MYSTICISM: Mysticism in Man’s Life (part one), by Thomas Merton


From The Ascent to Truth

The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution.  Christianity, by its very nature, demands such a revolution.  If Christians would all live up to what they profess to believe, the revolution would happen.  The desire for unworldliness, detachment, and union with God is the most fundamental expression of this revolutionary spirit.  The one thing that remains is for Christians to affirm their Christianity by that full and unequivocal rejection of the world which their Baptismal vocation demands of them.  This will certainly not incapacitate them for social action in the world, since it is the one essential condition for a really fruitful Christian apostolate.

The human race is facing the greatest crisis in its history, because religion itself is being weighed in the balance.  The present unrest in five continents, with everyone fearful of being destroyed, has brought many men to their knees.  This should not lead us into the illusion that the world is necessarily about to return to God.  Nevertheless, the exposure of the nineteenth-century myths – “unlimited progress” and the “omnipotence” of physical science – has thrown the world into confusion.  Many are spontaneously turning to the only evident hope for spiritual and moral integration – an order based on philosophical and theological truth, one which allows free expression to the fundamental religious instinct of man.  So vast is this movement that a psychoanalyst as important as Carl Jung can make the following declaration:

I have treated many hundreds of patients, the larger number being Protestants, a smaller number Jews, and not more than five or six believing Catholics. Among all my patients in the second half of my life there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.  It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.

The big problem that confronts Christianity is not Christ’s enemies.  Persecution has never done much harm to the inner life of the church as such.  The real religious problem exists in the souls of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love him and serve him – yet do not!

The world we live in is dry ground for the seed of God’s truth.  A modern American city is not altogether a propitious place in which to try to love God.  You cannot love him unless you know him.  And you cannot come to know him unless you have a little time and a little peace in which to pray and think about him and study his truth.  Time and peace are not easily come by in this civilization of ours.  And so those who profess to serve God are often forced to get along without either, and to sacrifice their hopes of an interior life.  But how far can one go in this sacrifice before it ceases to be a sacrifice and becomes a prevarication?  The truth is, we are simply not permitted to devote ourselves to God without at the same time leading an interior life.

The reason for this is plain.  Everything we do in the service of God has to be vitalized by the supernatural power of his grace.  But grace is granted us in proportion as we dispose ourselves to receive it by the interior activity of the theological virtues: faith, hope, charity.  These virtues demand the full and constant exercise of our intelligence and will.  But this exercise is frequently obstructed by exterior influences which blind us with passion and draw us away from our supernatural objective.  This cannot be avoided, but it must be fought against by a constant discipline of recollection, meditation, prayer, study, mortification of the desires, and at least some measure of solitude and retirement.

It is certainly not possible, or even desirable, that every Christian should leave the world and enter a Trappist monastery.  Nevertheless, the sudden interest of Americans in the contemplative life seems to prove one thing quite clearly: that contemplation, asceticism, mental prayer, and unworldliness are elements that most need to be rediscovered by Christians of our time.  There is little danger that we will neglect apostolic labor and exterior activity.  Pope Pius XII in a recent exhortation drew attention to the fact that external activity had perhaps been overstressed in some quarters, and reminded Catholics that their personal sanctity and union with Christ in a deep interior life were the most important things of all.  His Holiness writes:

We cannot abstain from expressing our preoccupation and our anxiety for those who, on account of the special circumstances of the moment, have become so engulfed in the vortex of external activity that they neglect the chief duty of the Christian: his own sanctification.  We have already stated publicly in writing that those who presume that the world can be saved by what has rightly been called the “heresy of action” must be made to exercise better judgment.

The fact that the Communists used to be in revolt against everything “bourgeois” imposed on every serious Communist the obligation to practice a strict and almost religious asceticism with regard to practically everything that is valued by the society he hates.  I say that this used to be the case, because it is clear that the Stalinist empire has rapidly reached a cultural level in which everything that was basest in bourgeois materialism has become the Stalinist ideal.  If Christianity is to prove itself in open rebellion against the standards of the materialist society in which it is fighting for survival, Christians must show more definite signs of that agere contra, that positive “resistance,” which is the heart of the Christian ascetic “revolution.”  The true knowledge of God can be bought only at the price of this resistance.

We, who live in what we ourselves have called the Atomic Age, have acquired a peculiar facility for standing back and reflecting on our own history as if it were a phenomenon that took place five thousand years ago.  We like to talk about our time as if we had no part in it.  We view it as objectively as if it existed outside ourselves, in a glass case.  If you are looking for the Atomic Age, look inside yourself: because you are it.  And so, alas, am I.

The evil that is in the modern world ought to be sufficient indication that we do not know as much as we think we do.  It is a strange paradox indeed that modern man should know so much and still know practically nothing.  The paradox is most strange because men in other times, who have known less than we know, have in fact known more.

True, in all times there has been wickedness and great blindness in this world of men.  There is nothing new under the sun, not even the H-bomb (which was invented by our Father Adam).  And it is also true that the ages of greatest despair have sometimes ended up by being ages of triumph and of hope.  There would be little point in writing a book about the Ascent to Truth if there were no hope for the sanity of the human race.  Now that we have awakened to our fundamental barbarism, it seems to me that there is once again a hope for civilization, because men of good will want more than ever to be civilized.  And now that we have our tremendous capacities for evil staring us in the face, there is more incentive than ever for men to become saints.  For man is naturally inclined to good, and not to evil.  Besides our nature, we have what is infinitely greater – the grace of God, which draws us powerfully upward to the infinite truth and is refused to no one who desires it.

The whole happiness of man and even his sanity depend on his moral condition.  And since society does not exist all by itself in a void, but is made up of the individuals who compose it, the problems of society cannot ultimately be solved except in terms of the moral life of individuals.  If the citizens are sane, the city will be sane.  If the citizens are wild animals, the city will be a jungle.

But morality is not an end in itself.  Virtue, for a Christian, is not its own reward.  God is our reward.  The moral life leads to something beyond itself – to the experience of union with God, and to our transformation in him.  This transformation is perfected in another life, and in the light of glory.  Yet even on Earth man may be granted a foretaste of Heaven in mystical contemplation.  And whether he experiences it or not, the man of faith, by virtue of his faith, is already living in Heaven. Conversatio nostra in coelis!

The fact that contemplation is actually the lot of very few men does not mean that it has no importance for mankind as a whole.

If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity.  It is closely allied to sanctity.  You cannot save the world merely with a system.  You cannot have peace without charity.  You cannot have order without saints.



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