MYSTICISM: From Faith to Wisdom by Thomas Merton

from faith to wisdom

From New Seeds of Contemplation

The living God, the God who is God and not a philosopher’s abstraction, lies infinitely beyond the reach of anything our eyes can see or our minds can understand.  No matter what perfection you predicate of him, you have to add that your concept is only a pale analogy of the perfection that is in God, and he is not literally what you conceive by what term.

He who is infinite light is so tremendous in his evidence that our minds only see him as darkness.  Lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.  (The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not understood it.)

If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent him to us as he is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness.  Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find him we must enter into silence.

Since God cannot be imagined, anything our imagination tells us about him is ultimately misleading and therefore we cannot know him as he really is unless we pass beyond everything that can be imagined and enter into an obscurity without images and without the likeness of any created thing.

And since God cannot be seen or imaged, the visions of God we read of the saints having are not so much visions of him as visions about him; for to see any limited form is not to see him.

God cannot be understood except by himself.  If we are to understand him we can only do so by being in some way transformed into him, so that we know him as he knows himself.  And he does not know himself by any representation of himself: his own infinite being is his own knowledge of himself and we will not know him as he knows himself until we are united to what he is.

Faith is the first step in this transformation because it is a cognition that knows without images and representations by a loving identification with the living God in obscurity.  Faith reaches the intellect not simply through the senses but in a light directly infused by God.  Since this light does not pass through the eye or the imagination or reason, its certifude becomes our own without any vesture of created appearance, without any likeness that can be visualized or described.  It is true that the language of the article of faith to which we assent represents things that can be imagined, but in so far as we imagine them we misconceive them and tend to go astray.  Ultimately we cannot imagine the connection between the two terms of the proposition: “In God there are three persons and one nature.”  And it would be a great mistake to try.

If you believe, if you make a simple act of submission to the authority of God proposing some article of faith externally through his church, you receive the gift of an interior light that is so simple that it baffles description and so pure that it would be coarse to call it an experience.  But it is a true light, perfecting the intellect of man with a perfection far beyond knowledge.

It is of course necessary to remember that faith implies the acceptance of truths proposed by authority.  But this element of submission in faith must not be so overemphasized that it seems to constitute the whole essence of faith: as if a mere unloving, unenlightened, dogged submission of the will to authority were enough to make a “man of faith.”  If this element of will is overemphasized then the difference between faith in the intellect and simple obedience in the will becomes obscured.  In certain cases this can be very unhealthy, because actually if there is no light of faith, no interior illumination of the mind by grace by which one accept the proposed truth from God and thereby attains to it, so to speak, in his divine assurance, then inevitably the mind lacks the true peace, the supernatural support which is due to it.  In that event there is not real faith.  The positive element of light is lacking.  There is a forced suppression of doubt rather than the opening of the eye of the heart by deep belief.  Where there is only a violent suppression of doubt and nothing more, can we suppose that the true interior gift of faith has really been received?  This is, of course, a very delicate question, because it often happens that where there is deep faith, accompanied by true consent of love to God and to his truth, there may yet persist difficulties in the imagination and in the intellect.

In a certain sense we may say that there are still “doubts,” if by that we mean not that we hesitate to accept the truth of revealed doctrine, but that we feel the weakness and instability of our spirit in the presence of the awful mystery of God.  This is not so much an objective doubt as a subjective sense of our own helplessness which is perfectly compatible with true faith.  Indeed, as we grow in faith we also tend to grow in this sense of our own helplessness, so that a man who believes much may, at the same time, in this improper sense, seem to “doubt” more than ever before.  This is no indication of theological doubt at all, but merely the perfectly normal awareness of natural insecurity and of the anguish that comes with it.

The very obscurity of faith is an argument of its perfection.  It is darkness to our minds because it so far transcends their weakness.  The more perfect faith is, the darker it becomes.  The closer we get to God, the less is our faith diluted with the half-light of created images and concepts.  Our certainty increases with this obscurity, yet not without anguish and even material doubt, because we do not find it easy to subsist in a void in which our natural powers have nothing of their own to rely on.  And it is in the deepest darkness that we most fully possess God on Earth, because it is then that our minds are most truly liberated from the weak, created lights that are darkness in comparison to him; it is then that we are filled with his infinite light which seems pure darkness to our reason.

In this greatest perfection of faith the infinite God himself becomes the light of the darkened soul and possesses it entirely with his truth.  And at this inexplicable moment the deepest night becomes day and faith turns into understanding.

From all this it is evident that faith is not just one moment of the spiritual life, not just a step to something else.  It is that acceptance of God which is the very climate of all spiritual living.  It is the beginning of communion.  As faith deepens, and as communion deepens with it, it becomes more and more intensive and at the same time reaches out to affect everything else we think and do.  I do not mean merely that now all our thoughts are couched in certain fideist or pietistic formulas, but rather that faith gives a dimension of simplicity and depth to all our apprehensions and to all our experiences.

What is this dimension of depth?  It is the incorporation of the unknown and of the unconscious into our daily life.  Faith brings together the known and the unknown so that they overlap: or father, so that we are aware of their overlapping.  Actually, our whole life is a mystery of which very little comes to our conscious understanding.  But when we accept only what we can consciously rationalize, our life is actually reduced to the most pitiful limitations, though we may think quite otherwise.  (We have been brought up with the absurd prejudice that only what we can reduce to a rational and conscious formula is really understood and experienced in our life.  When we can say what a thing is, or what we are doing, we think we fully grasp and experience it.  In point of fact, this verbalization – very often it is nothing more than verbalization – tends to cut us off from genuine experience and to obscure our understanding instead of increasing it.)

Faith does not simply account for the unknown, tag it with a theological tag and file it away in a safe place where we do not have to worry about it.  This is a falsification of the whole idea of faith.  On the contrary, faith incorporates the unknown into our everyday life in a living, dynamic, and actual manner.  The unknown remains unknown,.  It is still a mystery, for it cannot cease to be one.  The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole, in which we are more and more able to transcend the limitations of our eternal self.

Hence the function of faith is not only to bring us into contact with the “authority of God” revealing; not only to teach us truths “about God,” but even to reveal to us the unknown in our own selves, in so far as our unknown and undiscovered self actually lives in God, moving and acting only under the direct light of his merciful grace.

This is, to my mind, the crucially important aspect of faith which is too often ignored today.  Faith is not just conformity, it is life.  It embraces all the realms of life, penetrating into the most mysterious and inaccessible depths not only of our unknown spiritual being but even of God’s own hidden essence and love.  Faith, then, is the only way of opening up the true depths of reality, even of our own reality.  Until a man yields himself to God in the consent to total belief, he must inevitably remain a stranger to himself, an exile from himself, because he is excluded from the most meaningful depths of his own being: those which remain obscure and unknown because they are too simple and too deep to be attained by reason.

At once the question arises: do you mean the subconscious mind?  Here a distinction must be made.  We tend to imagine ourselves as a conscious mind which is “above” and a subconscious mind that is “below the conscious.”  This image tends to be misleading. The conscious mind of man is exceeded in all directions by his unconscious.  There is darkness not only below our conscious reason but also above it and all around it.  Our conscious mind is by no means the summit of our being.  Nor does it control all the rest of our being from a point of eminence.  It merely controls some of the elements that are below it.  But our conscious mind may in turn be controlled by the unconscious that is “beyond” it, whether above or below.  However, it should not be controlled by what is below it, only by what it above.  Hence the important distinction between the animal, emotional, and instinctive components of our unconscious and the spiritual, one might almost say the “divine,” elements in our superconscious mind.

Now faith actually brings all of the unconscious into integration with the rest of our life, but it does so in different ways.  What is below us is accepted (not by any means merely rationalized).  It is consented to in so far as it is willed by God.  Faith enables us to come to terms with our animal nature and to accept the task of trying to govern it according to the divine will, that is, according to love.  At the same time, faith subjects our reason to the hidden spiritual forces that are above it.  In so doing, the whole man is brought into subjection to the “unknown” that is above him.

In this superconscious realm of mystery is hidden not only the summit of man’s spiritual being (which remains a pure mystery to his reason) but also the presence of God, who dwells at this hidden summit, according to traditional metaphor.  Faith then brings man into contact with man’s own inmost spiritual depths and with God, who is “present” within those same depths.

The traditional theology of the Greek Fathers devised three terms for these three aspects of man’s one spirit.  That which is unconscious and below reason was the anima  or psyche, the “animal” soul, the realm of instinct and of emotion, the realm of automatism in which man functions as a psychophysical organism.  This anima is conceived as a kind of feminine or passive principle in man.

Then there is the reason, the enlightened, conscious, active principle, the animus or nous, here we have the mind as a masculine principle, the intelligence that governs, ratiocinates, guides our activity in the light of prudence and of thought.  It is meant to direct and command the feminine principle, the passive anima.  The anima is Eve, the animus is Adam.  The effect of original sin in us all is that Eve tempts Adam and he yields his reasoned thought to her blind impulse, and tends henceforth to be governed by the automatism of passionate reason, by conditioned reflex, rather than by thought and moral principle.

However, the true state of man is not just anima governed by animus, the masculine and the feminine.  There is an even higher principle which is above the division of masculine and feminine, active and passive, prudential and instinctive.  This higher principle in which both the others are joined and transcend themselves in union with God, is the spiritus, or pneuma.  This higher principle is not merely something in man’s nature, it is man himself united, vivified, raised above himself and inspired by God.

The full stature of man is to be found in “spirit” or pneuma.  Man is not fully man until he is “one spirit” with God.  Man is “spirit” when he is at once anima, animus, and spiritus.  But these three are not numerically distinct.  They are one.  And when they are perfectly ordered in unity, while retaining their own rightful qualities, then man is reconstituted in the image of the Holy Trinity.

The “spiritual life” is then the perfectly balanced life in which the body with its passions and instincts, the mind with its reasoning and its obedience to principle, and spirit with its passive illumination by the light and love of God form one complete man who is in God and with God and from God and for God.  One man in whom God is all in all.  One man in whom God carries out his own will without obstacle.

It can easily be seen that a purely emotional worship, a life of instinct, an orgiastic religion, is no spiritual life.  But also, a merely rational life, a life of conscious thought and rationally directed activity, is not a fully spiritual life.  In particular, it is a characteristic modern error to reduce man’s spirituality to mere “mentality,” and to confine the whole spiritual life purely and simply in the reasoning mind.  Then the spiritual life is reduced to a matter of “thinking” – of verbalizing, rationalizing, etc.  But such a life is truncated and incomplete.

The true spiritual life is a life neither of dionysian orgy nor of apollonian clarity: it transcends both.  It is a life of wisdom, a life of sophianic love.  In Sophia, the highest wisdom-principle, all the greatness and majesty of the unknown that is in God and all that is rich and maternal in his creation are united inseparably, as paternal and maternal principles, the uncreated Father and created Mother-Wisdom.

Faith is what opens to us this higher realm of unity, of strength, of light, of sophianic love where there is no longer the limited and fragmentary light provided by rational principles, but where the truth is one and undivided and takes all to itself in the wholeness of Sapientia, or Sophia.  When St. Paul said that love was the fulfillment of the law and that love had delivered man from the law, he meant that by the Spirit of Christ we were incorporated into Christ, himself the “power and wisdom of God,” so that Christ himself thenceforth became our own life, and light and love and wisdom.  Our full spiritual life is life in wisdom, life in Christ.  The darkness of faith bears fruit in the light of wisdom.



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