Thoughts about Mysticism from 1953… and now

The Benedictine and the Trappist: Graham (l) and Merton

Here’s something interesting I stumbled across online the other day: an article from Time Magazine’s February 2, 1953 issue:

Religion: Benedictine v. Trappist

It’s basically an article about a Benedictine writer, Dom Aelred Graham (author of Contemplative Christianity and Zen Catholicism among other works), who offers criticism for the ideas he sees being put forth by Thomas Merton. After almost a half century, it’s interesting to see some criticism leveled at Merton during his lifetime. But let’s put this in context: this article was written a mere four years after the publication of Merton’s bestselling The Seven Storey Mountain — and, significantly, over five years before Merton’s life-changing epiphany that took place on a spring day in 1958, when he saw ordinary shoppers on a busy street corner in Louisville, KY, “shining like the sun.” The 1958 epiphany, most Merton scholars agree, marked a watershed moment in Merton’s life, when he moved away from the kind of mystical piety that characterized his early work (like Seven Storey Mountain) toward a more earthy, inclusive, engaged spirituality in which we wrested with issues such as contemporary politics and interfaith dialogue.

So while I don’t agree with everything Dom Aelred has to say about Merton’s ideas, it is interesting to consider that, before the end of Merton’s life, he himself probably would have agreed with much of the criticism laid out in this article.

Dom Aelred argues that Merton “implies that the monastic, ascetic life is the only way to sainthood.” At the time, that was probably true, but that certainly changed after 1958. I agree with Dom Aelred that this is a problem. But then I take issue with his assertion that “Mysticism is not for the masses but for an elite.” Merton’s Benedictine critic seems to be saying that mysticism is inherently world-denying, and therefore ill-suited for the average or ordinary person, whose life is deeply engaged with the earthy stuff of everyday life. This perspective, I suspect, was fairly widespread in the 1950s (it still crops up today), but I think it represents a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of mysticism — or, at least, of Christian mysticism. Mysticism as flight from the world is something that Plotinus and the other Greek Neo-Platonists bequeathed to Christianity, and is certainly not the heart of the mystical spirituality of the New Testament, which is all about Christ transforming this world more so than abandoning it for some ethereal realm.

My guess is that Dom Aelred wasn’t familiar with Evelyn Underhill; and this was before the major work of Karl Rahner — let alone the mature Merton, and his disciples like Thomas Keating and M. Basil Pennington. From the vantage point of today, to see a mainstream magazine like Time publish an article with such an understanding of Christian mysticism that would be so discredited now is simply evidence of how far the understanding of Christian spirituality has come in the past half-century.

Of course, there’s a paradox here. Plotinus and his followers did have a significant impact on Christian spirituality, and that impact continues to this day (think of all the current bestselling books about folks who go to heaven and come back: Heaven is For Real, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and so forth). So, while I believe that in its origin Christian mysticism was this-worldly, certainly by the time of Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius it had developed an other-worldly dimension as well. So while I disagree with Dom Aelred for seeming to say that only the other-worldly dimension is truly “mystical,” I think it would be just as much a mistake to argue that Christian mysticism can only be this-worldly. Somehow, in the Richard Rohr “everything belongs” sort of way, Christian spirituality has both a this-worldly and an 0ther-worldly dimension to it. In fact, perhaps part of what makes Merton so interesting is that over the course of his career as a writer he embraced both of those dimensions in the way he wrote about Christian mysticism.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.neocappadocians, +dale

    why must we see a discontinuity in merton’s ‘spirituality’? indeed, if we take seriously the admonition of christ– ‘thou shalt love the lord thy god with all thy heart and all thy soul, and with all thy mind. this is the first and great commandment. and the second is like unto it; thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’–then one might wonder whether the ‘e[iphany’ merton had on his way to the dentist, i think it was, might have happened without the ‘mystical piety’ that came before it. now it is of course not logically necessary that precedence in time be precedence in cause, nor must we take merton as the only or even necessarily one of the best guides to normal ‘christian mysticism.’ but neither i think is it necessary to suggest that our understanding of christian mysticism has ‘come far’ in the past half century. perhaps, alas, it has merely become even more popular as another hobby, something we can do while continuing to be day traders.