Jesus came into the darkness. Jesus came to set us free. Jesus came to give us sight. Jesus said, “I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.”
Merton teaches that we find God in darkness. His is an apophatic theology which says we can speak of God only by way of negation. In his early years, Merton subscribed to John of the Cross’ theology which speaks of the “dark night of the soul.” Later, Merton’s interests would shift to a more positive mystical approach such as that of Julian of Norwich.
It is worth our while to examine Merton’s theology of darkness. It ties into his concepts of the true self and the false self. As long as we are self-seeking and looking out for number one, we are operating out of our false selves. The false self gets in the way of contemplative union with God. Our only real mission in life is to “know, love and serve God and one another.” Nothing more, nothing less.
First, a word about contemplation. It is not the scary things we think it to be. Contemplation is simply about being in relationship with our Creator. Our mission in life is to grow in wisdom and knowledge and love of God and to serve one another. Merton came to understand that every person, not just monks in monasteries, is called to contemplative union with God.
Writing for the Christian Healing Center, Francis McNutt recently asked why, after our initial burst of conversion fervor, everything seems to go south. Joy and excitement of baptism in the Spirit is replaced by dread and doubt. The blossoming garden turns into a wasteland bereft of beauty. His conclusion about this phenomenon with which we are all very familiar is that God is healing us and preparing us for deeper union with God. First, however, we have to get out of the way and let God be God.
In a similar vein, Trappist Thomas Keating speaks of the Divine Physician. When we enter into contemplative solitude and things long buried in the past in our psyche bubble up or even erupt, we simply let them go-we let them go gently. This is the work of God healing us and making us whole so that we will be in deeper union with God. There is an intimate connection between McNutt’s healing ministry and Merton’s sense of contemplative union with God.
Contemplation is seeking God, coming to know our true self, and learning about our relationship to the world. Merton sought relief from the world. He entered the solitude of Gethsemani only to later realize that he was one with all other people. He turned back toward the world and spoke out in strong Christian witness against the war in Viet Nam and racism in America. His intimate relationship with nature, as evidenced in his writing and photography, also led him to champion care for creation.
Jesus came to bring us light; however, we usually find God in darkness. Our lack of integrity, inner unity, drives us to the brink of the abyss of our nothingness. We strive to do better and, like Paul, we do that very thing which we do not want to do. Further events push us and we tumble headlong into the void. Our experience is darkness, poverty, no-thingness. We are at our rope’s end. We are at le point vierge, the “virgin” point, a term Merton borrowed from Islamic Sufism.
When we reach this point, we are, as people in Twelve Step programs say, bottomed out. The only way is up but we cannot grab our bootstraps and pull ourselves up. We cannot make ourselves do better. We cannot heal our wounds. We cannot overcome our shortcomings.
Our alternative is not despair. Merton considers despair to be the ultimate expression of the false self. Hope is our only alternative. Enter Jesus, the Light of the World. If we let go, God fills this void, our deep dark emptiness with Unconditional Love. In discovering God within, deep within the depths of our own being, our own darkness, we find our True Self where we live in union with the Divine. Contemplative union is a gift and we may well miss it if we are looking for feel good fireworks. Regardless of what we think, feel or opine, we know deep down that God is with us and that all is well. We choose to live in hope. No matter how dark the night of the soul, we know that all is well and that all will be well.
Jesus, the Light of the World, is our peace. Jesus gives us freedom and sight. Love overwhelms us. Love compels us to serve one another. Love drives us to forgive our enemies.
The Eucharist, according to Merton, prepares us for contemplative union with God. We come to the table in our darkness and Jesus feeds us and nourishes us for the journey of faith. We walk the road to Emmaus in our darkness until we see the light of Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
Contemplative union is not to be misinterpreted as a feel good, me and Jesus thing. Jesus commands us, “Do this in memory of me.” Doing in memory of Jesus means that we are sent forth from Eucharist to do as Jesus did. Jesus set free the oppressed, liberated the captives, and bestowed sight to the blind. He fed the hungry and healed lepers. He dined with social outcasts. He forgave his enemies.
There is then an intimate connection between contemplative union, Eucharist, and Christian resistance. I advisedly use the term “resistance.” It connotes more that nonviolence does. Sometimes nonviolence is mistaken for a passive attitude in the face of evil. Not so.
In Greek civilization, the people in the city state were known as the polis-body politic. No wonder then that Paul countered the body politic with his concept of the Body of Christ. This strongly suggests that Christians were set over against the polis. And, indeed, for the first three centuries, Christians were counter cultural. They died proclaiming Gospel values that collided with the values of the polis. They stood tall as pacifists in a death culture built on war.
The values of the death culture then and today are built on the collective strivings of the false self in each of us. Individual wants morph into consumerism which satiates the false self-at least for a while. When our consumer driven economy collapses and jolts us into awareness, we see through a glass darkly that there is more to life. In the dark of a world wide recession/depression, we sense a need for something more. Our hearts (True Selves), as Augustine, are restless and they will be restless until they rest in God-contemplative union.
In order to witness to Jesus and his values in the culture of death, we need to enter into contemplation and to celebrate Eucharist. Contemplation is a gift; however, we have to show up and that is often the most difficult part. We show up and God shows up. Words are not necessary. We look at God and God looks at us. Merton refused to teach a method other than the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.) Fortunately, Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington have taught us a method known as Centering Prayer. The Contemplative Outreach web site (http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/site/PageServer) provides excellent resources.
Margaret Scott, Eucharist and Social Justice, helps us understand more fully what it means to “Do this in memory of me.” Eucharist prepares us for contemplation and compassion. Eucharist enables us to enter deeper into union with God and to compassionate action on behalf of those who suffer injustice.