Sunday, December 10, 2006

Merton's Ascent and a Few Quotes

I've been veeerrrrryyyy slllllooooowwwwlllyyyy slogging my way through Thomas Merton's The Ascent to Truth. Merton (whom Athos could introduce better than I) was a great modern writer and thinker in the area of Catholic mysticism.

Let me say that I do not recommend this book, even to myself, as it is written for people who are not only quite a bit higher up on the contemplative ladder than I am now, but probably higher than I will ever be. In this sense, the book (a commentary and elaboration of St. John of the Cross) is "moot." It is also a borrowed book, and borrowed only because I didn't have anything new of my own in the category of "spiritual literature."

That said, I am learning some things--crumbs, as it were, for the puppy under the table. Some of them have to do with reason and will and may be quite valuable. Reason in particular (if I read this right) is both more and less important than we are accustomed to think in relation to devotion and contemplation. The primary function of reason here is gatekeeping and discernment. This role is never quite lost even when infused grace is taking over the heavy lifting. Only the giants of contemplation will get to the point in contemplation where reason won't work--because God cannot be registered via our rational (or "sense"-ible) categories when we're that deep into Him. (This is not a celebration of "irrationality," which is an error of faddish as well as borrowed--and usually dumbed-down--Eastern mysticism.)

Anyway, here and there, Merton's words jump out at me as news I (yes, even a hopeless slug like me) can use.

For instance: "The purpose of mortification is to liberate the spirit and make it plastic in the hands of God." (p. 175)

I had to stop at that sentence and say, Wow. And, reflecting on it now, I need not think of mortification in terms of self-administered whuppins, but rather in St. Therese of Lisieux terms: perhaps they are little, secret grating things, grating people, grating encounters at work. Instead of cussing, why not welcome them? Indeed, why not even seek them out (as Therese did)?

Another longish quote I thought was particularly good and may (possibly) be adaptable in some way to my lowly state in life:

"Saint Gregory Nazianzen calls the soul of the spiritual man--the mystic--an instrument played by the Holy Spirit: organum pulsatum a Spiritu Sancto. The Holy Ghost draws from this instrument harmonies and a melody of which reason and the will of man alone could never even dream. It is this music vibrating on the well-tuned strings of a perfect human personality that makes a man a saint. It is when special harmonies are wrung from a human instrument that the Holy Ghost makes a man a contemplative. What part has reason in this silent song that God sings for Himself and for His elect in the soul of a mystic? It is the function of reason not to play the instrument but only to tune the strings. The Master Himself does not waste time tuning the instrument. He shows His servant, reason, how to do it and leaves him to do the work. If He then comes and finds the piano still out of tune, he does not bother to play on it. He strikes a chord, and goes away. The trouble generally is that the tuner has been banging on the keys himself all day, without bothering to do the work assigned to him: which is to keep the thing in tune." (p. 181-182)

Even though Merton is not talking about me or anyone like me (as if!), the idea that my job (via reason and will?) is to keep the piano (me) in tune, not to pound away on the keys--this might be something I can take away and apply somehow . . .

That is all.


Athos said...

Too right, Porthos. Too right on all of the above.

Thank you for this blog entry, bro.

One of my mentors at Holy Cross Abbey, Virginia, Father Andrew, told the participants at an ecumenical book study that Buddhist readers find Merton's Ascent to Truth their favorite of his works. I think you point out some important reasons why this is so.


Porthos said...

Thanks! That's odd (and encouraging) about the Buddhist readers, because Merton is very big on Catholic theology in this book, and not just in a peripheral way.

Porthos said...

Note to self: Next time, put the quotations first, and all the qualifying, caveating blather after. Gives the reader the benefit of the quote, with the option of passing over the qualifying, caveating blather.

Note to note to self: Good idea! Why didn't I think of that?

Note to note to note to self: Beats me.