There is no greater joy for a Christian seeking to deepen his practice of the faith than quiet time with Thomas Merton (a review of his autobiography here). The Ascent To Truth is Merton’s meditation on the great Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross and the contemplative life. It has been reported that Merton considered the book a failure, as it is a product of his youth, but if you take a quick scan down to the last entry on Mary, I think you will see that Merton’s “failures” are unqualified successes and can be sources of illumination for the rest of us.
A Pattern of Development in Life and In Contemplation
Our nature imposes on us a certain pattern of development which we must follow if we are to fulfill our best capacities and achieve at least the partial happiness of being human…it can be stated very simply: We must know the truth, and we must love the truth we know, and we must act according to the measure of our love…Contemplation reproduces the same essential outline of this pattern, but on a much higher level. For contemplation is a work of grace, The Truth to which it unites us is not an abstraction but Reality and Life itself. The love by which it unites us to this Truth is a gift of God and an only be produced within us by the direct action of God.
The true nature of mystical contemplation is first of all a supernatural experience of God as He is in Himself. This experience is a free gift of God in a more special sense than are all the other graces required for our sanctification, although it forms a part of the normal supernatural organism by which we are sanctified. Essentially mystical experience is a vivid conscious participation of our soul and its faculties in the life, knowledge and love of God Himself. This participation is ontologically possible only because sanctifying grace is imparted to us as a new “being” superadded to our nature and giving it the power to elicit acts which are entirely beyond its own capacity.
Blaise Pascal on The Psychology of Illusion
A Man can pass his whole life without boredom, merely by gambling each day with a modest sum. Give him, each morning, the amount of money he might be able to win each day, on a condition that he must not gamble: you make him miserable! You may say that what he seeks is the amusement of gaming, not the winnings. All right let him play for nothing. There will be no excitement, he will be bored to death.
So it is not just amusement that he seeks, An amusement that is tame, without passion, only bores him. He wants to get worked up and to delude himself that he is going to be happy if he wins a sum that he would actually refuse if it were given him on condition that he must not gamble. He needs to create an object for his passions and to direct upon his object his desire, his anger and his fear — like children who scare themselves with their own painted faces.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa
All that man pursues in this life has no existence except in his mind, not in reality: opinion, honor, dignities, glory, fortune: all these are the work of this life’s spiders…but those who rise to the heights escape, with the flick of a wing from the spiders of this world. Only those who, like flies, are heavy and without energy remain caught in the glue of this world and are taken and bound, as though in nets, by honors, pleasures, praise and manifold desires, and thus they become the prey of the beast that seeks to capture them.
Men are condemned to physical or spiritual movement because it is unbearable for them to sit still. Blaise Pascal: “We look for rest and overcome obstacles to obtain it. But if we overcome these obstacles, rest becomes intolerable, for we begin to think of the misfortunes that are ours, or of those that threaten to descend upon us.” Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man’s guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire. Incapable of the divine activity which alone can satisfy his soul, fallen man flings himself upon exterior things, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of the agitation which keeps his spirit pleasantly numb….Pascal: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is , in itself, the greatest of our miseries.”
Discernment and Detachment
The Christian contemplation of nature is characterized in the ascetic gift of discernment, which is one penetrating glance, apprehend what creatures are and what they are not. This is the intellectual counterpoise of detachment in the will. Discernment and detachment (krisis and apatheia) are two characters of the mature Christina soul. They are not yet the mark of a mystic but they bear witness that one is traveling the right way to mystical contemplation and the stage of beginners has passed….The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good — charity, union with the will of God — and an equally spontaneous repugnance with what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right or deterred from evil by threat of punishment.
The Tragedy Of Man
Our tragedy consists in this: that although our reason may be capable of showing us clearly the futility of what we desire, we continue to desire it for the sake of the desire. Passion itself is our pleasure. Reason then becomes he instrument of passion. Its perverted function is to create idols — that is fictions –to which we can dedicate the worship of love and hatred, joy and anguish, hope and fear.
The First Commandment
Saint John of the Cross regarded the First Commandment as a summary of the entire ascetic and mystical life, up to and including Transforming Union. He tells us in fact that his works are simply an explanation of what is contained in the commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength.” …Saint John of the Cross: “Herein is contained all the spiritual man ought to do, and all that I have here to teach him, so that he may truly attain God, through union of the will, by means of charity. For herein man is commanded to employ all his faculties and desires and operations and affections of his soul in God so that all the ability and strength of his soul may serve for no more than this.”…this is simply the imitation of Christ “who in His life had no other pleasure than to do the will of his Father. We must renounce and completely reject every pleasure that presents itself to the senses, if it be not purely for the honor and glory of God.
Acquired vs. Infused Wisdom
Acquired wisdom is the fruit of man’s own study and his thought and infused wisdom or contemplation which is a gift of God….Acquired wisdom can do nothing to bring a man to divine union with God, divine union is a vocation and, if faithful, a destiny…The whole ascetical and mystical life is a reproduction of the life of Christ on earth because it completely empties and “annihilates” the soul in order to unite it to God.
Saint Teresa of Avila
“My opinion has always been and always will be that every Christian should try to consult some learned person, if he can, and the more learned the person the better, Those who walk in the way of prayer have the greater need of learning and the more spiritual they are, the greater is their need. Let us not make the mistake that learned men who do not practice (contemplative) prayer are not suitable directors for those who do…if a person who practices prayer consults learned men, the devil will not deceive him with illusions, except by his own desire; for I think the devils are very much afraid of learned me who are humble and virtuous, knowing these will find them out and defeat them.”
Notes on Christian Mystical Experience
In mystical experience God is apprehended as unknown.. A knowledge that registers itself in the soul passively without an idea…the intelligence needs light but contemplation obscures the clear knowledge of divine things, it hides them in a cloud of unknowing …God communicates Himself to the soul passively and in darkness….the only proximate means of union with God is faith…no vision, no revelation, however sublime is worth the smallest act of faith….
Three Statements On Unknowing
1. Acquired conceptual knowledge of God should not be discarded as long as it helps a man toward Divine Union. And it continues to help a man toward Divine Union as long as it does not interfere with the infused, passive, mystical experience of God in obscurity.
2. It is not so much the presence of concepts in the mind that interferes with the obscure mystical illumination of the soul as the desire to reach God through concepts . There is therefore no question of rejecting all conceptual knowledge of God, but of ceasing to rely on concepts as a proximate means of union with Him.
3. You are not supposed to renounce this desire of clear conceptual knowledge of God unless you are actually receiving infused prayer — or unless you are so advanced in then mystical life that your can enter into the presence of God without active thought of Him.
If you begin by juggling with a system of clear ideas which you think delimit and circumscribe the Being of God you will by that very fact, begin judging God according to the measure of your ideas…Like Job’s friends, you set yourself up as a theological advocate of God. You justify His ways to men not according to what He is, but according to what your system says He ought to be. In the end you find yourself apologizing to the world for God and demonstrating that, after all, He is not to be blamed for being what He is because it can be shown that He generally acts like a just prudent and benevolent man. Or rather to help him ascend a few degrees in the estimation of men, you present Him to them as a well-disposed and democratic millionaire. The word for this is blasphemy. It is also atheism because a God who depends on your ideas for His justification cannot possibly exist.
The Certitude Of Scholastic Philosophy And Theology
Catholic philosophy and speculative theology…are in strict truth, sciences…they are not the pragmatic rationalization of vague spiritual desires. On the levels of both philosophy and theology. Catholic thought has a value that is speculative and absolute. That is to say, it arrives at conclusions about God which are endowed with a genuine scientific certitude, because they can be proved by clear demonstration to proceed with inexorable logic form the basic principles which are self evident, in the case of philosophy, and revealed by God, in the case of theology…Yet no matter how great may be the certitude of scholastic philosophy and theology, they both culminate in a knowledge of God tamquam ignotum. They know him in his transcendence. They know him as unknown….the physicist deals with energy in such a way that it becomes subject to his control…although the existence of God ends in absolute certitude, we cannot put our minds in possession of an object which we can determine, master, possess or command….our knowledge of God makes him master of the soul that knows Him….When he knows us we are. When he knows us not, we are not.
Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears I the hours of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable. It is a vision in which Love, mounting into the darkness which no reasoning can penetrate, unites in one bond all the loose strands that intelligence alone cannot connect together, and with this cord draws the whole being of man into a Divine Union, the effects of which will someday overflow into the world outside him.
Concepts and Intelligence
The true spiritual crisis which sometimes leads to faith, the crisis within crisis that must always prepare the way for contemplation, must first of all have an intellectual element. It must be borne of thought. It must spring from a respect for the validity of concepts and of reasoning. It accepts the work of intelligence. But it also sees that concepts and intelligence have their limitations. At the same time it realizes that the spirit is not necessarily bound by these limitations. And this is where the crisis begins…. I believe that Christ is God, that he is the word of God Incarnate. I believe that in Christ a human nature was assumed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in such a way that it does not subsist in a proper human personality of its own but has its being from Him, subsists in Him…I believe that the man Christ is a Divine Person, the Son of God. And I believe that by the grace which He has purchased for us all by His death on the Cross and which He has made available for all by His Resurrection form the dead, and communicated to all who are baptized. He has given me a share in that divine sonship. Spiritually therefore I am living by the life of the Son of God. My life is “hidden with Christ in God.” So much I believe….These are concepts and they are joined in intelligible judgments. I can penetrate their meaning by an analysis of them which compares their revealed content with the content of other propositions revealed by God or even with propositions known to reason. And yet they remain mysteries to me. No amount of analysis can make them clearly evident to my intelligence….Nevertheless, the love of God endows man’s spirit with a kind of instinctive realization that somehow these mysteries of faith are meant to be penetrated and appreciated. In a certain sense theyare given us to be understood Faith seeks understanding, not only in study by above all in payer. Fides quaerit intellect…And Saint Paul explained to the Christian converts of Corinth that although he spoke “the wisdom of God in a mystery, a mystery which is hidden,” nevertheless the Spirit of God would manifest hidden wonders of this wisdom. “To us God hath revealed them by His Spirit…We have received not the spirit of the world but he Spirit that is of God: that we may know the things that are given us from God .(1 Corinthians 2:7, 10, 12).
Contemplation: A Gift Of Self To God
The passage from philosophical understanding to faith is marked by a gift of our self to God. The moment of transition is the moment of sacrifice. The passage from faith to that spiritual understanding which is called contemplation is also a moment of immolation. It is the direct consequence of a more complete and radical gift of ourselves to God. Contemplation is a an intensification of faith that transforms belief into something akin to vision. Yet it is not “vision” since contemplation, being pure faith, is even darker than faith itself….For at the very moment we give ourselves to God, God gives himself to us. He cannot give Himself completely to us unless we give ourselves completely to Him: but we cannot give ourselves completely to Him unless He first gives Himself in some measure to us…We can only give ourselves to God when Christ , by His grace, dies and rises spiritually within us.
St. John of The Cross And Scripture
St. John of The Cross does not merely illustrate his doctrine by use of scripture, he proves it by scripture…He finds his doctrine in the Bible. He can say, as Jesus said, that his doctrine is not merely his won but he doctrine of the Father who sent him….”He who speaks within the divine scripture is the Holy Spirit.”
Our happiness must come, metaphysically speaking, from outside ourselves. That does not mean that perfect happiness consists in a psychological exteriorization of ourselves in created things. Far from it! But even our happiness comes from a being other than our own spirit, beatitude cannot objectively be considered as he perfection which we receive from that Being, even though he be God. To be happy we must be taken out of ourselves and raised above ourselves, not only to a higher level of creation but to the uncreated essence of God. God and God alone is our beatitude…Perfect beatitude, which is union with God in a clear vision of the Divine Essence, is something which exceeds the capacity of any created nature to achieve…Our cooperation with his grace is demanded of us. There must be action on both sides. He will not give himself to us unless we give ourselves to Him.
The Social Character of The Solitary Contemplative
No matter how solitary a man may be, if he is a contemplative his contemplation has something of a social character. He receives it through the Church. All true and supernatural contemplation is a share in God’s revelation of Himself in the world in Christ. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, prolonging His Incarnation manifesting Him still in the world. She is in full possession of his revelation. She alone dispenses the treasures of His grace.
The Humble Contemplative
God tells Moses to seek the advice of his brother Aaron: “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” Having heard these words Moses took courage…for this is characteristic of a humble soul which dares not to treat with God alone and cannot be completely satisfied without human counsel and guidance. And this is the will of God, for he draws near to those who come together to treat concerning truth in order to expound an confirm it in them upon a foundation of natural reason….the last thing many men would look for in a mystic would be a positive need for the advice and guidance of other men. Yet this is precisely one of the characteristic of a truly interior soul.
The Role of Asceticism
Without asceticism, the mystical life is practically out of the question. But asceticism does not need to find expression in strenuous exercises of mortification, still less spectacular and extraordinary macerations. On the contrary the true path of asceticism is a path of simplicity and obscurity, and there is no true Christian self-denial that does not begin first of all with a whole-hearted acceptance and fulfillment of the ordinary duties of one’s state in life.
Reason And The Mystical Life
Mystical prayer is a gift of God to a soul purified by ascetic discipline. This is only achieved when all the passions and faculties are controlled by reason. Mystical prayer depends, per accidens,(per se – per accidens. <philosophical terminology> Latin phrases meaning “through itself” and “by accident,” used by medieval philosophers to distinguish essential and accidental features of substances) On the right ordering of the soul by reason. Reason is the key to the mystical life.
The Harmful Consequences Of Created Pleasure
(Under Christian asceticism) we must never allow our will to seek any created pleasure for pleasure’s sake…if the will does not pass through that pleasure to rest in God rather than in the pleasure itself, then, while not necessarily being formally sinful , it will have harmful consequences for the soul because it will cause it to rest in created pleasure and will thus blind it to the supernatural light that should lead us, by the way of the Cross, to union with God.
Sanctity And Self-Knowledge
The success or failure of a man’s spiritual life depends on the clarity with which he is able to see and judge he motives of his moral acts…the first step to sanctity is self-knowledge. It is the function of reason to judge these motives to try the purity of our intentions and to evaluate the object of our desire and all the circumstances that surround our moral activity. But this work of reason is obstructed and fouled by a habit of acting on impulse every time we are prompted by the instinctive motions passion and desire.
Asceticism And Charity
The true measure of asceticism is charity. Self-denial is the mark of the Christian only because it is the negative predisposition for that charity by which alone it can truly be known whether or not we belong to Christ. We have to deny ourselves because, in practice, love that is centered in ourselves is stolen form God and from other men. Love can only live by giving. When it steals and is stolen, it dies, because it is no longer free.
The Way To God
The way to God is a way of emptiness, without refreshment or pleasure, in which we seek no light but faith and hear no voice but that of faith — so that in the end, we must always walk in darkeness. We must travel in silence.
Intelligent Humility, The Functions of Intelligence And Sharing Truth
God’s infused graces depend on a passivity that is supremely humble because it is intelligent. Since humility is truth, it presupposes a supernaturally enlightened intelligence….The function of the intelligence is to guarantee the purity of faith hope, and charity, not by much reasoning and subtlety but by the constant ascetical discernment between the illusions of subjectivism and the true light which come from God…Truth reveals itself to the light of reason in a way that can be shared in the same way by all who use that light. Once who understands a truth can convey his understanding to another by evidence and demonstration.
The act of faith is the first step toward contemplation and toward the beatific vision….Faith is the supernatural virtue, the function which is to enable the intelligence of man to make a firm and complete assent to divinely revealed truth, not on account of the clear intrinsic evidence of statements about God but on the authority of God himself, revealing to us what we do not actually see….the act of faith is elicited under the impulsion of the will…It is a gift of God…and produced under the inspiration of grace….The Holy Spirit takes our will, which has been deflected away from God by sin and corrects its aim and at the same time illuminates the understanding so that we believe….Faith is a vision of God which is essentially obscure. The soul knows Him, not because it beholds Him face to face, but because it is touched by Him in darkness.
The Church is the custodian of divinely revealed Truth. Guided by the Holy Ghost , she is the only true and authoritative interpreter of that Truth. The treasury of faith to which she holds the key is a body of concepts about God. These are the statements which we believe. Believing them, we are able, with the help of our intelligence and the light of grace, to arrive at a certain measure of understanding concerning the things of God…Contemplation is the supernatural experience of the truths about God contained in the deposit of Christian faith.
The Central Mystery
“I in them and thou in me, that they may be perfect in one.” The words of Jesus allow of no looser interpretation. Jesus is saying that those who reach perfect union with God, in Himself, will be as much One with God by grace as He is One with the Father by Nature. This is the most tremendous and central mystery of Christianity.
God is said to be pleased with the soul which He finds filled with His own reality, His own love, His own truth. In a mysterious way we please God by knowing him, because we can only know Him by receiving His light into our hearts. Faith, then, is not only capable penetrating the intimate substance of God’s truth, but it is an immediately redemptive knowledge of God. It “saves” us. Its light…confers life…it transforms a man’s whole moral being. He is born again…the truth is actually contained, in a hidden manner, in the articles of faith themselves.
The Anguish Of The Soul
Creatures are such faint reflections of His divine Being that they are no more than the footprints He has left behind Him as He went on His way. They bear witness to His passing; but by that very fact their testimony is tinged with a special anguish….the soul is nailed to the cross of anguish and darkness which is he crisis of true faith. It sees that faith, because it is at once certain and obscure, reveals God by hiding Him and by hiding reveals Him. However this no mere intellectual dilemma. It is not a problem, for a problem can be disposed of by reasonable solution. The soul is not looking for a solution. It is not proposing a question that faith must answer. Its anguish is of a different and far deeper nature. It is the agony of love that possesses God without seeing Him and is yet restless because it needs to rest in pure vision. Thus its rest is at best a suspension in the void.
The Needle Of Faith
Not all temperaments will seek God in the same way. Some will try above all to satisfy their minds with precise reasoning and clear speculative thought, by which, to some small extent, the truths of faith can be explained. Others will become engrossed in the vital organism of liturgical prayer in which God is at the same time known, loved and served in a way that brings into play all the faculties of man’s being and elevates his soul to God by easy and simple means. Still others will be drawn to seek God, almost from the first, by interior recollection and affective union within their own souls, and they will strive to effect this union by works of prayer, of self-denial and of love. But in every case the concepts and propositions taught by faith are a kind of needle’s eye. The virtue of faith itself is the needle. Our intellect and will, like a double thread, must be threaded into the needle and drawn by the needle through the veil of obscurity that separates us from God. Without the needle of faith, the veil can never be penetrated.
The Vision Of God In Heaven
St Paul says that in heaven “I shall be known even as I am known”….St John paraphrases the statement of the soul: “May I be so transformed in thy beauty that, being alike in beauty, we may both see ourselves in Thy beauty, since I shall have Thine own beauty; so that when one of us looks at the other, each may see in the other his beauty, the beauty of both being thy beauty alone, and I being absorbed in Thy beauty.
When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul saw that in containing Him she contained the world besides. The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and end of all things came before her in her deepest heart. And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm she slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence….it is the mission of Our Lady in the world to form this Christ of hers, this Giant, in the souls of men much as He formed Himself in her. She brings them His grace, and His grace is his own life-giving presence. He is born in every man by Baptism, but we do not know it. He casts his shadow over the soul that first senses Him in the peace of contemplation; but that is not enough. At the summit of the mystical life, God must move and reveal Himself and shake the world within the soul and rise from his sleep like a giant.