Wouldn’t it be great if you could have access to the lecture notes of a class on Christian mysticism taught by one of the twentieth century’s greatest mystics? With the publication of Thomas Merton’s A Course in Christian Mysticism, that’s now possible.
When Merton, the renowned twentieth-century monk and Catholic writer, was the Master of Scholastics at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, he taught students on a variety of fascinating topics, including Benedictine and Cistercian spirituality, Celtic spirituality, interreligious dialogue, and the spirituality of Christian prayer.
In the early 1960s, Merton also taught a class introducing his monastic students to the rich historical tradition of Christian mysticism.
Almost a decade ago, Cistercian Publications released a scholarly edition of Merton’s notes for this particular class. An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition Volume 3 is one of a series of books that makes Merton’s class notes available, for the first time, to the general public. But like the other volumes in that series, this book is long (over 450 pages), expensive, and filled with material that frankly has little interest to those who are not monastics. It’s really a book more for scholars than for general readers who want to see Christian mysticism through Merton’s eyes.
Enter Jon M. Sweeney to the rescue.
Sweeney, a respected editor and author in his own right (his works include The Pope Who Quit and Inventing Hell), has taken Merton’s notes on teaching Christian mysticism not only from the above-mentioned book but several other sources, abridged them and edited for clarity and readability, a labor of love resulting in the newly published A Course in Christian Mysticism. Clocking in at under 250 pages, this is a book is as readable as its subject is fascinating.
The “course” basically is a historical survey, leading the students/readers from Merton’s consideration of mysticism in the Gospel of John, through the church fathers, including major figures like Evagrius, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Augustine, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, culminating with a look at the German mystics of the high middle ages (Meister Eckhart and his followers) and the Spanish Carmelites of the sixteenth century: Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
Of course, other quite useful surveys of this same arc in the history of Christian spirituality can easily be found (what leaps to mind is the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross), but what makes this book such a delight is, of course, Merton’s own voice. Clearly passionate about his topic, Merton approaches his subject with a desire to make it accessible to his audience, but never watering down the richness of the material he is presenting. At the time he taught this course he had been a monk for some two decades, and it’s clear how his monastic identity shapes his approach to the topic, highlighting his ambivalence over language that reduces mysticism to experience and continually insisting that mysticism (and spirituality in general) must be theologically informed in order to be orthodox — and useful.
Since these notes are over a half century old now, casual readers might find it tricky to bond with Merton’s scholarly, indeed erudite treatment of his topic. Nowhere will you find instructions for Christian meditation or any other kind of “exercises” in this book. He assumes that his audience is living a life shaped by liturgy and continual prayer, so readers must be willing to assert their own commitment to a regular practice in order to fill in the gaps when making your way through this book.
If I could change one thing about it, I wish some of Merton’s appreciation for Julian of Norwich had made its way into this volume. But no such luck, presumably because Merton chose not to include her when originally teaching the class. But we know from Merton’s journal and an essay in his book Mystics and Zen Masters just how much the monk appreciated the 14th-century English visionary.
But ultimately that’s a minor quibble, for what is truly a gift not only to Merton fans but to anyone who is interested in the revival of contemplative spirituality in the mid-twentieth century. For its accessibility and insightful glimpse into the mind of a true mystic as he taught students in his own community, A Course in Christian Mysticism is simply a treasure.
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