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.