In reflecting from our last meeting we commented on how much the Sufi writings we shared impacted a number of people and observed that it seemed that no matter the starting point in terms of faith tradition, when people go deep they seem to encounter what we know to be "God". This is an inexpressible truth that can only be experienced. It is beyond words, and in fact, words stand in the way of being able to convey the underlying Mystery which is encountered.
I shared an excerpt from Thomas Merton's 1959 letter to the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki which speaks to how Merton experienced what Suzuki wrote about. Though Zen outwardly appears to be a completely different tradition from Christianity Merton's experience in reading Suzuki speaks to how those who go deep find inexpressible commonalities and a common ground of being:
I will not be so foolish as to pretend to you that I understand Zen... All I know is that when I read your books -- and I have read many of them ... I feel a profound and intimate agreement. Time after time, as I read your pages, something in me says, "That's it!" Don't ask me what ... I have my own way to walk, and for some reason or other Zen is right in the middle of it wherever I go. So there it is, with all it's beautiful purposelessness and it has become very familiar to me though I do not know "what it is." Or even if it is an "it". Not to be foolish and multiply words, I'll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are busting with it. It is the proper climate for any monk, no matter what kind of monk he may be. If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation. But still I don't know what it is. No matter. I don't know what the air is either.
Looking at key statements from the portion of Chapter 2 we reviewed, Merton conveys how our own ambition impedes us in trying to achieve Contemplation. But Merton observes that suffering and inner struggle can be useful. As we explored the difference between the two, we discussed how ambition is the stuff that builds and promotes the false self. By suffering and inner struggle, however, we are forced to face our own limitations and inadequacy. In doing so we die to our false self dependency of our own efforts and open to our True Self dependency on God who is the source of Contemplation.
As we looked at both Chapter 7 (Union and Division) and Chapter 8 (Solitude Is Not Separation) we saw that the two chapters were both related. In Chapter 7 we saw Merton describe one method people have of firming up the false self which was by living "lives centered on themselves... asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world... building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men." This false self attitude was even worse when embraced by spiritual people as exhibited through "the disease which is spiritual pride." We discussed how such people are taken as being judgmental and stubborn which are attitudes that lead to what Merton states as "making the name of God odious to other men." We talked about how Merton may have experienced this "spiritual disease" generally in aspects of "the Church" but also among the other monks he lived with. As I write this I wonder if Merton may have also experienced this in himself as he traveled his own spiritual journey.
In Chapter 8 Merton discusses how modern people give themselves over to a new type of separation which is "immersion in the mass of other men,... escape into the great formless sea of irresponsibility which is the crowd... sharing nothing with them but the common noise and the general distractions, isolates a man in the worst way, separates him from reality in a way that is almost painless... divides him from other men and from his true self."
Merton saw this later form of separation as worse because it lead to someone who has "no sense of self to esteem." The insight from that group was that if the spiritual journey is about the losing / dying of the false self, there must first be a false self that exists. In the case of the person described in this Chapter, there is simply no self to be recognized.
We were drawn to Merton's commentary on "the gift of sainthood" of which he writes: "makes it possible for (saints) to admire everybody else.... It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon... A man becomes a saint... by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God!"
The following speaks to the earlier comments of God as mystery: "It is certainly madness if I think I know what the holiness and perfection of God really are in themselves and if I think that there is some way in which I can apply myself to imitating them. I must begin, then, by realizing that the holiness of God is something that is to me, and to all men, utterly mysterious, inscrutable, beyond the highest notion of any kind of perfection, beyond all relevant human statement whatever."
To me, the following lines of Merton say something similar to the wisdom of the Sufi Saint Rabia wish to do away with "Heaven" and "Hell" which Paul shared last week: "perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves... we are free to serve God in perfection for His own sake alone..." Merton goes further by saying: "Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths you cannot understand... That who have gone this way have found that sanctity is in everything and God is all around them."
One of the group shared that though there is a different path to sanctity for each of us, a common method can be used to attain it: "We must deny ourselves and in some sense make ourselves nothing in order that we may live not so much in ourselves but in Him. We must live by a power and al light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us in every moment."