12 June 2014

Merton, TS Elliot, The Apophatic Way and My Own Contemplative Life

Dear Sister, I like the posts you have put up with the picture of the monk and the quotes from Merton and T.S. Elliot. I hope you continue these. Is Merton a favorite writer and spiritual teacher for you? I ask because some people have written that he went kind of awry or was "off" in his later years and was discredited as a Catholic monk. I don't mean you shouldn't read him but I wondered why you liked him and if you thought that was true.]]

Hi there. Thanks for your comments on the posts. I do plan to continue these. Not only do I love the picture -- which for me sums up so much of the eremitical life -- but I think these posts provide a way of giving a small but significant taste of various authors on the contemplative journey from time to time. When I first thought of combining the picture with a single quote I was thinking that visually and otherwise it would present as a kind of contemplative moment within the blog itself; I thought that might be really attractive to folks who come here. I haven't decided how often I want to put these up -- not TOO frequently of course --- and I think I also need to title them similarly so they stand out as a regular feature of the blog, but those logistical matters aside, yes I will continue to put them up.

As for Thomas Merton, yes, he is a favorite writer and spiritual teacher (or mentor) for me though until very recently it had been some time since I had actually read him. I was saying to a friend earlier today that I have just recently come back to Merton and am beginning to reread him with new eyes. I first picked up his stuff in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Later, in the 1980's I read some of his work on eremitical life. Along with Merton's own stuff I am looking again at the work of William Shannon. The latter's revision of The Dark Path (his new book is called Thomas Merton's Paradise Journey) is really exciting because in it I am reading again about something I once felt called to and with which I resonated to some limited degree, but now recognize as profoundly descriptive of my own spiritual journey and contemplative experience. You see, Merton's approach to contemplation and my own are the same (which is hardly surprising!); we both were called to the "apophatic" (a-poh-FAT-ic) tradition or way --- the way of darkness and denial. (It comes from the Greek word apophasis (uh-POF-uh-sis) which means negation or denial, ("God is not. . ."). It's opposite is the kataphatic or affirmative way (kataphasis [keh-TAF-uh-sis] means affirmation); it is a way of doing theology which proceeds by way of analogy and makes affirmations about God both in terms of similarity ("God is like. . .") and even greater dissimilarity ("but God is even more unlike . . ."). It does not, by definition, penetrate to the deepest essence or heart of God)

Apophatic Tradition in Contemplation

Apophatic contemplation, which is a way built on "experiencing" God directly, thrives on paradox and I have been turned on by paradox and especially by the paradoxes of Christianity from the moment my first major professor explained the difference between the way Greek thought tends to proceed and the way Biblical thought works. (The first moves from thesis to antithesis and then comes to rest in a synthesis which often is a kind of golden mean. Biblical thought, on the other hand, is at home with paradox --- a kind of both/and approach to thought and reality which often says things like "Dive into the emptiness and there you will find real fullness," "In losing yourself you will find yourself,"  "God's mercy IS his justice", and so forth.) For the contemplative knows that even though many of us are driven to write many words about prayer, spirituality, or theology, none of them even comes close to describing God or the experience (or non-experience!) of prayer. At the same time we know that the tensions of paradox come closest to conveying the truth about God and God's dealings with us --- though many would call them senseless babblings. Thus God is a light we only perceive as darkness or a darkness which illuminates, an emptiness which is fullness, the nothing which is all, so that faith and prayer involve a vulnerable leap (which we both must make and actually cannot make ourselves!) into a void in which we find (or rather are found by) total security. You get the idea I think.

Ruth Burrows (Sister Rachel), the Carmelite nun and specialist in Teresa of Avila whom I have also cited recently and like very much is a contemplative in the apophatic way and this is one of the reasons she so rejects the sense experience so many mistakenly associate with an experience of God in so-called "mystical states". Meister Eckhart, also a proponent of the apophatic way, agrees with Ruth Burrows in this and writes in typical paradoxical form: "Seek God so as never to find him". Both agree with Merton that when, through some experience in prayer, one "seems to have found God," they have NOT found God -- or that "once one seems to have grasped God, God has eluded one". As William Shannon (writing in a way which echoes what I have said here any number of times) explains, "God is not an object or a thing alongside of other objects and things: God is the All whom we can discover only in the experience of not discovering." The Apostle Paul described the same experience when he spoke of "coming to know/grasp God, or rather, being known/grasped by God." Paul Tillich's theology, which I focused on in both my senior year of college and later in doctoral work reminds me very much of this because he defines faith as, "the state of being grasped by an unconditional concern" and is emphatic that God is not A being, but instead the ground of being and meaning out of which all that is exists (ex-istere, out of - to stand up).

Of course the really big name in the apophatic way is John of the Cross (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love, ). Meanwhile, T.S. Elliot may also have been "schooled" in the apophatic tradition because in true apophatic style he speaks of coming again to the place where he began and knowing that place for the first time. In Little Gidding V Elliot piles paradox upon paradox but he begins with the following one: [[We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.]] This really is the experience of contemplative prayer, the experience of seeking and exploring that which in some sense we know and desire profoundly as our source and starting place only to come to "know the place for the first time." Merton comes at it from the other way around and says it this way, [[[Contemplation] strikes us at once as utterly new and strangely familiar. . .Although we had an entirely different notion of what it would be like, it turns out to be just what we seem to have known all along that it ought to be. . .We enter a region which we had never even suspected, and yet, it is this new world which seems familiar and obvious.]] Seeds of Contemplation pp 144-145

Thomas Merton, A Brief Evaluation:

All of which brings me back to Thomas Merton and your questions. (Really!!) You see, this is the nature of my own contemplative experience and for that reason I know Thomas Merton to have been the real deal. So much of what he writes resonates with me and my own experience in prayer, but also with the "greats" like John of the Cross, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, many of the Greek Fathers, et al. But besides that, I think I largely owe him for my eremitical vocation. You see when I read canon 603 for the first time it was intriguing to me personally and suggested a way all the dimensions of my life could be rendered coherent (that is, made to hold together in meaningful whole). However, I also doubted such a vocation could be anything but selfish. (Contemplative life struck me that way; eremitical life was far worse --- it seemed a kind of epitome or summit of selfishness!) I then read Dom Jean LeClercq's Alone With God which intrigued me; I liked it very much though I had no idea the Camaldolese existed. Still, I had doubts about the value of the life. Then I read Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action. As I have written here before, it electrified me because it showed eremitical life as valid and more, as a significant gift of God to the Church and world. Later I read his "Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude" in Disputed Questions and that became a new favorite -- but by that time I was already a  hermit and had been for more than twenty years.

Some suggest he was not a true monk or that he had confessed upon walking into a library with shelves of his books that much of it was crap (I think he said B.S.). I have already written about those things in this blog and will link you to it here: Defending Thomas Merton . Bear in mind that for the apophatic contemplative words ALWAYS not only fall short of but also betray God. We are nonetheless compelled to write about God and prayer but with an awareness that when what we write is compared to the God who grasps us in prayer, the judgment must always be what it was for Thomas Merton, Thomas Aquinas and so many others: this is as straw, it is a load of refuse, BS, etc. Further our work is always also our very own and reflects not just our virtue, our knowledge, and our union with God but our limitations and even our sinfulness or estrangement from that same God and our truest selves. Thus when Merton looked upon the newly published Seeds of Contemplation, for instance, he remarked, "Every book I write is a mirror of my own character and conscience. I always open the final printed job with the faint hope of finding myself agreeable and I never do" He goes on to say both sincerely and perhaps with more than a little contemplative irony (or all-too-human hyperbole), "There is nothing to be proud of in this one either. : ."

Meanwhile, as someone associated with the Camaldolese as an oblate, I know that many Christian Contemplatives read, study, and regularly meet and discuss with contemplatives of other religious traditions. Some of my Camaldolese brothers and sisters in particular are specialists in other contemplative traditions and the New Camaldoli hermitage hosts inter-religious meetings of such contemplatives regularly though not frequently. We (contemplatives from various religious traditions) have a lot in common precisely because the God we meet transcends words and descriptions --- and also the limits of our own religious traditions. (Sometimes our own clinging to these limits represents what Mary Magdalene did with the Risen Christ and we need to remember that while we are to honor these traditions appropriately for all they truly reveal/mediate to us, they must not cause us to cling to a yet-unascended Jesus nor to limit the reach of the Holy Spirit.)

Though aware of all this (and paradoxically too, because of it) Merton never ceased to be a Christian and a Cistercian Monk.  Because his own life reflected the paradoxes and tensions of the contemplative who is drawn beyond more usual borders and boundaries I understand why what he wrote was uncomfortable for some of his confreres and others. Of course, I also know he was a flawed human being; his unacceptable behavior with the nurse he met during his stay in hospital was unjustifiable -- though he tried pretty hard (and pitifully) to do this in what I read of his last journal. Still, my own judgment on Merton is favorable. He was and remained a Catholic Christian, Trappist Monk, and true contemplative who was also a contemporary hermit and a fine writer. I am grateful to God for his life and more than a little sorry for his premature death because I would have liked to have known him.