Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sacred Mystery

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

This book was a real treat to read, providing the kind of "spiritual nourishment" that I used to find in scripture before my Mormon worldview collapsed.  Taken as a whole, the book seems random and resistant to facile analysis; the author himself characterizes it as "a volume of more or less disconnected thoughts" (xix).  Nonetheless, I found it a very rich exploration of the unknown (and unknowable) God I had met before in the work of Thomas Merton.  Rather than attempt to cover the whole thing in this brief review, I will quote a few passages that speak to me and summarize why I think they are important.

(1) The following is one of the best attempts I know of to express what I mean (and have always meant) when talking about "spiritual experiences":
Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being.  It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.  It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith...It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts.  It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed.  For in contemplation we know by "unknowing."  Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or "unknowing" (1-2).
This kind of "obscure knowledge" (which is really an awareness more than any kind of certainty) is still available to me, and I continue to cultivate it as I can.  Unfortunately, I am increasingly uncomfortable speaking about it openly in the LDS church, which seems afraid of it (and reacts to it officially with anger, condemnation, or lack of understanding).  The only rhetoric of belief welcome at fast and testimony meetings is a kind of absolute certainty which I have outgrown (inasmuch as it is founded on experiences I have not had as reported by people I can no longer find any compelling reason to trust).

(2) Elsewhere, Merton captures how the kind of obscure knowledge he embraces presupposes and demands skepticism and openness to reform:
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.  On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.  For every gain in certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial "doubt."  This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.  This false "faith" which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our "religion" is subjected to inexorable questioning.  This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas...What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations!  The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest.  It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply "is" (12-13). 
This captures exactly how I have felt over the last few years, as my "obscure knowledge" of God has eroded and destroyed my testimony of the restored gospel (as taught by the LDS church).  My desire has consistently been to eradicate my prejudice, to break my passion, and to exist at last as a freer man.  Under pretense of helping me fulfill this desire, the church has taken hold of my passion and prejudice and tried to make them permanent instruments with which to control me in life (and perhaps beyond): they want to establish themselves (and their image of God) on that altar where I am determined (with Merton) to put nothing.

(3) Why nothing?  Again, Merton has a thought-provoking answer:
In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.  He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because "God is not a what," not a "thing."  That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of the contemplative experience.  It sees that there is no "what" that can be called God.  There is "no such thing" as God because God is neither a "what" nor a "thing" but a pure "Who."  He is the "Thou" before whom our inmost "I" springs into awareness.  He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo "I am" (13).
So "god" is a term we use to mark reality as a whole: it is necessarily larger than any description anyone tries to make of it.  To define something that is by definition indefinite is to lose touch with the reality after which one is reaching.  Instead of leading to knowledge of God (who is infinite), such misguided efforts merely create an idol, a finite imitation that is now almost completely unconnected to the reality it affects to describe.  I think the LDS portrait of divinity, when conceived dogmatically, is such an idol.  It is wrong to say that the Mormon myth of the divine is demonstrably more "true" than the Catholic, or the Jewish, or the Islamic, or the Hindu, or the Buddhist, or the ancient Greek.  Instead of being "truer,"  it is just different, with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  Until this is acknowledged, it is impossible to really learn from other faith traditions: what can the man who knows everything (or at least, everything really important) learn?

Since I have more passages to put up and this post is already long, I will end here for the present, saving the rest for a future post or posts.


  1. My own experience has always been that I feel much freer when I am keeping the covenants I have made in the LDS Church (bearing my brother's burdens, obeying God's law [Scriptural law, including Jesus' 2 great commandments and the 10 commandments], living the laws of sacrifice/chastity/consecration, etc) than when I am not. I have tried both ways, and the result has been in no way equivocal for me. I found that I did not like being controlled by the passions and appetites which always seem to move in when I abandoned this particular path. Rejecting these things did not feel like freedom to me. I hope you are not offended by my sharing this experience with you. I am not trying to convert you with rhetoric, just relating what my life has been. I have never had the talent to contemplate things as deeply as Merton possesses, I suspect, but I do hope and believe (rather than know of a surety, I confess) that our days of uncertainty are limited to this life. At some time beyond this life we may be allowed to contemplate pure truth without restrictions or veils, if it will not destroy us to do so.

  2. The real issue for me is one of understanding. I want to understand what produces good conduct in myself (and in others, inasmuch as their reality is accessible to me). The longer I live, the more it seems that righteousness lies outside the narrow bounds the LDS church puts on it (much as a responsible approach to politics lies outside the platforms of both major parties in America). The church includes some good things in its platform (like both major political parties: no one is elected on the promise to hurt everyone and ruin the country), but it is not really connected to the historical and psychological realities that I find myself encountering. This does not mean that I reject everything in it, much as my political disaffection does not mean that I reject all Republicans and Democrats as being purely evil, but it does mean that I cannot stomach surrendering to it my own power to comprehend the world and make decisions for myself (much as I cannot abdicate to lawmakers my responsibility to provide for myself and my family morally and materially). I cannot submit to leaders who demand complete obedience now with the nebulous promise of future light and knowledge at some unspecified future moment in time when God will suddenly deign to speak to me in a way he never has. I cannot afford to owe my morals (and my soul) to someone else. I have to find truth for myself, and the truth I find, while it does include some of the truth embraced by the LDS church, is much larger than (and in certain respects different from) the church's truth. For a while I tried to ignore the discrepancies, but eventually they were just too many and too important. I am sorry.

  3. There is no need to apologize to me, that I can see. I see clearly that your experience is different than mine, and both of ours differ from Thomas Merton's, although yours evidently is closer to his than mine. If I were to embrace the ideas of Thomas Merton, I know from my past that they would NOT produce good conduct in me. I do not need to perform that experiment again. I therefore choose to stay within the narrow bounds of the LDS Church and its teachings, as long as I am allowed to do so.

  4. I think you are a little unfair to "the LDS church" and the views/mandates/controls that you ascribe to it and its members in this post.

    That having been said, I really like the idea of spiritual contemplation presented in the first quote given above. I think so many people -- of whatever faith -- are often too quick to equate "feeling the spirit" (or whatever rhetorical equivalent their chosen "faith" uses to describe such a feeling) with feeling comfortable or happy on the one hand, while equating feelings of discomfort or confusion with the spirit leaving.

    A recent post on FMH (sorry; I have no clue how to add links) talked about something similar: the discomort one feels in being presented squid souffle for breakfast instead of one's usual, comfortable bacon-and-eggs does not mean that the spirit has left. But I digress.

    I think we should all be striving for the enlightenment that comes with the contemplation, gratitude, and awareness that Merton describes in the first quote: that is where the possibility of "truth" finds its resonance in our lives. As Hoosier points out, it can indeed be found -- and often is -- by me, at any rate -- in the LDS church, though its presence elsewhere should also not be discounted.

  5. I agree that it is rather specious to talk about "the LDS church" as a monolithic entity: in reality there are as many variations on LDS doctrine and practice as there are members. My primary beef is with the "official version" of the gospel that gets put out via correlation and missionary work. Along with this "official version" comes strong pressure to suppress thoughtful dissent (that looks at the evidence and respectfully disagrees), which I would separate from virulent dissent (which reacts angrily and wants to assign blame rather than increase understanding all round). It is hard to feel comfortable at church when you can never tell people how you really feel about what everyone agrees are the most important things in life.

  6. Regarding the idea that "one day we will know everything," I have to say that I do not believe it anymore. I think there are some things that exist as fundamental mysteries (things that cannot be known): if the rhetoric of divinity has any useful place, it is in helping us come to terms with that which by nature is unknowable. When we try to make the rhetoric work in a dogmatic fashion outside that realm in competition with other types of discourse, I think we sell ourselves (and our view of the world) short. We end up misusing the power of imagination. Maybe I can write more about this somewhere else (in a more coherent way).