Fr Collins tackles two principal issues in this third excerpt from his essay on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton. In the first part he's exploring how Merton saw spirituality in relation to science, particularly psychology, and in relation to the other great religious traditions in the world. In the second part he explores how Merton responded to the counterculturalism of the 1960s and particularly the endeavours by some to induce mystical experiences via drugs and halluncinations.
Part III: The contemplative life is "the search for peace in the openness of love"…
Some of Merton critics have complained that Thomas Merton was not a true theologian. Merton would have agreed — if by theology one means a systematic reflection upon the Divine Mystery. Merton was, however, a spiritual theologian in the tradition of that monastic theology which expressed the human experience of God. As a gifted writer Merton was able to express with power and poetic beauty, yet always of course inadequately, humanity's union with the divine. He wrote of his awareness of all theological limitations in experiencing The Mystery to Pakistani Sufi Abdul Aziz in 1963. He stated that dogmas lead toward our differences and can lead us away from spiritual realities. "In the realm of realities we may have a great deal in common, whereas in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution." While he thought we should try to understand the beliefs of other religions, more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light God gives us even as the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. (Abdul Aziz 6-2-63 HGL 54)
In 1965 he expressed similar thoughts to Linda Sabbath. One can only make any sense out of the inner dimensions of religious experience by discussing it in a framework of practice and experience. "The language of science may make statements about all this, from the outside, but are such statements really relevant? Or do they simply provide certain guidelines that are useful in attempts to communicate with those who are not really interested in the real dimension?" He was not questioning the need for an academic and technically approved approach which clearly has its place. (Sabbath, Linda 8.8.65 HGL 518)
In a 1967 extensive letter to Dom Francis Decroix, a Cistercian abbot of Frattocchie near Rome, Thomas Merton wrote of the ways in which contemplative theologians prefer to speak about God and theology. Implicitly he was indicating what he considered to be the limitations of both systematic and dogmatic understandings of The Great Mystery. His faith-filled words bear extensive quotation:
"God is not a 'problem' and we who live the contemplative life have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long as one seeks to solve '"the problem of God.' To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek to see one's own eyes. One cannot see his own eyes because they are that with which he sees and God is the light by which we see — by which we see not a clearly defined "object" called God, but everything else in the invisible One. God is then the Seer and the Seeing, but on earth He is not seen. In heaven, He is the Seer, the Seeing and the Seen."
Merton believed that God seeks Himself in us. The aridity and sorrow of our hearts is the sorrow of God who is not known in us. He continued:
"God cannot find Himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that He could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany. But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves: if we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our own being."
"Fortunately, the love of our fellow man is given us as the way of realizing this. For the love of our brother, our sister, our beloved, our wife, our child, is there to see with the clarity of God Himself that we are good. It is the love of my lover, my brothers or my child that sees God in me, makes God credible to myself in me. And it is my love for my lover, my child, my brother, that enables me to show God to him or her in himself or herself. Love is the epiphany of God in our poverty."
"The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love. It begins with the acceptance of my own self in my poverty and my nearness to despair in order to recognize that where God is there can be no despair, and God is in me even if I despair. That nothing can change God's love for me, since my very existence is the sign that God loves me and the presence of His love creates and sustains me. Nor is there any need to understand how this can be or to explain it or to solve the problems it seems to raise. For there is in our hearts and in the very ground of our being a natural certainty which is co-extensive with our very existence: a certainty that says that insofar as we exist we are penetrated through and through with the sense and reality of God even though we may be utterly unable to believe or experience this in philosophic or even religious terms. … The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, brother, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons." (Decroix, Dom Francis 8.21.67 HGL 157-158)
The 1960s countercultural movement…
During the 1960's religious experience became an intense cultural interest and phenomenon in the Western world. The countercultural movement of that decade sought various means to pursue para-psychological experiences of deeper realities. Drugs were sometimes used to induce such "spiritual" states. Speaking of the culture's fascination with psychedelic and mystical experiences, Merton wrote to Reza Arasteh, an Iranian-born psychologist, in December of 1965 that this seems to raise the whole question of the validity of mystical experience. The real purpose is for interior transformation by love. "Love cannot be incited by a drug..." (Reza Arasteh Dec 27, 65 HGL 41)
Earlier in 1965 he had written to Linda Sabbath about his more personal interest in mystical experience. He distinguished between those who research mysticism objectively and those who seek to deepen their own and others contemplative experience subjectively and inter-subjectively. Merton was more acquainted with the second field. (Sabbath, Linda 4.25.65 HGL 517)
Later that year the Trappist engaged in a series of letters with Sabbath in which he wrote critically of this sort of self-induced psychedelic experience of transcendence. He had never had anything to do with them. but he judged that they were "probably not all they are cracked up to be." He sensed that is was similar to what the Zen people call makyo. This means the illusions that one has to put up with patiently until he gets rid of them. They were not to be taken seriously. He thought that "systematically induced makyo is hardly a good substitute for a genuine interior life, even though the latter may require more work." He feared that psychedelics may want to have interior experiences entirely on our own terms which makes the freedom of pure grace impossible. Religiously he thought their value to be "pretty low" but that psychologically they could be of considerable interest. (Sabbath, Linda 12.1.65 HGL 521)
Two weeks later Merton again wrote to Sabbath in answer to her response to the above letter. He shows his sense of the limitations and shallowness of merely psychological approaches to religious experience. More illusion than truth may result, he feared. "If all you are looking for," he told her, "is psychological integration, then makyo, OK, then maybe mescaline, God knows, I don't... But what I am trying to say is that when the development of the religious (and mystical) consciousness really gets going, all this makyo, visions, oceanic feelings, lights and music, rapture, etc. etc. is really irrelevant and can become an obstacle." (Sabbath, Linda 12.17.65 HGL521)
One month later the Trappist commented to Sabbath on the dangers of the subjective and emotional dimensions of religious experience. He observed that she was apparently focused more on the subject experiencing this and that rather than on God. "There is nothing wrong with being subjective, and there is a time for it. The point is, however, not to get bogged down in it and examine too minutely what 'I feel' and why 'I' feel it. Because, after all, it is all pretty accidental." (Sabbath, Linda 1.13.66 HGL 522-3)
Thomas Merton's understanding of religious experience was grounded in the mystical traditions of Christianity and the other great world religions. As he wrote to psychologist, Erich Fromm, in 1954, mysticism, as he understood it, must be theistic in some sense. No God, no true mysticism. Yet the God experienced must not be only transcendent to human consciousness as an object outside ourselves. While some Eastern traditions are more or less atheistic, Merton held that the majority of true mystics stand or fall with the existence or nonexistence of God. He saw the absolute ontological impossibility of anything existing if God does not exist. Merton sensed that Fromm was really saying is that true mysticism does not know God after the manner of an object For Merton that is perfectly true. "God is not experienced as an object outside ourselves, as 'another being' capable of being enclosed in some human concept. Yet though He be known as the source of our own being." (Fromm, Erich 10.2.54 HGL 310-1)
During the 1960's, however, the Trappist came to realize that non-theistic contemplative experiences such as Zen satori, even without using the word "God," can be authetic mysticism. An interesting letter to Erich Fromm on February 7, 1966 spoke of a conversation Merton had had with Ivan Illich about this matter. This letter is unfortunately not included in the published letters. What Merton was trying to convey was that religious experience whether in Jewish, Christian, Zen Buddhist, or in a general mystical human way is an experience that may not be different as a human experience in the case of a theist or a non-believer. "I am not denying the significance of various conceptual frames of reference, but I do believe that when it comes down to the phenomenon of the religious experience itself, the theological frame of reference is not as crucial as it may appear to be." (William Shannon, Thomas Merton's Paradise Journey, p 234)
Dr Patrick W Collins
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2007Patrick W Collins