A Course in Christian Mysticism

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Thomas Merton
Jon M. Sweeney
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pope Francis recently proclaimed the American Catholic and Cistercian monk Thomas Merton to be an exemplary model of contemplative peace (a controversial statement). A student of comparative religion who was inspired by Aldous Huxley, Merton is best known for pioneering interreligious dialogue with Buddhists. He occasionally referred to himself as “Rabbi Vedanta.” In A Course in Christian Mysticism, editor Jon M. Sweeney collects Merton’s talks to the probationers at the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton resided, augments the abridged lectures with a brief introduction to the context and themes of the study, and includes additional readings and questions for discussion. 

Merton begins with a discourse on the relation of asceticism to mysticism and the mystical life itself. He asserts that “there is no mysticism without asceticism” (6). He traces the ascetic concept to the Greek words that mean both training or exercise and skilled labor. Asceticism requires discipline, austerity, and dedication. A first stage of practice cultivates virtue and freedom from immoderate desire which leads to a second stage of authentic contemplation. Merton cautions the aspirant to avoid attachment to ease and comfort, the extreme of severe mortification, and the obstacle of a stubborn will. Next, he defines the mystical life as an awakening of people’s need for God. He laments the wrong use of the word mysticism, most often as a term of contempt for exaggerations, heresies, and aberrations. According to Merton, “we are emerging from a long period of combined anti-mysticism and false mysticism” (2). However, Merton contends that correct principles will lead to true development: “We believe that there are standards of judgment that can and must be objectively applied” (7). He surveys the process of transformation in twelve chapters.

Christian mystical theology is based upon the Gospel according to John and the sacraments of baptismal rebirth, eucharistic communion, charity, and service. Merton explicates the interconnection of the Father and the Son as the Word and the Incarnation. He further explains that Christ is manifested as Jesus, the mystical body of the Church, and the divinized individual who perceives Truth in a world of deceitful scheming. He makes a distinction between gnosis as divine knowledge in contrast to unorthodox Gnosticism and argues for a necessity of renunciation or death of false identity and acceptance of suffering. To attain the silence and presence of God described by St. Ignatius of Antioch, Merton cites Clement of Alexandria’s three steps to perfection from purification to knowledge to the vision of God, a secret and ineffable experience. He also admits the influence of Plato, Plotinus, and Philo on Origen, who proposed three degrees of spiritual life (beginner, proficient, perfect) and an active struggle of self-denial and imitation of Christ leading to discernment, scriptural exegesis (literal/historical, moral, symbolic, analogical), and ecstasy. He asserts that mere intellectual negation is not the same as apophatic intuition in which the aspirant goes beyond gnosis to agape, awe, and admiration. St. Gregory of Nyssa similarly depicts spiritual evolution from purgation to illumination to union whereas Evagrius Ponticus suggests the direction toward blessedness begins with truth, then trials, and finally unity, an immediate intimate contact with God not dependent on sense impressions or words, concepts, and reasoning.

Merton notes that monks are the true philosophers and “he is a true monk who is separated from all things and united to all people” (69). Maximus the Confessor taught that the divine order hidden in nature and history is evident to an inner light of wisdom which is obscured in sensate indulgence and superstitious interpretation. Merton witnesses the tendency of Western spirituality toward violent fanaticism, pessimism, and a judicial outlook susceptible to speculation, idolatry, and an insistence on social forms, rules, and observances. St. Augustine envisioned the Church safeguarding dogma in every age so that generation after generation has free access to mystical union. Merton quotes Augustine’s maxim dilige et quod vic fac (love and do what you will) and supplements it with the testimony of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that Deus caritas es (God is love). There must be desire for mystical union, then an understanding of the nature of that union and how it is possible through amor (sweet commitment of body, mind, and will), dilectio (rational agreement), and caritas (joy in embrace). The monk proceeds with zeal from penance (humility and repentance) to devotion (constant meditation) to pietas (neighborly compassion). 

Mysticism is often misunderstood by simple minds or twisted in an excessive focus on the marvelous and miraculous. Meister Eckhart is especially abstruse and reserved for specialists and experts. John Tauler demanded that a mystic be at least forty years old and warned against four errors: worldliness, hankering after revelations, mental cogitation, and blank inactivity. Because the uninitiated can easily deceive themselves, says Merton, the Spanish Inquisitors confined the laity to devotional rites and punished those who emphasized recollection and abandonment. 

Merton concludes with a glimpse into the Carmelite school. St. Therese taught a preparatory stage of discursive prayer followed by a decrease of such techniques and the intervention of grace. This leads to a general awareness of the presence of God, followed by union, which provides both rapture and various ordeals, and finally a transformative vision. Merton comments, “The soul and God can no longer be separated. Yet this does not mean it has attained impeccability, nor are pain, suffering, and trial excluded” (174). Merton explains how St. John of the Cross defined spiritual crises in two dark nights of sense and spirit. The first is caused by doubt, anxiety, and hesitation, and the second is due to overconfidence, false presumptions, and solipsistic nihilism which prevents further progress. The basic pattern is a lack of consolation, followed by diverse afflictions, and then after several years of right guidance and perseverance, transfiguration and consecration to God.

Merton is a superior scholarly guide through the chronological history of denominational movements, major figures, and controversies in the Christian tradition. This text is an excellent resource not only to academics but also for sincere aspirants seeking an accessible introduction to a spiritual life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Merton (1915–1968), Catholic convert, Cistercian monk and hermit, poet, contemplative, social critic, and pioneer of interreligious dialogue, was a seminal figure of twentieth-century American Christianity.

Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar, author, critic, and publisher.


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