Merton defines Christian mysticism, especially as expressed by the Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross, and he offers the contemplative experience as an answer to the irreligion and barbarism of our times. “For those...curious about mysticism...this is an excellent book” (Catholic World).
About the Author
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France and came to live in the United States at the age of 24. He received several awards recognizing his contribution to religious study and contemplation, including the Pax Medal in 1963, and remained a devoted spiritualist and a tireless advocate for social justice until his death in 1968. The Sign of Jonas was originally published in 1953.
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Vision and Illusion
The earthly desires men cherish are shadows. There is no true happiness in fulfilling them. Why, then, do we continue to pursue joys without substance? Because the pursuit itself has become our only substitute for joy. Unable to rest in anything we achieve, we determine to forget our discontent in a ceaseless quest for new satisfactions. In this pursuit, desire itself becomes our chief satisfaction. The goods that so disappoint us when they are in our grasp can still stimulate our interest when they elude us in the present or in the past.
Few men have so clearly outlined this subtle psychology of illusion as Blaise Pascal, who writes:
A man can pass his whole life without boredom, merely by gambling each day with a modest sum. Give him, each morning, the amount of money he might be able to win in a day, on condition that he must not gamble: you will make him miserable! You may say that what he seeks is the amusement of gaming, not the winnings. All right, let him play for nothing. There will be no excitement. He will be bored to death!
So it is not just amusement that he seeks. An amusement that is tame, without passion, only bores him. He wants to get worked up and to delude himself that he is going to be happy if he wins a sum that he would actually refuse if it were given him on condition that he must not gamble. He needs to create an object for his passions, and to direct upon that object his desire, his anger and his fear — like children who scare themselves with their own painted faces.
A life based on desires is like a spider's web, says Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Woven about us by the father of lies, the Devil, the enemy of our souls, it is a frail tissue of vanities without substance, and yet it can catch us and hold us fast, delivering us up to him as his prisoner. Nevertheless, the illusion is only an illusion, nothing more. It should be as easy for us to break through this tissue of lies as it is for us to destroy a spider's web with a movement of the hand. Saint Gregory says:
All that man pursues in this life has no existence except in his mind, not in reality: opinion, honor, dignities, glory, fortune: all these are the work of this life's spiders. ... But those who rise to the heights escape, with the flick of a wing, from the spiders of this world. Only those who, like flies, are heavy and without energy remain caught in the glue of this world and are taken and bound, as though in nets, by honors, pleasures, praise and manifold desires, and thus they become the prey of the beast that seeks to capture them.
The fundamental theme of Ecclesiastes is the paradox that, although there is "nothing new under the sun," each new generation of mankind is condemned by nature to wear itself out in the pursuit of "novelties" that do not exist. This concept, tragic as the Oriental notion of karma which it resembles so closely, contains in itself the one great enigma of paganism. Only Christ, only the Incarnation, by which God emerged from His eternity to enter into time and consecrate it to Himself, could save time from being an endless circle of frustrations. Only Christianity can, in Saint Paul's phrase, "redeem the times." Other religions can break out of the wheel of time as though from a prison: but they can make nothing of time itself.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa, pursuing his meditations on the psychology of attachment and illusion, vision and detachment, which constitute his commentary on Ecclesiastes, observes how time weaves about us this web of illusion. It is not enough to say that the man who is attached to this world has bound himself to it, once and for all, by a wrong choice. No: he spins a whole net of falsities around his spirit by the repeated consecration of his whole self to values that do not exist. He exhausts himself in the pursuit of mirages that ever fade and are renewed as fast as they have faded, drawing him further and further into the wilderness where he must die of thirst. A life immersed in matter and in sense cannot help but reproduce the fancied torments which Greek mythology displays in Hades — Tantalus starving to death with food an inch from his lips, Sysiphus rolling his boulder uphill though he knows it must escape him and roll down to the bottom again, just as he is reaching the summit.
And so, that "vanity of vanities" which so exercised the Ancient Preacher of Ecclesiastes and his commentator is a life not merely of deluded thoughts and aspirations, but above all a life of ceaseless and sterile activity. What is more, in such a life the measure of illusion is the very intensity of activity itself. The less you have, the more you do. The final delusion is movement, change, and variety for their own sakes alone.
All the preoccupation of men with the things of this life [writes Saint Gregory], is but the game of children on the sands. For children take delight in the activity of their play and as soon as they have finished building what they build, their pleasure ends. For as soon as their labor is completed, the sand falls down and nothing is left of their buildings.
This profound idea often finds echoes in the pages of Pascal. It might well have provided a foundation for his famous theory of "distraction" — divertissement. Pascal knew that the philosophers, who laughed at men for running all day long after a hare that they would probably not have accepted as a present, had not plumbed the full depths of man's inanity. Men who call themselves civilized do not hunt foxes because they want to catch a fox. Neither do they, for that matter, always study philosophy or science because they want to know the truth. No: they are condemned to physical or spiritual movement because it is unbearable for them to sit still. As Pascal says:
We look for rest, and overcome obstacles to obtain it. But if we overcome these obstacles, rest becomes intolerable, for we begin at once to think either of the misfortunes that are ours, or of those that threaten to descend upon us.
Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man's guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire. Incapable of the divine activity which alone can satisfy his soul, fallen man flings himself upon exterior things, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of the agitation which keeps his spirit pleasantly numb. He has but to remain busy with trifles; his preoccupation will serve as a dope. It will not deaden all the pain of thinking; but it will at least do something to blur his sense of who he is and of his utter insufficiency.
Pascal sums up his observations with the remark: "Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is, itself, the greatest of our miseries."
Why? Because it "diverts" us, turns us aside from the one thing that can help us to begin our ascent to truth. That one thing is the sense of our own emptiness, our poverty, our limitations, and of the inability of created things to satisfy our profound need for reality and for truth.
What is the conclusion of all this? We imprison ourselves in falsity by our love for the feeble, flickering light of illusion and desire. We cannot find the true light unless this false light be darkened. We cannot find true happiness unless we deprive ourselves of the ersatz happiness of empty diversion. Peace, true peace, is only to be found through suffering, and we must seek the light in darkness.
There are, in Christian tradition, a theology of light and a theology of darkness. On these two lines travel two mystical trends. There are the great theologians of light: Origen, Saint Augustine, Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas Aquinas. And there are the great theologians of darkness: Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Saint John of the Cross. The two lines travel side by side. Modern theologians of genius have found no difficulty in uniting the two, in synthesizing Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint John of the Cross. Some of the greatest mystics — Ruysbroeck, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint John of the Cross himself — describe both aspects of contemplation, "light" and "darkness."
There are pages in the works of Saint Gregory of Nyssa — as there are also in those of Saint John of the Cross — which might easily fit into a context of Zen Buddhism or Patanjali's Yoga. But we must remember that when a Christian mystic speaks of the created world as an illusion and as "nothingness," he is only using a figure of speech. The words are never to be taken literally and they are not ontological. The world is metaphysically real. Creatures can lead us efficaciously to the knowledge and love of their Creator and ours. But since the created world is present to our senses, and God as He is in Himself is infinitely beyond the reach both of sense and of intelligence, and since the disorder of sin gives us a tendency to prefer sensible goods before all others, we have a way of seeking the good things of this life as if they were our last end.
When Creation appears to us in 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 for 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. It is a real cigar coupon, and yet, considered as a ten-dollar bill, it is a pure illusion. When we live as if the multiplicity of the phenomenal universe were the criterion of all truth, and treat the world about us as if its shifting scale of values were the only measure of our ultimate 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.
Many Christian mystics look at the world only from the subjective standpoint of fallen man. Do not be surprised, then, if they say that the world is empty, that it is nothingness, and offer no explanation. But Saint Gregory of Nyssa, together with many of the Greek Fathers, not to mention those of the West, sees all sides of the question.
The contemplation of God in nature, which the Greek Fathers called theoria physica, has both a positive and a negative aspect. On the one hand, theoria physica is a positive recognition of God as He is manifested in the essences (logoi) of all things. It is not a speculative science of nature but rather a habit of religious awareness which endows the soul with a kind of intuitive perception of God as He is reflected in His creation. This instinctive religious view of things is not acquired by study so much as by ascetic detachment. And that implies that the positive and negative elements in this "contemplation of naure" are really inseparable. The negative aspect of theoria physica is an equally instinctive realization of the vanity and illusion of all things as soon as they are considered apart from their right order and reference to God their Creator. Saint Gregory of Nyssa's commentary on Ecclesiastes, from which we have quoted, is a tract on the "contemplation of nature" in its twofold aspect, as vanity and as symbol.
Does all this mean that the theoria physica of the Greek Fathers was a kind of perpetual dialectic between the two terms vision and illusion? No. In the Christian platonism of the Fathers, dialectic is no longer as important as it was in Plato and Plotinus. The Christian contemplation of nature does not consist in an intellectual tennis game between these two contrary aspects of nature. It consists rather in the ascetic gift of a discernment which, in one penetrating glance, apprehends what creatures are, and what they are not. This is the intellectual counterpoise of detachment in the will. Discernment and detachment (Jurists and apatheia) are two characters of the mature Christian soul. They are not yet the mark of a mystic, but they bear witness that one is traveling the right way to mystical contemplation, and that the stage of beginners is passed.
The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good — charity, union with the will of God — and an equally spontaneous repugnance for what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right, or deterred from evil by threat of punishment.
So great is the power of man's intelligence that it can start out from the least of all beings and arrive at the greatest. The mind of man is, by its very nature, a participation in the intelligence of God, Whose light illumines the conclusions of rational discourse. Words can be sadly mistreated and misused; but they could not be false unless they could also be true. Language may become a suspicious instrument on the tongues of fools or charlatans, but language as such retains its power to signify and communicate the Truth.
Faith, without depending on reason for the slightest shred of justification, never contradicts reason and remains ever reasonable. Faith does not destroy reason, but fulfills it. Nevertheless, there must always remain a delicate balance between the two. Two extremes are to be avoided: credulity and skepticism; superstition and rationalism. If this balance is upset, if man relies too much on his five senses and on his reason when faith should be his teacher, then he enters into illusion. Or when, in defiance of reason, he gives the assent of his faith to a fallible authority, then too he falls into illusion. Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.
The Problem of Unbelief
It is absolutely impossible for a man to live without some kind of faith. Faith, in the broadest sense, is the acceptance of truth on the evidence of another. The essence of all faith is the submission of our judgment to the authority of someone else, on whose word we accept a truth that is not intrinsically evident to our own minds. Human or natural faith is the acceptance of truths on the authority of other men. Supernatural faith is the belief in truths revealed by God, on the testimony of God, and because of the authority of God Who reveals these truths to us.
One of the paradoxes of our age, which has so far not distinguished itself as an Age of Faith, is that millions of men who have found it impossible to believe in God have blindly submitted themselves in human faith to every charlatan who has access to a printing press, a movie screen, or a microphone. Men who cannot believe in the revealed word of God swallow everything they read in the newspapers. Men who think it absurd that the Church should be able, by virtue of the guidance and protection of the Holy Ghost, to make infallible pronouncements as to what has or has not been revealed by God concerning doctrine or morality, will believe the most fantastic claims of political propaganda, even though the dishonesty of propagandists has become, by now, proverbial.
They find it impossible to believe the Pope when, with the extreme caution and reserve which is characteristic of Rome, he makes one of his rare and guarded ex cathedra pronouncements within the very narrow field of "faith and morals" concerning which, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, he might be expected to know something. And yet if some movie star or other celebrity, who stalled for three years in the eighth grade and finally gave up all hope of high school, makes a dogmatic declaration on anything from marriage to astrophysics, they will regard it as "authoritative."
The final irony of the situation is this: that most men have no intellectual right to their theological unbelief. Strictly speaking, of course, no man has an intellectual right to unbelief because theological faith is eminently reasonable. The intelligence has no right to be consciously unintelligent. But there do nevertheless exist a few men who, in all sincerity, have arrived by their own research at the error that theological faith is unacceptable. We cannot respect their error, but at least we have to admit that they worked hard to reach it. Their ignorance is invincible. They are in "good faith" in having no faith, because they think they have evidence against the validity of faith as such. This supposes (at least in theory) that if they saw the evidence in favor of faith, they would instantly change their view.
But no: the paradox is this. While one or two men hold, as a result of false reasoning, that theological faith is unacceptable, millions of others reject the notion of faith by an act not of reason but of blind faith. Here is evidence of the supreme intellectual indigence of our civilization: our very refusal to believe is based on faith.
Excerpted from "The Ascent to Truth"
Copyright © 1979 Hie Trustees of Merton Legacy Trust.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
The Cloud and the Fire,
Vision and Illusion,
The Problem of Unbelief,
On a Dark Night,
Knowledge and Unknowing in Saint John of the Cross,
Concepts and Contemplation,
The Crisis of Dark Knowledge,
Reason and Mysticismin Saint John of the Cross,
The Theological Background,
Faith and Reason,
Reason in the Life of Contemplation,
"Your Reasonable Service",
Between Instinct and Inspiration,
Reason and Reasoning,
Intelligence in the Prayer of Quiet,
Doctrine and Experience,
The Mirror of Silvered Waters,
A Dark Cloud Enlightening the Night,
The Loving Knowledge of God,
To the Mountain and the Hill,
The Giant Moves in His Sleep,
About the Author,