Sunday, July 26, 2009

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

By Thomas Merton, 390 pages, $39.95, Cistercian Publications, ISBN 978-0-87907-013-7.

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism opens up the treasures of Christian East and West, starting with the Greek Fathers, essential to any full understanding of Western spirituality. Merton's zealous use of Greek and Latin theological terms makes for a linguistic delight. We learn such terms as mystikos, “the hidden rites of the mystery religions”; apophatic mysticism, “mysticism of darkness, unknowing, or night”; and apatheia, “the freedom from passion,” which is not a bad thing, but rather “the summit of the active life” and necessary for deeper spiritual living.

He also plays around with “gnosis,” a much-abused term bandied about by New Agers, wayward academics, and other hippies.

When reading Merton's discussions of this linguistic heritage, one gets the sense that he really lived the life they describe, especially as the terms that he unearths pertain to the book's central themes. He focuses on the contemplative life, which he as a Cistercian was called to live, and the unity of theology and spirituality.

Merton outlines the view that the Church Fathers, best represented by Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, were such orthodox, powerful theologians because they practiced a holistic spiritual theology. They had the intellectual tenets of the faith, yet ardently longed for a deep relationship with God. The theological truths they declared were alive in the persons of the Trinity. This was not mere academic theology, the theology of books and libraries. Merton describes a theology of the heart, a doctrine that came from practice. The theological tenets were personal issues for these early teachers.

According to Merton, some Greek writers, then, take over the term mystikos “and use it in reference to the spiritual (mystical or typological) sense of Scripture. For them the mystical sense is the real sense.” In other words, they change the word, but only as a way to articulate their lived experience of God and His Scripture. Merton describes their spiritual world as being quite rich because of the unity of theology and spirituality, summing up well this union: “One might say that for the Fathers the letter tended to be doctrine and law, the spirit tended to be reality and life.”

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism describes with precise examples and explanations where, when, and by whom the split between theology and spirituality took place in medieval Latin Christendom. Merton argues that Saints Bonaventure and Albert the Great were two of the few Latin medievals who managed to keep the unity.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the split began to create real difficulties. Put rather simply, on the one side, the Church at its worst tended towards worldliness and abuse of Church office, but where its neoscholastic theology “was becoming more and more a speculative science and less and less a wisdom,” Merton notes. On the other side, many Rhineland mystics and Beguines tended to turn away from the institutional, sacramental Church, towards individualistic experiences (witness all the spiritual autobiographies of this time) and weird, non-orthodox teaching. Merton notes that while the mendicants, especially the Dominicans, were the spiritual directors of these often-female mystics, these clergy were often strongly influenced by the lay spirituality.

Moving ahead, during the early modern era, spiritual directors became a central part of Church life, for lay people, clergy, seminarians, and the cloistered. Again, from his own lived experience, Merton discusses the qualities of a good spiritual director, trying to pry his audience away from the belief that spiritual direction is simply a form of counseling. He returns to the earliest Christian examples, showing how the director must be someone who has lived the life, and can therefore share something of himself with his novice. Unlike the professional coldness of modern psychological counseling, the spiritual director is a spiritual father.

By wedding spirituality, theology, and philosophy with a great deal of Church history and a short discussion of modern psychology and counseling, Merton's study advances our woefully inadequate knowledge of centuries of Christian spiritual warriors, who formed the core of the Church that itself formed the core of Western civilization.

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