Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

By Thomas Merton, 390 pages, Cistercian Publications.

Merton, the Cistercian monk who died in 1968, goes over a profound amount of Christian spirituality and theology with these lecture notes for young monks at his Kentucky monastery. He takes the view that theology and spirituality, including mysticism, function best when they form a unified whole, as they did with the Church Fathers.

Merton's discussion of certain Greek Fathers such as Gregory Nazianzus shows why these teachers must be read more often by Catholics. They form the basis of our theology and spirituality. Moreover, they were theologians because they loved God and searched for a deeper relationship with Him. From this quest, they gained theological knowledge. While they formed their theology on the tenets of the faith, they also based it on their relationship with God. According to Merton, “In St. Gregory of Nyssa the dogmatic writings ... have a direct orientation to the mystical life.”

When discussing these Greek writers, as usual, Merton does not hesitate to use Latin and Greek expressions, which can be hard for readers with no interest in such terms. But for those with a keen sense of the intellectual heritage of the Church, Merton's wordsmithing adds greatly to the discussion. For instance, he defines Nyssa's Greek term “Epectasis” as “the ever-increasing growth of live and desire and penetration into the inexhaustible ocean of divine light.”

Sentences like this are almost one-of-a-kind Merton. Very few people develop the intellectual and spiritual capacity to write such things. Merton's understanding of both Greek and Latin lungs of the Church also help readers to see the great debt the Western Church owes to the Greek Fathers.

In the Latin West, as he traces it, the split during the Middle Ages between theology and spirituality caused all sorts of issues. Fourteenth-century mystics in the Rhineland turned away from Church hierarchy and orthodox theology, and looked inward. They practiced a non-sacramental, non-hierarchical, highly individualistic and pietistic spirituality frowned upon by the Church.

Clergy, for their part, over-focused at this time on speculative theology, and became corrupted by the Church's great material wealth and power. With their neo-scholastic theology, as taught chiefly at the University of Paris, the Schoolmen forgot the importance of lived, personal, Christ-centred spirituality.

Yet theology and spirituality are never so simple, and Merton digs up some of the complications with his analysis of the Dionysian (from a fifth-century Greek theologian) versus Augustinian strands in medieval spirituality. Again, we read a sentence only Merton could write:

“The cosmos of Denys is then a vast ecstatic communion of intelligence striving to respond to the call of divine Love summoning them to unity in Christ, each according to his rank and degree of purity.”

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism is one of Merton's best yet most demanding books, as he whizzes by centuries and geographical areas of theology, spirituality, and religious culture, yet all the while on the search for the great love of his life, God. The enthusiasm behind the writing of this book comes from Merton's own lived experience of these ideas, which give an immediacy and a frankness to the analysis.

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