Merton, Mysticism, and Embodied Prayer
For this month, instead of focusing on one book in particular I would like to focus on two by the author, Thomas Merton. Earlier this year I read his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Recently I continued my devotion to his work by reading A Course in Christian Mysticism particularly because I am interested in pursuing research in mysticism. I understood Merton’s experience by reading Seven Storey before I ever discovered the Course, but reading the Course illuminated Merton’s theology.
His experimentation with Eastern traditions is not what I found so intriguing about Merton. His aptitude to uncovering a true and substantial desire to connect with God is what drew me in. I saw myself embodied as that desire. I saw myself striving every moment of my yoga practice to obtain this full mind-body union with God. My spirituality, my faith, my practice never stops no matter if I am in a Church or on a yoga mat. The realization of this immersion connected me to Merton and his experience though we are decades apart.
Thomas Merton had an expedited faith life. Through his childhood and developmental years, spirituality was not distinctly present in his life. He finally rested in the presence of God, but in a non-traditional way. He was not in attending mass or actively studying Christian theology. He was sitting in his room feeling broken. He discovered prayer not by way of words but being: “I really began to pray--praying not with my lips and with my intellect and my imagination, but praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being...” (123). This is the experience of mystical and embodied prayer, the fullest, deepest devotion. This prayer is giving God yourself and not giving Him the gift of words.
Why is this the most powerful? Think of it like this: Today is your birthday and you are meeting up with your best friend or significant other. You are thrilled to spend this time with that person, but then they cancel on you. Instead of being there, they send you flowers and a nice note, maybe even a gift card. While you are still grateful for the physical gift, wouldn’t you rather exchange that gift in order to spend time with that person? In this case, you are God and your best friend or significant other is you. God would much rather to be fully with us than have a systematic streamline of words processing in your head. That word processor space could be more of God’s space.
Your experience of prayer becomes enlightened in a completely new fashion. The effects of this embodied prayer is described by Merton as crystal: “When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place” (186). God’s love magnifies our souls to transform our beings. His love is unconditional, agape. His love is our life through an embodied prayer our soul transcends reality. Merton opened the door to understanding God’s love as the breath of our existence: “the life of a soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings--by which man becomes one with God” (209). Physical prayer unites us with God so that we may encounter his love. We can revive our souls by being in creating the physical presence of God.
The most wonderful element of this course is that it is raw. The pages are filled with experience, study,
criticism, relationships, and faith. For this post, I would like to focus on the need for sincere Christian mysticism today.
Merton warns the insufficiencies of the West’s practice of mysticism by saying, “the West is then to a certain extent predisposed to: water down mysticism, and accept it in a diluted, more devotional form, or else reduce mysticism to speculation and study; insist on social forms, rules, observances, practices, rites…” (90). Today's mysticism is greatly influenced by Eastern religions and philosophies. These Eastern traditions wavered less in their mystical experience than Christianity. This is in part because the Eastern traditions does not bear the institutional confinement that many Christian denominations face.
You may be thinking, “ok so why do we need mysticism?” According to Merton, mysticism and theology are connected because, “without mysticism there is no real theology, and without theology there is no real mysticism” (1). Theology remains a central role in Christianity, yet saying mysticism is neglected today, discounts our theology. In order to increase the Christian mystical life and theology, we must look at all that God has to offer us in this world that He created.
Thomas Merton studied many religious traditions and thus concluded that learning other faiths is essential to increase one’s own faith. His perspective sought inclusion: "I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further….If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it" (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 133).
May we learn from our neighbors and include them. Let us break barriers and find God in all of his creation.
Peace and Namaste,