Merton and me

Last night I attended a talk given by Walt Chura, SFO at Mount Irenaeus. Walt’s topic was the “Transformations of Thomas Merton.” Walt talked about the similarities between the transformations of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton and helped me to more clearly see each man and their journey to God and my own journey too. Both Merton and Francis were profligate sinners. They knew excess and it is or was their excess that eventually drew them close to God.

I was thinking as I ran this morning and contemplating what it means to me and it occurred to me that it’s possible to know God without theology. In fact theology might actually come between us and God. In the west and particularly in Western Christianity we are totally absorbed in describing God and what God is and isn’t. It’s that obsession with description that actually stands in the way of our knowing God. In twelve step programs, old timers frequently say that if you can describe the higher power, you’ve just lost him or her. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then theology or theologies could actually be standing in the way of knowing God or following God. I think both Merton and Francis knew this. I was thinking too of the popular Christian view of a sin centered universe and how that shapes Western Civilization. The less popular theology is of Duns Scotus and the Theology of the Incarnation that says that Christ came not to save the world from its sins but to show how much God loved the world.

If you tell that to your average American Christian you’ll be in for the fight of your life, but it makes sense to me. I read a book a few years ago by an Irish theologian who said that spirituality had been around for 10,000 years and that religion for only the last four or five thousand of those years. Karl Rahner once said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” The Buddhists speak of the various paths of truth as being fingers pointing to the moon. Drawing from all of this and Walt’s talk last night I believe its possible to get so caught up in the fingers as to miss the moon. Its possible that a profligate life is really the path of the true seeker and that it’s not a sin centered universe but a sartori centered universe in which each man and women is moving slowly, very slowly towards enlightenment which Christians in the west would call redemption.

5 Replies to “Merton and me”

  1. You might just have something there – “…theology might actually come between us and God.”

    Name something or label something and then it becomes less than it actually is. Oh, and then there’s a lot of energy discussing whether the label captures the essence and when one label is better than others, and well, just a lot of dialogue that actually distracts us from experience what is.

    Is that what you mean?

    – viewpacific

  2. Yes, I believe that is what I mean. Jesus said, “do not judge.” When we label there is a judgment involved. I don’t believe Jesus came to start a religion. The followers of Jesus have turned what he said into a religion, a dogma, a theology and many have called it heresy to think outside the box. Theology is abstract. It’s not direct experience. People in Twelve Step Programs have a direct experience with a higher power. Labeling or describing limits the power. Infinity cannot be described or measured. Reducing the love of God or the Creator to a set of laws, precepts or theologies diminishes everything. 🙂 Don

  3. Don, to get here I followed your link over on Blogger. I am glad I did, I am pleased to find your excellent post on this topic.

    In the for-whatever-it-is-worth category, the truth and significance of your post is illustrated in my own spiritual journey.

    After being an atheist for 37 years, I became a Protestant evangelical in the Reformed tradition. For the next 15 years I was a serious lay student of theology. Then for the next 5 years I pondered the possible truth and then acknowledged the truth of the ideas you describe so well about the function of theology. For the past 2 years I have been first a Benedictine oblate novice and now oblate at a Catholic Benedictine monastery.

    Ironically, this past Wednesday, I donated most of my small personal theological library to a local Presbyterian church.
    My reading is now daily from “Benedictine Daily Prayer” (A Short Breviary), Maxwell E. Johnson, Editor, with the Monks of Saint John’s Abbey) and from the early Church fathers — books like “Saint John Cassian on Prayer,” translated by A.M. Casiday.

    I always can feel and remember what it was like that first day when God burst into my heart and life about 22 years ago — the day I knew God, but didn’t know the first thing about theology. When I sit silently in my home today — with a small candle — praying the ancient divine office, I can very often return my mind to that first day.

  4. Good to see the new Don is back.

    Once we can describe something, we believe we can possess it.
    We also forget that life is a spiritual journey of imperfection and it is the process that is important.
    If I am spiritual fit, my God is with and that is all that counts.

    I wake each morning knowing I am a sinner and need His love and forgiveness.

  5. James, I’m glad you liked the writing. You’re important to me and especially when I was going to stop doing this. John, glad that you liked the writing too. I was never an atheist, but have been an agnostic and in some ways agnosticism is a very rational approach to God or a higher power. I think that the agnostic is actually an invitation to a direct or non-theological experience of God. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to theology or but I am re-thinking their importance at least for me. I’ve benefited a great deal from reading theologians or commentaries on theologians, but I’ve also benefited from sitting in quietly, first in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries and then later and presently in my own home. Herman Melville’s quote, “silence is the only voice of God,” has come to mean more and more to me each day.

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