Merton and Mysticism: How it Applies to Yoga
Updated: Apr 29
This post is the second of a three-part series formatted from my writing sample written in the fall of 2019. It was originally posted on Christians Practicing Yoga. You can view the citations for this piece here.
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Merton’s thoughts on mysticism are written in his A Course in Christian Mysticism, a series of lectures delivered to the novices at Gethsemani Abbey (the monastery where Merton lived) between 1961 and 1964. Although he saw mystical experiences as crucial to his own religious development in his famous autobiography, A Course in Christian Mysticism provides something of a textbook for Catholics seeking to cultivate mystical experience through theological study.
Merton draws on a long tradition of Catholic mystical thought which has many parallels in other religious traditions. The Christian mystical tradition dates as far back as the Apostle Paul and continues throughout other New Testament writings like the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John (see John 1:4) specifically defines Christ’s incarnation as the union of humanity and divinity. This idea of unity profoundly affected Merton’s mystical focus on the Incarnation. For Merton, mysticism and Catholic theology are fundamentally linked because neither can exist without the other. He said, “Without mysticism there is no real theology, and without theology there is no real mysticism.” Christian mystics throughout the centuries saw building a relationship with God to the point of becoming one with God as the purpose of theology. The phrase “one with God” is a more general statement. Some mystics will say that they actually became one with God by becoming a piece of God, but some will say that being one with God means being in relationship with God.
Mysticism is essential in thinking about the relationship between Christianity and yoga, whether we recognize it or not. A mystical experience can happen through mindfulness meditation, liturgical rituals, physical practices, or devotional prayer. The Sanskrit word yogins, a term frequently translated as “mystics” and close to the word yoga, illustrates this connection perfectly. Merton provided concrete instructions on mystical experiences that are similar to yoga. He advises readers to utilize contemplative prayer as the path to mystical experiences.
The word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning “to yoke” or “to unite.” This uniting refers to yoga as a practice of becoming one with the divine. The practice of yoga stems from traditional texts such as the Bhagavad Gita (see Molly’s post on the Bhagavad Gita) and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yogic practices connect the practitioner with a divine being much like Merton’s idea of mystical experience. Many attribute the Yoga Sutras to Patanjali who describes mystical experiences from the ego’s perception of how we see ourselves and God beyond the physical and material world. This Eastern understanding of yoga is like the Catholic contemplative prayer Merton practiced because each are a practice to satisfy the hope of a connection with God. Even Merton cited the traditional Hindu mystical text, Bhagavad Gita, three times in his journals. He went as far as including the Bhagavad Gita in a list of books that have influenced him.
Christians use the practice of yoga to explore mystical experiences. Christians today are traditionally introduced to a physical practice of yoga first through the many yoga classes offered in fitness studios. Those who eventually utilize yoga as a spiritual practice engage in a Christianized form of bhakti yoga, or the yoga of devotion. This devotion can be interpreted through offerings invoking Jesus, prayers worshipping God, or actions honoring God. Bhakti yoga is known as the highest form of yoga according to the Bhagavad Gita because, through this practice, the individual will become one with God, or in relationship with God depending on interpretation, much like mystical experiences praised by Christian mystics. (See also Rev. Kevin Flynn’s Encounter with God, as described by Jean Marie Déchanet.)
Thomas Merton was already heavily influenced by Eastern traditions by the time he presented A Course in Christian Mysticism. This lecture series occurred near the publishing of his book, Mystics and Zen Masters, which develops a connection between Asian traditions and Christian mysticism. He also refers to William St. Thierry, a theologian and mystic who influenced the author of Christian Yoga, Jean-Marie Déchanet. Merton feared that his encouragement of mysticism in a western context would have the effect of diminishing its power. He voiced this concern 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…” Merton was initially hesitant to widespread exposure to mysticism because he did not know if the Western Christian community could actually practice mysticism authentically.
In spite of this, Merton still encouraged Christians to see how Christian mysticism in particular played a central role in the history of the Church to link the mystical and material world. Through one’s faith-life, the “mystical life . . . is lived in the Church as a witness of the living in the risen Christ.” The resurrection plays a central role to the Christian faith and reconciling a human and divine, or mystical and material, nature. Merton recognized Christ through mysticism because Christ himself is one with God as in Trinitarian doctrine.
We too can utilize yoga like contemplative prayer in order to reap a richer relationship with God. Our yoga practice can facilitate a deep relationship with God through meditating on different elements of Christ. In following Merton’s emphasis on Christ resurrection, maybe think about dedicating a yoga practice to Christ’s resurrection. You may want to repeat the words “He is risen,” or try to embody the vitality of the resurrection through your practice. The possibilities are endless!