MYSTICISM: The Gift Of Understanding, by Thomas Merton

gift of understanding

From New Seeds of Contemplation

Contemplation, by which we know and love God as he is in himself, apprehending him in deep and vital experience which is beyond the reach of any natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God.  And although it is absolutely above our nature, Saint Thomas teaches that it is our proper element because it is the fulfillment of deep capacities in us that God has willed should never be fulfilled in any other way.  All those who reach the end for which they were created will therefore be contemplatives in Heaven: but many are also destined to enter this supernatural element and breathe this new atmosphere while they are still on Earth.

Since contemplation has been planned for us by God as our true and proper element, the first taste of it strikes us at once as utterly new and yet strangely familiar.

Although you had an entirely different notion of what it would be like (since no book can give an adequate idea of contemplation except to those who have experienced it), it turns out to be just what you seem to have known all along that it ought to be.]

The utter simplicity and obviousness of the infused light which contemplation pours into our soul suddenly awakens us to a new level of awareness.  We enter a region which we had never even suspected, and yet it is this new world which seems familiar and obvious.  The old world of our senses is now the one that seems to us strange, remote, and unbelievable – until the intense light of contemplation leaves us and we fall back to our own level.

Compared with the pure and peaceful comprehension of love in which the contemplative is permitted to see the truth not so much by seeing it as by being absorbed into it, ordinary ways of seeing and knowing are full of blindness and labor and uncertainty.

The sharpest of natural experiences is like sleep, compared with the awakening which is contemplation.  The keenest and surest natural certitude is a dream compared to this serene comprehension.

Our souls rise up from the Earth like Jacob waking from his dream and exclaiming: “Truly God is in this place and I knew it not”!  God himself becomes the only reality, in whom all other reality takes its proper place – and falls into insignificance.

Although this light is absolutely above our nature, it now seems to us “normal” and “natural” to see, as we now see, without seeing, to possess clarity in darkness, to have pure certitude without any shred of discursive evidence, to be filled with an experience that transcends experience and to enter with serene confidence into depths that leave us utterly inarticulate.

“O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact.

God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us.  He moves us with a simplicity that simplifies us.  All variety, all complexity, all paradox, all multiplicity cease.  Our mind swims in the air of an understanding, a reality that is dark and serene and includes in itself everything.  Nothing more is desired.  Nothing more is wanting.  Our only sorrow, if sorrow be possible at all, is the awareness that we ourselves still live outside of God.

For already a supernatural instinct teaches us that the function of this abyss of freedom that has opened out within our own midst, is to draw us utterly out of our own selfhood and into its own immensity of liberty and joy.

You seem to be the same person and you are the same person that you have always been: in fact you are more yourself than you have ever been before.  You have only just begun to exist.  You feel as if you were at last fully born.  All that went before was a mistake, a fumbling preparation for birth.  Now you have come out into your element.  And yet now you have become nothing.  You have sunk to the center of your own poverty, and there you have felt the doors fly open into infinite freedom, into a wealth which is perfect because none of it is yours and yet it all belongs to you.

And now you are free to go in and out of infinity.

It is useless to think of fathoming the depths of wide-open darkness that have yawned inside you, full of liberty and exultation.

They are not a place, not an extent, they are huge, smooth activity.  These depths, they are love.  And in the midst of you they form a wide, impregnable country.

There is nothing that can penetrate into the heart of that peace.  Nothing from the outside can get in.  There is even a whole sphere of your own activity that is excluded from that beautiful airy night.  The five senses, the imagination, the discoursing mind, the hunger of desire do not belong in that starless sky.

And you, while you are free to come and go, yet as soon as you attempt to make words or thoughts about it you are excluded – you go back into your exterior in order to talk.

Yet you find that you can rest in this darkness and this unfathomable peace without trouble and without anxiety, even when the imagination and the mind remain in some way active outside the doors of it.

They may stand and chatter in the porch, as long as they are idle, waiting for the will of their queen to return, upon whose orders they depend.

But it is better for them to be silent.  However, you now know that this does not depend on you.  It is a gift that comes to you from the bosom of that serene darkness and depends entirely on the decision of Love.

Within the simplicity of this armed and walled and undivided interior peace is an infinite unction which, as soon as it is grasped, loses its savor.  You must not try to reach out and possess it altogether.  You must not touch it, or try to seize it.  You must not try to make it sweeter or try to keep it from wasting away. . . .

The situation of the soul in contemplation is something like the situation of Adam and Eve in Paradise.  Everything is yours, but on one infinitely important condition: that it is all given. 

There is nothing that you can claim, nothing that you can demand, nothing that you can take.  And as soon as you try to take something as if it were your own – you lose your Eden.  The angel with the flaming sword stands armed against all selfhood that is small and particular, against the “I” that can say “I want. . . .” I need. . . .” “I demand. . . .”  No individual enters Paradise, only the integrity of the Person.

Only the greatest humility can give us the instinctive delicacy and caution that will prevent us from reaching out for pleasures and satisfactions that we can understand and savor in this darkness.  The moment we demand anything for ourselves or even trust in any action of our own to procure a deeper intensification of this pure and serene rest in God, we defile and dissipate the perfect gift that he desires to communicate to us in the silence and repose of our own powers.

If there is one thing we must do it is this: we must realize to the very depths of our being that this is a pure gift of God which no desire, no effort, and no heroism of ours can do anything to deserve or obtain.  There is nothing we can do directly either to procure it or to preserve it or to increase it.  Our own activity is for the most part an obstacle to the infusion of this peaceful and pacifying light, with the exception that God may demand certain acts and works of us by charity or obedience, and maintain us in deep experimental union with him through them all, by his own good pleasure, not by any fidelity of ours.

At best we can dispose ourselves for the reception of his great gift by resting in the heart of our own poverty, keeping our soul as far as possible empty of desires for all the things that please and preoccupy our nature, no matter how pure or sublime they may be in themselves.

And when God reveals himself to us in contemplation we must accept him as he comes to us, in his own obscurity, in his own silence, not interrupting him with arguments or words, conceptions or activities that belong to the level of our own tedious and labored existence.

We must respond to God’s gifts gladly and freely with thanksgiving, happiness, and joy: but in contemplation we thank him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance.  “Be empty and see that I am God.”  It is our emptiness in the presence of the abyss of his reality, our silence in the presence of his infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which his light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises him.  It is this that causes love of God and wonder and adoration to swim up into us like tidal waves out of the depths of that peace, and break upon the shores of our consciousness in a vast, hushed surf of inarticulate praise, praise and glory!

This clear darkness of God is the purity of heart Christ spoke of in the sixth Beatitude: Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt. [Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.]   And this purity of heart brings at least a momentary deliverance from images and concepts, from the forms and shadows of all the things men desire with their human appetites.  It brings deliverance even from the feeble and delusive analogies we ordinarily use to arrive at God – not that it denies them, for they are true as far as they go, but it makes them temporarily useless by fulfilling them all in the sure grasp of a deep and penetrating experience.

In the vivid darkness of God within us there sometimes come deep movements of love that deliver us entirely, for a moment, from our old burden of selfishness, and number us among those little children of whom is the Kingdom of Heaven.

And when God allows us to fall back into our own confusion of desires and judgments and temptations, we carry a scar over the place where that joy exulted for a moment in our hearts.

The scar burns us.  The sore wound aches within us, and we remember that we have fallen back into what we are not, and are not yet allowed to remain where God could have us belong.  We long for the place he has destined for us and weep with desire for the time when this pure poverty will catch us and hold us in its liberty and never let us go, when we will never fall back from the Paradise of the simple and the little children into the forum of prudence where the wise of this world go up and down in sorrow and set their traps for a happiness that cannot exist.

This is the gift of understanding: we pass out of ourselves into the joy of emptiness, of nothingness, in which there are no longer any particular objects of knowledge but only God’s truth without limit, without defect, without stain.  This clean light, which tastes of Paradise, is beyond all pride, beyond comment, beyond proprietorship, beyond solitude.  It is in all, and for all.  It is true light that shines in everyone, in “every man coming into this world.”  It is the light of Christ, “who stands in the midst of us and we know him not.”


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