Thomas Merton from the Assent to Truth

thomas mertonWhen 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.
Thomas Merton
The Assent to Truth
a appears in the Thomas Merton Reader, entitled “Visions and Illusions,” pp385

The light would scatter and travel in all directions through the darkness–Thomas Merton

JCFRMSHIn 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.

Poetry, Symbolism and Typology—Thomas Merton

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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

Thomas Merton— from Theology of Creativity

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Excerpted from an essay which first  appeared in 1960 in  The American Benedictine Review. 

The creativity of the Christian person must be seen in relation to the creative vocation of the new Adam, mystical person of the “whole Christ.” The creative will of God has been at work in the cosmos since he said: “Let there be light.”  This creative fiat was not uttered merely at the dawn of time. All time and all history are a continued, uninterrupted creative act, a stupendous, ineffable mystery in which God has signified his will to associate man with himself in his work of creation. The will and power of the Almighty Father were not satisfied simply to make the world and turn it over to man to run it as best he could. The creative love of God was met, at first, by the destructive and self-centered recusal of man: an act of such incalculable consequences that it would have amounted to a destruction of God’s plan, if that were possible. But the creative work of God could not be frustrated by man’s sin. On the contrary, sin itself entered into the plan. If man was first called to share in the creative work of his heavenly Father, he now became involved in the “new creation,” the redemption of his own kind and the restoration of the cosmos, purified and transfigured, into the hands of the Father. God himself became man in order that in this way man could be most perfectly associated with him in this great work, the fullest manifestation of his eternal wisdom and mercy.

The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton,  New Directions

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Thomas Merton, The New Man

All men were united in Adam. All were “one image” of God in Adam. “Adam is in us all.” We all sinned in Adam. Adam is saved and redeemed in us all. What does all this mean? It means simply, as St. Bernard says, that man’s creation in the image of God (ad imaginem) constituted all men as created “copies” of the Word Who is the eternal and uncreated Image of the Father. The potentiality in the human soul which makes man capable of being drawn to God is nothing else than a capacity to become more and more like the Word of God, and thus to participate in God’s own vision of Himself. St. Gregory of Nyssa says: thomas merton“The whole of human nature, from the first man to the last, is but one image of Him Who is.” When Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, we all were created in him, with a nature capable of being conformed to the Word of God. Therefore Adam, who contains all human nature in himself, and is therefore “humanity,” is created in the image of the Image of God, Who has already decided, from all eternity, to become man in Jesus Christ. Hence in his very creation, Adam is a representation of Christ Who is to come, and we too, from the very moment we come into existence, are potential representations of Christ simply because we possess the human nature which was created in Him and was assumed by Him in the Incarnation, saved by Him on the Cross and glorified by Him in His Ascension.

Thomas Merton, The New Man (Kindle Locations 1203-1214). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Thomas Merton—The New Man

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Thomas Merton 1915-1968

In those who are most alive and therefore most themselves, the life of the body is subordinated to a higher life that is within them. It quietly surrenders to the far more abundant vitality of a spirit living on levels that defy measurement and observation. The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called, variously, a “super-ego” or a pharasaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man’s powers in striving for the realization of his deepest spiritual potentialities. It is not so much a control of one part of man by another, but the peaceful integration of all man’s powers into one perfect actuality which is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self. Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own existence, that is to say when he experiences something of the fulness of intelligence, freedom and spirituality that are actualized within himself. But can we really expect a man to attain to this kind of consciousness? Is it not utterly cruel to hold before his eyes the delusive hope of this “fulness” of life and of “realization?” Of course, if the nature of the hope is not understood, it is the cruelest and most mocking of delusions. It may be the worst of all spiritual mirages that torments him in his desert pilgrimage. How can a man, plunged in the agonia, the wrestling of life and death in their most elemental spiritual forms, be beguiled by the promise of self realization? His very self, his very reality, is all contradiction: a contradiction mercifully obscured by confusion. If the confusion is cleared away, and he fully “realizes” this tormented self, what will he see if not the final absurdity of the contradiction? The “real meaning of his existence” would then be precisely that it has no meaning. In a certain sense, that is true. To find life we must die to life as we know it. To find meaning we must die to meaning as we know it. The sun rises every morning and we are used to it, and because we know the sun will rise we have finally come to act as if it rose because we wanted it to. Suppose the sun should choose not to rise? Some of our mornings would then be “absurd”—or, to put it mildly, they would not meet our expectations. To find the full meaning of our existence we must find not the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God. The meaning that comes to us out of the transcendent darkness of His mystery and our own. We do not know God and we do not know ourselves. How then can we imagine that it is possible for us to chart our own course toward the discovery of the meaning of our life? This meaning is not a sun that rises every morning, though we have come to think that it does, and on mornings when it does not rise we substitute some artificial light of our own so as not to admit that this morning was absurd. Meaning is then not something we discover in ourselves, or in our lives. The meanings we are capable of discovering are never sufficient. The true meaning has to be revealed. It has to be “given.” And the fact that it is given is, indeed, the greater part of its significance: for life itself is, in the end, only significant in so far as it is given. As long as we experience life and existence as suns that have to rise every morning, we are in agony. We must learn that life is a light that rises when God summons it out of darkness. For this there are no fixed times.

Merton, Thomas (1999-11-29). The New Man (Kindle Locations 72-100). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.