Over the next two weeks, in the fourth and fifth excerpts from his essay on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton, Fr Collins examines how Merton's ideas developed between the late 1950s and mid-1960s on what is actually happening in the mystical (ecstatic) experience. What's the relationship between the natural and supernatural in the realm of mystical experience?
Part IV: What do we do on our own and what do we do aided by grace?
The relationship between the natural and the supernatural in the realm of mystical experience has long been a matter of discussion in philosophical and theological circles. What do humans do on their own and/or what do they do aided by grace beyond the natural? Thomas Merton wrote rather extensively about this question in 1958 to the philosopher, Aldous Huxley, whose book Ends and Means had been instrumental in Merton's coming into the Catholic Church in 1938.
Merton suggested that one distinguish between an essentially aesthetic and natural experience and an experience which is mystical and supernatural. "I would call aesthetic and natural an experience which would be an intuitive 'tasting' of the inner spirituality of our own being — or an intuition of being as such, arrived at through an intuitive awareness of our own innermost reality. This would be an experience of 'oneness' within oneself and with all beings, a flash of awareness of the transcendent Reality that is within all that is real." He likened it to the aesthetic intuition that precedes the creation of a work of art or that of a philosopher who rises above his concepts and their synthesis to see everything in one glance like the intuition of a person who has participated deeply in a liturgical act. He continued: "By the way, though I call this experience 'natural,' that does not preclude its being produced by the action of God's grace (a term that must be used with care). But I mean that it is not in its mode or in its content beyond the capacities of human nature itself."
Merton then apologized for too glibly distinguishing the natural and the supernatural as if he were quite sure where the dividing line came. He then elaborated hesitantly on what he would call a supernatural and mystical experience. "It seems to me that a fully mystical experience has in its very essence some note of a direct spiritual contact of two liberties, a kind of a flash or spark which ignites an intuition of all that has been said above, plus something much more which I can only describe as 'personal,' in which God is known not as an 'object' or as 'Him up there' or 'Him in everything' nor as a 'the All' but as — the biblical expression — I AM, or simply AM. But what I mean is that this is not the kind of intuition that smacks of anything procurable because it is a presence of a Person and depends on the liberty of that Person. And lacking the element of a free gift, a free act of love on the part of Him Who comes, the experience would lose its specifically mystical quality." (Huxley, Aldous 11.27.58 HGL 437)
By 1965 Thomas Merton's understanding of the natural and the supernatural in mystical experience had undergone some refinement. He was by that time not so sure of some of the distinctions he had made in his 1958 letter to Huxley. As he wrote to Marco Pallis, an English scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, he was bothered by the division 'natural-supernatural' in religion and mysticism. He saw that it is misleading and unsatisfactory. He had come to see that, even within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy, "all the genuine living religious traditions can and must be said to originate in God and to be revelations of Him, some more, some less. And that it makes no sense to classify some of them as 'natural.' There is no merely natural 'revelation' of God, and there is no merely natural mysticism (a contradiction in terms)." The whole idea required a great deal of study since the terms are not clear or unambiguous even within the Catholic tradition. "And outside it there is a great deal of confusion as far as I can see." (Pallis, Marco Easter, 1965 HGL 470)
The psychological danger of regression in mysticism…
Thomas Merton's most extensive epistolary commentary on the psychological dimensions of mystical or religious experience is found in letters to Raymond Prince, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal and a colleague of Linda Sabbath. During the spring and winter of 1965, Prince had written to the monk about the psychological danger of regression in mysticism. Merton responded with five specific points.
"1. There is certainly a great deal of mystical material which consciously and explicitly makes use of terms suggesting regression. This is especially true in Taoist mysticism, for instance, And it is true wherever mysticism is couched in terms of passivity and abandonment, which are sometimes called 'quietistic,' even though they might not technically earn that designation. But I think that a great deal of discrimination is needed in evaluating different accounts of mystical experience. I think in your own approach there has been a tendency to treat experiences on quite different levels more or less as if they were all on the same level."
"2. It seems to me that when ecstatic experiences take on a manic character (which they sometimes do), this should be regarded as calling their authenticity into question. I do not say that this would ipso facto invalidate any such experience, but it would be an indication that caution was required, because ideally the ecstatic experience should be beyond manic excitement. There are of course diversities of temperament and personal weaknesses that have to be taken into account in each case. Very delicate problems of evaluation are involved here. In my opinion, experiences deep enough to be ecstatic or to be qualified as 'unitive' should properly speaking be beyond all regressive symptoms. I would say a unitive experience that was merely regressive and narcissistic would be invalid religiously and mystically. There would be no self-transcendence, but only immersion in the self, in self-awareness as absorbed in an all which is undifferentiated. But this is not mystical union. Mystic union is not just an 'oceanic feeling'."
"3. I think the regressive features are normal in a transitional and early phase of mystical development, in the so-called prayer of quiet, the night of the sense, and perhaps in some way in the Night of the Spirit (but I question this; here at least regression must be something other than what you are talking about). I believe that regression marks these early stages because it is necessary for one to … to move back in order to take a better leap. Regression, of sorts, enables the whole self to 'rest' and 'return to the root' establishing a deep continuity with the past so as to enter a future that is going to demand an experience of profound rupture. (Yet there must still be spiritual continuity in spite of the rupture and rift.) The paradox is that the 'old' will be left behind, and yet the 'new' will be the old transformed and renewed. Death and resurrection."
"4. In my opinion, attachment to the 'regressive' and narcissistic peace which is proper to early and transitional stages of development is quite usually the reason why so few people really become mature in the mystical life. Many reach the early stage, but become bogged down in this 'peace' and 'sweetness' and refuse to make the break with the past which is demanded of them in order to take the leap into a 'new being.' I think if one simply equates mysticism with regression, a fatal error will result, and people will be encouraged not to undergo the 'death' that is required in order to 'live again.' Of course you may say, rightly, that this 'death' is a climax of regression. But it is certainly something more than narcissistic and pietistic sucking at the breast of consolation…"
"5. In my opinion, regression, the 'ego' and other terms current in psychoanalysis are not strong enough to bear the weight of description required to make clear what really happens in mystical experience. A considerable deepening is going to be needed, in order to discuss these questions adequately. At least this is the opinion of one who is by no means an expert and who has barely a layman's knowledge of psychoanalysis. For one thing, the assumption that rational and discursive knowledge is the normal peak of human intellectual and spiritual development is, to my mind, a real mistake. If we start to discuss mysticism from the viewpoint of the Cartesian cogito and the pragmatic scientific mind, we start with assumptions that make false perspectives inevitable. I think we have to restore intuitive and 'direct' apprehension of reality to its proper place as a normal perfection of the human mind, before we can begin to understand mysticism as something that is anything but pathological. The point is that primitive people excelled, so it seems, in this intuitive and direct grasp of reality, and our development as abstract thinkers is not necessarily in all respects a genuine progress. Here again, the idea of regression takes on another (cultural) aspect." (Prince, Raymond 5.22.65 HGL 493-5)
In December of 1965 Thomas Merton again wrote to Raymond Prince about the notion of psychological and spiritual regression. He compared unhealthy withdrawal from reality with going deeper into reality while admitting the danger of narcissism in the spiritual quest. He is probably keeping in mind his own experience of withdrawal to Gethsemani in 1941 and his later re-connection with "reality" from his contemplative core and then his further withdrawal into a hermitage. He stated that regression is a retreat from reality and is essentially narcissistic. While in deeper forms of spiritual experience much can resemble regression, it is a misleading way to conceive it. "In genuine religious experience, especially mystical, one's awareness of reality is immensely heightened, the external and the interior being transcended and recaptured in a unity which is neither and both, and beyond the dichotomy of subject-object, inside-outside and so on."
The monk admitted that in half-baked spirituality and partial religious experience there is a tendency to substitute precisely a narcissistic unity for this transcendence. It can seem like the 'oceanic feeling' which is certainly regressive. It takes the superficial empirical ego self "as a kind of paradise of all being and seems to experience everything in a heightened awareness of the ego self. Those involved in spiritual formation must help people not to confuse this narcissistic self-awareness with true mystical contemplation." There are infinite ways of getting around this, he noted. "By cleverly rationalizing the narcissistic awareness in certain kinds of philosophical, psychological, theological language, for instance. Or by the language of mystical and affective love-union." (Prince, Raymond 12.18.65 HGL 495)
One wonders, based upon his insights into mystical experience as expressed in his mid-1960's correspondence, how Thomas Merton would have understood and evaluated his own mystical experience in Cuba in 1939.
Next week Fr Collins goes on to speculate what Merton would have made of his experience in 1939 based on what he wrote in his classic work, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Dr Patrick W Collins
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2007Patrick W Collins