symbols and mystery, they lean heavily on experience rather than rules and dogma, and they proclaim our Oneness with the Divine and the connectedness of all things. When I think of influential modern-day mystics I think of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue, Joyce Rupp, Sue Monk Kidd, Joan Chittester, Matthew Fox… and many others. They may not have claimed or been given the description of mystic, but they speak the language. I think we speak the language here at Sacred Journeys.
As a brief overview of Merton’s life, he was born in France in 1915, was educated at Cambridge and Columbia Universities where a number of Christian writers had a profound influence upon him. He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly thereafter he became a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He became a prolific spiritual writer and speaker. At the age of 50, he became the monastery’s first hermit and sadly died young, at 53, of electrocution. Still, Merton was a best-selling international author, mystic, monk and priest, and had considerable influence on the evolution of Christian spirituality in the 20th century.
It seems as difficult to explain or describe the practice of contemplation as it is to describe the Divine. Merton describes it this way:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)
Contemplation is full awareness – complete knowing – of the reality of the abundant Source. It supersedes scripture, liturgy, words, music, art and any other ways our limited intellect and vocabulary has to understand God. Contemplation goes beyond.
In fact, it goes so far beyond this world and our egos that, Merton says, all other things must “die” – all other experiences must be momentarily lost – before they can be known from a higher viewpoint or a deeper level.
Perhaps we could consider looking at it like this… it is like walking a path up a mountain and you pass beautiful trees, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. You spend some time sitting and enjoying the view, but then realize you must let them go to continue your hike. Moving further up the path, you lose sight of those things, they are temporarily lost to you (metaphorically died to you) as you continue your journey. Then you emerge at a point so much higher that you can see everywhere you’ve been, including all the vistas you enjoyed before, but from a new perspective, with new awareness of how they are all connected.
And, yet, this metaphor falls somewhat short. Merton tells us that contemplation is about more than a new view or a new clarity about God where we can now hold God within a new box. Contemplation is being carried away by God, beyond boundaries and rules, into God’s freedom, mystery and creative love. Perhaps we need to be swept off the mountain path by a great wind that carries us far beyond anything we have ever known, to experience a freedom we never knew existed as gravity held us firmly rooted to the ground.
What keeps us from being fully awake, fully active, fully aware? What keeps us from living a life of contemplation? What keeps us from experiencing spiritual wonder and spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life? What keeps us from knowing our Oneness with the Source?
Merton says the obstacle that hinders our oneness is our self – “the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. But this is merely our outward and “false” self which keeps us alienated from the reality of God. Then the false self becomes our god and we do everything for the sake of this self.”
The dying, therefore, that must occur is attachment to this false self. Detachment in order to achieve union with God is not about detaching from things, but from ourselves.
This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:
When we have escaped the “prison of our own false self” and enter by love into union with the “Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls” we will know true joy.
Love. We enter into union with God by love. And we can’t just love God without learning to love others. 1 John says, “Those who claim to be in the light but hate their neighbors are still living in the dark. But those who love their neighbors are living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling.” One of the paradoxes of the mystical life, Merton claims, is that “one cannot enter into the deepest center of oneself and pass through that center into God unless one is able to pass entirely out of oneself and empty themselves and give themselves to other people in the purity of a selfless love… In God there can be no selfishness.
Merton is sensible enough to ponder whether there might be even twenty people in the whole world who love perfectly, who have entered into union with the Divine perfectly through this love, who are constantly aware of the reality of the Source. In the end, he admits “I don’t believe that there are twenty such [people] alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.”
Clearly he acknowledges to live in the realm of contemplation at all times is nearly impossible. But if what we strive for is union with the Divine, then we need to stay on the path and keep moving forward, keep practicing awareness of the Divine, recognizing a realm beyond ourselves.
A complete knowing and Oneness with God is achieved when we “die” to ourselves and the things of this world, when we recognize that our ego is merely our false self, and that clinging to and desiring the things of this world are not of God. Letting go feels scary, if not impossible, but grants a freedom that we occasionally get glimpses of. It is a freedom that manifests in a love of all things and all people.
Love & Light!