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


From The Ascent to Truth

Our nature imposes on us a certain pattern of development which we must follow if we are to fulfill our best capacities and achieve at least the partial happiness of being human.  This pattern must be properly understood and it must be worked out in all its essential elements.  Otherwise, we fail.  But it can be stated very simply, in a single sentence: We must know the truth, and we must love the truth we know, and we must act according to the measure of our love.

What are the elements of this “pattern” that I speak of?  First, and most important of all: I must adapt myself to objective reality.  Second, this adaptation is achieved by the work of my highest spiritual faculties – intelligence and will.  Third, it demands expression when my whole being, commanded by my will, produces actions which, by their moral vitality and fruitfulness, show that I am living in harmony with the true order of things.

These are the bare essentials of the pattern.  They represent a psychological necessity without which man cannot preserve his mental and spiritual health.

I have only stated these fundamentals of our nature in order to build on them.  Contemplation reproduces the same essential outline of this pattern, but on a much higher level.  For contemplation is a work of grace.  The Truth to which it unites us is not an abstraction but Reality and Life itself.  The love by which it unites us to this Truth is a gift of God and can only be produced within us by the direct action of God.  The activity which is its final and most perfect fruit is a charity so supreme that it gathers itself into a timeless self-oblation in which there is no motion, for all its perfection is held within the boundless radius of a moment that is eternal.

These are difficult matters.  To return to our simple sentence: When I say that we must know the truth and love the truth we know, I am not talking primarily about the truth of individual facts and statements but about Truth as such.  Truth is reality itself, considered as the object of the intellect.  The Truth man needs to know is the transcendent reality, of which particular truths are merely a partial manifestation.  Since we ourselves are real, this Truth is not so far distant from us as one might imagine.

Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living man.  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality.  Such discoveries are not capable of being contained in formulas or definitions.  They are a matter of personal experience, of uncommunicable intuition.  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and the balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.

In the lives of those who are cast adrift in the modern world, with nothing to rely on but their own resources, these moments of understanding are short-lived and barren.  For, though many may get a glimpse of the natural value of his spirit, nature alone is incapable of fulfilling his spiritual aspirations.

The Truth man needs is not a philosopher’s abstraction, but God Himself.  The paradox of contemplation is that God is never really known unless He is also loved.  And we cannot love Him unless we do His will.  This explains why modern man, who knows so much, is nevertheless ignorant.  Because he is without love, modern man fails to see the only Truth that matters and on which all else depends.

God becomes present in a very special way and manifests Himself in the world wherever.  He is known and loved by men.  His glory shines in an ineffable manner through those whom He has united to Himself.  Those who as yet know nothing of God have a perfect right to expect that we who do pretend to know Him should give evidence of the fact, not only by “satisfying every one that asketh us a reason of that hope which is in us,” but above all by the testimony of our own lives.  For Christ said, in His priestly prayer:

The glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be one as we also are one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one: and the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast also loved me. (John 17:22-23)

It is useless to study truths about God and lead a life that has nothing in it of the Cross of Christ.  No one can do such a thing without, in fact, displaying complete ignorance of the meaning of Christianity.  For the Christian economy is by no means a mere philosophy or an ethical system, still less a social theory.

Christ was not a wise man who came to teach a doctrine.  He is God, Who became incarnate in order to effect a mystical transformation of mankind.  He did, of course, bring with Him a doctrine greater than any that as ever preached before or since.  But that doctrine does not end with moral ideas and precepts of asceticism.  The teaching of Christ is the seed of a new life.  Reception of the word of God by faith initiates man’s transformation.  It elevates him above this world and above his own nature and transports his acts of thought and of desire to a supernatural level.  He becomes a partaker of the divine nature, a Son of God, and Christ is living in him.  From that moment forward, the door to eternity stands open in the depths of his soul and he is capable of becoming a contemplative.  Then he can watch at the frontier of any abyss of light so bright that it is darkness.  Then he will burn with desire to see the fullness of Light and will cry out to God, like Moses in the cloud on Sinai: “Show me Thy face!”



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