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The most paradoxical and at the same time the most unique and characteristic claim made by Christianity is that in the Resurrection of Christ the Lord from the dead, man has completely conquered death, and that “in Christ” the dead will rise again to enjoy eternal life, in spiritualized and transfigured bodies and in a totally new creation. This new life in the Kingdom of God is to be not merely a passively received inheritance but in some sense the fruit of our agony and labor, love and prayers in union with the Holy Spirit. Such a fantastic and humanly impossible belief has generally been left in the background by the liberal Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but anyone who reads the New Testament objectively must admit that this is the Doctrine of the first Christians. Indeed, Christianity without this fabulous eschatalogical claim is only a moral system without too much spiritual consistency. Unless all Christianity is centered in the victorious, living, and ever present reality of Jesus Christ, the Man-God and conqueror of death, it loses its distinctive character and there is no longer any justification for a Christian missionary apostolate. In point of fact, such an apostolate without the resurrection of the dead, has tended to be purely and simply an apostolate for western cultural and economic “progress,” and not a true preaching of the Gospel.
Merton, Thomas (1999-11-29). The New Man (Kindle Locations 45-54). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
The Early Christian Church The Desert Fathers and Mothers Thursday, April 30, 2015 The men and women who fled to the desert emphasized lifestyle practice, an alternative to empire and its economy, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple (some would say naïve) spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert communities grew out… Continue Reading The Desert Fathers and Mothers
“But if my true spiritual identity is found in my identification with Christ, then to know myself fully, I must know Christ…” The New Man
“Who can comprehend or explain the mystery of what it means to awaken to one’s own reality as an existential consequence of the fact that we are loved by Reality itself?…” The New Man
When creation becomes the false light of concupiscence, it becomes illusion. The supreme value that cupidity seeks in created things, does not exist in them. A man who takes a tree as a ghost is in illusion. The tree is objectively real: but in his mind it is something that it is not. A man who takes a cigar coupon for a ten-dollar bill is also in illusion. When we view life, as if the multiplicity of the phenomenal universe were the criterion of all truth, and treat the world around us as if its shifting scale of values were the only measure of our own good, the world becomes an illusion. It is real in itself, but it is no longer real to us because it is not what we think it is.
In the cool darkness of the spring night the priest and his ministers gather outside the door of the empty Church. The “new fire,” struck from flint, is enkindled and blessed. From this new fire the Paschal Candle will be lit. The marvelous Exsultet will then be sung, proclaiming the full meaning of the Easter mystery. Flame will be taken from the great candle, and multiplied throughout the building in all the different hanging lamps, and on the altar candles. As Mass is being prepared, “prophecies” will be chanted from various books of the Old Testament, showing how the types and figures hidden in the obscurity of the Old Law, have been brought to light in the glory of the resurrection. Each prophecy kindles a mystical light in the listening Church. This is a feast of light, a feast of life, celebrating not merely a past event but the present existential reality of the redemptive fact by which Christ communicates His life to us and unites us to Himself in one spirit.
Animate and inanimate creation join with the Church in her feast. Not only men are present to solemnize the mystery, but angelic spirits join with them in the liturgical celebration. The texts that are chanted, the prayers and blessings, are the richest in the liturgical year. They are a compendium of theology—theology not merely studied, not merely meditated, but lived. Through the medium of the liturgy, the Word Himself, uncreated Truth, enters into our spirits and becomes our theology. The first voice that speaks in the silent night is the cold flint. Out of the flint springs fire. The fire, making no sound, is the most eloquent preacher on this night that calls for no other sermon than liturgical action and mystery. That spark should spring from cold rock, reminds us that the strength, the life of God, is always deeply buried in the substance
The light that leaps out of darkness, the fire that comes from stone, symbolizes Christ’s conquest of death. He, Who is the source of all life, could never remain in death, could not see corruption. Death is not a reality, but the absence of a reality. And in Him there is nothing unreal. The fire that springs from the stone speaks, then, of His reality springing from the alienated coldness of our dead hearts, of our souls that have forgotten themselves, that have been exiled from themselves and from their God—and have lost their way in death. But there is nothing lost that God cannot find again. Nothing dead that cannot live again in the presence of His Spirit. No heart so dark, so hopeless, that it cannot be enlightened and brought back to itself, warmed back to the life of charity.
In the old days, on Easter night, the Russian peasants used to carry the blest fire home from Church. The light would scatter and travel in all directions through the darkness, and the desolation of the night would be pierced and dispelled as lamps came on in the windows of the farmhouses one by one. Even so the glory of God sleeps everywhere, ready to blaze out unexpectedly in created things. Even so His peace and His order lie hidden in the world, even the world of today, ready to reestablish themselves in His way, in His own good time: but never without the instrumentality of free options made by free men.
Merton, Thomas (1999-11-29). The New Man (Kindle Locations 2190-2215). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Now the writers of the Bible were aware that they shared with other religions the cosmic symbols in which God has revealed Himself to all men. But they were also aware that pagan and idolatrous religions had corrupted this symbolism and perverted its original purity [Merton cites Romans 1:18 and 25] The Gentiles had “detained the truth of God in injustice” and “changed the truth of God into a lie.”
Creation had been given to man as a clean window through which the light of God could shine into men’s souls. Sun and moon, night and day, rain, the sea, the crops, the flowering tree, all these things were transparent. They spoke to man not of themselves only but of Him who made them. Nature was symbolic. But the progressive degradation of man after the fall led the Gentiles further and further from this truth. Nature became opaque. The nations were no longer able to penetrate the meaning of the world they lived in. Instead of seeing the sun a witness to the power of God they thought the sun was god. The whole universe became an enclosed system of myths. The meaning and the worth of creatures invested them with an illusory divinity.
Men still sensed that there was something to be venerated in the reality, in the peculiarity of living and growing things, but they no longer knew what that reality was. They became incapable of seeing that the goodness of the creature is only a vestige of God. Darkness settled upon the translucent universe. Men became afraid. Beings had a meaning which men could no longer understand. They became afraid of trees, of the sun, of the sea. These things had to be approached with superstitious rites. It began to seem that the mystery of their meaning, which had become hidden, was now a power that had to be placated and, if possible controlled with magic incantations.
Thus the beautiful living things which were all about us on this earth and which were the windows of heaven to every man, became infected with original sin. The world fell with man, and longs, with man, for regeneration. The symbolic universe, which had now become a labyrinth of myths and magic rites, the dwelling place of a million hostile spirits, ceased altogether to speak to most men of God and told them only of themselves. The symbols which would have raised man above himself to God now became myths, and as such they were simply projections of man’s own biological drives. His deepest appetites, now full of shame, became his darkest fears.
The corruption of cosmic symbolism can be understood by a simple comparison. It was like what happens to a window when a room ceases to receive light from the outside. As long as it is daylight, we see through our windowpane. When night comes, we can still see through it if there is no light inside our room. When our lights go on, then we see only ourselves and our own room reflected in the pane. Adam in Eden could see through creation as through a window. God shone through the windowpane as bright as the light of the sun. Abraham and the patriarchs and David and the holy men of Israel—the chosen race that preserved intact the testimony of God—could still see through the window as one looks out by night from a darkened room and sees the moon and stars. But the Gentiles had begun to forget the sky, and to light lamps of their own, and presently it seemed to them that the reflection of their own room in the window was the “world beyond.” They began to worship what they themselves were doing. And what they were doing was too often an abomination. Nevertheless, something of the original purity of natural revelation remained in the great religions for the East. It is found in the Upanishads in the Baghavad Gita. But the pessimism of Buddha was a reaction against the degeneration of nature by polytheism. Henceforth for the mysticism of the East, nature would no longer be symbol but illusion. Buddha knew too well that the reflections in the window were only projections of our own existence and our own desires, but did not know that this was a window and that there could be sunlight outside the glass.
from “Poetry, Symbolism, and Typology,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, pp 333-335, New Directions 1985. Originally from Merton’s Bread in the Wilderness, a study of the Psalms of the Old Testament as poetry, New Directions, 1953