I’m continuing to examine and think about Christian contemplative practice with Thomas Merton’s help, still reading The Inner Experience. Recently a friend started reading it as well and I went back several chapters to reread and remind myself of what’s there. We’ve started to discuss some of it, which I thoroughly enjoy. Some pieces have been grabbing me that hadn’t before, like the following passage on the importance of the Resurrection to the Christian contemplative tradition:
It may perhaps not be clear at first sight what this belief in the Resurrection might have to do with contemplation. But in fact the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, the New Adam, completely restored human nature to its spiritual condition and made possible the divination of every man coming into the world. This meant that in each one of us the inner self was now able to be awakened and transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, and this awakening would not only enable us to discover our true identity “in Christ,” but would also make the living and Risen Savior present in us. Hence the importance of the Divinity of Christ—for it is as God-Man that He is risen from the dead and as God-Man that He is capable of living and acting in us all by His Spirit, so that in Him we are not only our true personal selves, but are also one Mystical Person, one Christ. And thus each one of us is endowed with the creative liberty of the Son of God. Each one of us, in some sense, is able to be completely transformed into the likeness of Christ, to become, as He is, divinely human, and thus to share His spiritual authority and charismatic power in the world. (p. 38)
I find the idea of God as Christ and the Holy Spirit somehow living in us and able to be made to thrive through the application of faith and contemplative practice much more compelling than what I’ve often encountered in Christianity— the idea of Jesus as some other than present reality power/being we have to chase, mainly through doctrinal assertion, while totally rejecting all we are on a personal level. Granted, Merton would also have us go beyond those aspects of self that are inextricably tied to delusion/sin. Me too, I mean, we’re complex beings filled with a great capacity to love and heal while at the same time being able to destroy all that is good. No doubt some wise discernment is necessary here. We certainly have to learn to go past what is rooted in selfishness. I have to believe though, due to my experience and greatest hopes, that beneath it all we are somehow tied to and called to God. To what level we are actually tied to God remains debatable and fascinating to me.
I recently picked up Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation again. In one of the sections I read yesterday, the section comparing sacred to secular life, I was especially excited by his description of the scared life in terms that very closely parallel the understanding I’ve come to through Buddhist practice:
The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves. On the contrary, it penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself. Hence the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery.
This is a most important discovery in the interior life. For the external self fears and recoils from what is beyond it and above it. It dreads the seeming emptiness and darkness of the interior self. The whole tragedy of “diversion” is precisely that it is a flight from all that is most real and immediate and genuine in ourselves. It is a flight from life and from experience—an attempt to put a veil of objects between the mind and its experience of itself. It is therefore a mater of great courage and spiritual energy to turn away from diversion and prepare to meet, face-to-face, that immediate experience of life which is intolerable to the exterior man. This is only possible when, by a gift of God (St. Thomas would say it was the Gift of Fear, or sacred awe) we are able to see our inner selves not as a vacuum but as an infinite depth, not as emptiness but as fullness. This change of perspective is impossible as long as we are afraid of our own nothingness, as long as we are afraid of fear, afraid of poverty, afraid of boredom—as long as we run away from ourselves.
What we need is the gift of God which makes us able to find in ourselves not just ourselves, but Him: and then our nothingness becomes His all. This is not possible without the liberation effected by communication and humility. It requires not talent, not mere insight, but sorrow, pouring itself out in love and trust. (pg. 53)
Buddhism talks often about “emptiness” (Sanskrit: sunyata) beneath all composite things (including the personal self, or “inner self” as Merton calls it). Basically the idea is that all things of this world are devoid of an independent, lasting substance. This is impermanence taken to its end. Because all things are undergoing continual change, there is no lasting essence we can pin down as unchanging. Emptiness is not nihilistic since the existence of things is not in dispute here, it’s more a reinforcement of impermanence by raising it to a level where it becomes very difficult to take anything for granted. Merton’s use of “nothingness” and “emptiness” have negative connotations that are not part of the Buddhist idea of emptiness, however, there is a definite relation.
Another perspective of the same reality reveals “suchness” (Sanskrit: tathata). Suchness is more difficult to talk about, but is often seen as the essential completeness of life— the idea that life taken in its totality, as it is without the corruption of discursive consciousness and the filters of self, is akin to awakening in the deepest sense.
When I reflect on Zen practice, especially the practice of zazen and allowing myself to completely sink into present awareness without any forced application of thought, I think of bumping against emptiness and, at times, experiencing suchness— life as it is-ness! When I read Merton’s description of the sacred life and how it “penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself” I am reminded again of the transition in perspective from emptiness to one of of suchness. I think of the depth of our lives that is always right here before us when we’re able to truly face it. Any form of diversion and turning away from the direct truth of now will only take us further from the truth, further from an embrace of suchness, and further from God.
I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton’s writing lately, currently I’m on The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. Remarkable book so far. I want to talk about what I’ve read already that is helping me to appreciate Jesus more than I ever have. To do that, I first need to include an enormous excerpt that tells the story of Christianity in terms I can relate to surprisingly well:
The story of Adam’s fall from paradise says, in symbolic terms, that man was created as a contemplative. The fall from Paradise was a fall from unity. The Platonizing Greek Fathers even taught that the division of humanity into two sexes was a result of the Fall. St. Augustine, in a more cautious and psychological application of the narrative, says that in the Fall Adam, man’s interior and spiritual self, his contemplative self, was led astray by Eve, his exterior, material, and practical self, his active self. Man fell from the unity of contemplative vision into the multiplicity, complication, and distraction of an active, worldly existence.
Since he was now dependent entirely on exterior and contingent things, he became an exile in a world of objects, each one capable of deluding and enslaving him. Centered no longer in God and in his inmost, spiritual self, man now had to see and be aware of himself as if he were his own god. He had to study himself as a kind of pseudo-object, from which he was estranged. And to compensate for the labors and frustrations of this estrangement, he must try to admire, assert, and gratify himself at the expense of others like himself. Hence the complex and painful network of loves and hatreds, desires and fears, lies and excuses in which we are all held captive. In such a condition, man’s mind is enslaved by an inexorable concern with all that is exterior, transient, illusory, and trivial. And carried away by his pursuit of alien shadows and forms, he can no longer see his own true inner “face,” or recognize his identity in the spirit and in God, for that identity is secret, invisible, and incommunicable. But man has lost the courage and faith without which he cannot be content to be “unseen.” He is pitifully dependent on self-observation and self-assertion. That is to say, he is utterly exiled from God and from his own true self, for neither in God nor in our inmost self can there be any aggressive self-assertion: there is only the plain presence of love and of truth.
So man is exiled from God and from his inmost self. He is tempted to seek God, and happiness, outside himself: a flight that takes him further and further away from reality. In the end, he has to dwell in the “region of unlikeness”—having lost his inner resemblance to God in losing his freedom to enter his own home, which is the sanctuary of God.
But man must return to Paradise. He must recover himself, salvage his dignity, recollect his lost wits, return to his true identity. There is only one way in which this could be done, says the Gospel of Christ. God Himself must come, like the woman in the parable seeking the lost groat. God Himself must become Man, in order that, in the Man-God, man might be able to lose himself as man and find himself as God. God Himself must die on the Cross, leaving man a pattern and a proof of His infinite love. And man, communing with God in the death and resurrection of Christ, must die the spiritual death in which his exterior self is destroyed and his inner self rises from death by faith and lives again “unto God.” He must taste eternal life, which is “to know the Father, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.” (the note here reads: This is Merton’s paraphrase of John 17:3.)
The Christian life is a return to the Father, the Source, the Ground of all existence, through the Son, the Splendor and the Image of the Father, in the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and the Son. And this return is only possible by detachment and “death” in the exterior self, so that the inner self, purified and renewed, can fulfill its function as the image of the Divine Trinity.
Christianity is life and wisdom in Christ. It is a return to the father in Christ. It is a return to the infinite abyss of pure reality in which our own reality is grounded, and in which we exist. It is a return to the source of all meaning and all truth. It is a return to the inmost springs of life and joy. It is a rediscovery of paradise within our own spirit by self-forgetfulness. And, because of our oneness with Christ, it is the recognition of ourselves as sons of the Father. It is the recognition of ourselves as other Christs. It is the awareness of strength and love imparted to us by the miraculous presence of the Nameless and Hidden One Whom we call the Holy Spirit.
There’s a couple issues to overlook: first is the idea from the Adam and Eve story that woman is in any way responsible for our problems. This is old news and the story predates Christianity. Eve’s faults are clearly not what’s being emphasized in the first paragraph nor is blame being placed on her. A few pages later Merton goes on to talk about how our estranged self, our limited self (our human aspect) is not in itself evil or completely separate from the divine. So, easy resolution there (at least in my mind tonight). Secondly, Merton continually uses “man” and various alterations instead of “person” or “humanity”. Merton wrote the pieces that eventually became this book in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, with final revisions in 1968. Understandably, he was not able to escape the linguistic shortcomings of his time.
The section I quoted comes after three chapters in which Merton thoroughly describes the differences between the inner self (i.e. the self of contemplation) and the exterior, limited self. Here’s an interesting paragraph that fleshes a little of that out:
But the exterior “I,” the “I” of projects, of temporal finalities, the “I” that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior “I” who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.
Right on, Thomas. Buddhas of past, present, and future bow to you.
Anyway, back to the earlier, humongous excerpt. What I find fascinating is the compelling explication of the human condition, a telling of our shared circumstance that is not only congruent with my understanding of the fallacy of self (which has come about through my life experience and study/practice of Buddhism), but is also told through a Christian theologic framework and even elucidated with Scripture! This is a big deal to me, because in my years as a practicing Christian I was rarely, if ever, told the story of the religion in much more than the most simplistic terms. I suppose I heard what most kids hear— we’re sinners and need to repent, Jesus/God is the answer and I need to accept that fact if I ever want to even dream of salvation. The problem was, nobody ever properly explained Jesus and the potential relationship we could have with Him in a way that was very compelling.
To be fair, I suppose I wasn’t looking for depth in my faith at the time and I was yet to realize the limitations of my self that were still very much in development. I had to come to know in my own life, in a real way, “the complex and painful network of loves and hatreds, desires and fears, lies and excuses in which we are all held captive.” I’ve learned a thing or two about all that in my 31+ years.
I’ve also come to know something deeper, an interior life that is part of, yet somehow distinct from, the usual life of the world. It wasn’t long after leaving home and having to face life on my own that I got a taste of my limitations and gradually came to know interconnection with something much, much larger than what I used to consider my self. A wisdom began to develop from within that is incredibly hard to explain— there was an undeniable awareness of the vastness of being, rooted in the depths of this very existence. Once again, the story of Christianity from my childhood didn’t seem to talk much about any of this, even if it really was. And again, I admit, I really wasn’t ready to hear much of it before I left home.
I’ve known I dig Thomas Merton for awhile with his understanding and approach to a spiritual/religious life. He’s always seemed to talk about much more than belief. Belief to me often has come across as superficial and, unfortunately, it often is for many people. Belief is only helpful when validated by the reality of life and connected to a practice that actualizes what is often stuck in the intellectual plane. What I see in Merton’s story of Christianity is the imperative to live out the awakened life as revealed by Jesus, not because of some pie in the sky reward (Heaven, as I misunderstood it in my younger years), but because the consequences of our continued sin (delusion) are not only undeniably horrible, but already apparent in everyday life and the misunderstanding of who and what we really are!
Christianity is life and wisdom in Christ. It is a return to the father in Christ. It is a return to the infinite abyss of pure reality in which our own reality is grounded, and in which we exist. It is a return to the source of all meaning and all truth. It is a return to the inmost springs of life and joy. It is a rediscovery of paradise within our own spirit by self-forgetfulness. And, because of our oneness with Christ, it is the recognition of ourselves as sons of the Father.
What I want to say to that is, YES! Or perhaps more appropriately, HALLELUJAH! This is honestly the first time in quite awhile time that a Christian piece of writing has resounded so strongly within me. I’m fascinated by the parallels with Buddhism. From what I’ve read so far, Merton seems to be talking about a genuine path of awakening in the model of Jesus, a Jesus I can certainly get behind. Now the question becomes how exactly to realize this awakening, how do we live a life of contemplation according to the example of Jesus?
I look forward to what the rest of the book has to say.