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UNION WITH GOD
1. The Immanent and Transcendent God
Union with God begins by faith in the "immanent" and "transcendent" God; that is to believe in the God Who is everywhere and is acting in everything. However, although God is near, He is still inaccessible to human beings, precisely because of His transcendent nature. Although God is in "paradise," the gap between Him and us is an infinite distance. Human beings cannot reach God by mere human effort. We cannot attain union with Him unless God lowers Himself to reach us, bridging the gap for us. Union with God is by its very nature an act of God's mercy. It is never an achievement of man. Thomas Merton wrote in his meditation in The Silent Life:
"God, says philosophy, is both immanent and transcendent. By His immanence He lives and acts in the intimate metaphysical depths of everything that exists. He is "everywhere." By His transcendence He is so far above all beings, that no human and limited concept can contain and exhaust His Being. Finite beings are not even said to "be" in the same univocal sense. Compared with God, created being "is not;" again, compared with created being, God is not."
Union with God is, therefore, not a superficial mixture, but a very profound action happening in the essence of the true self. It is both an act of contemplation, which is the complete attention of man's whole being toward God's presence and an act of transformation, because to "know" God means also to "become" like Him, to make a change of heart. Thomas Merton defined the union with God:
To be one with One Whom you cannot see, is to be hidden, to be nowhere, to be no one: it is to be unknown as He is unknown, forgotten as He is forgotten, lost as He is lost to the world which nevertheless exists in Him. Yet to live in Him is to live by His power, to reach from end to end of the universe in the might of His wisdom, to rule and form all things in and with Him. It is to be the hidden instrument of His Divine action, the minister of His redemption, the channel of His mercy, the messenger of His infinite love.
God is, consequently, not only a partner of the union, but He is also the most important cause who has made this union possible.
2. In God, the Self Transforms
In our union with God, there are two important spiritual transformations in the existential structure of the self. The first one is psychological and the second ontological.
The first transformation of the self in reaching the full union with God is the psychological "loss of the self" itself. To make it clearer, it is the loss of self-awareness. According to Merton, this loss is for the greater benefit to the self:
Therefore, as long as we experience ourselves in prayer as an "I" standing on the threshold of the abyss of purity and emptiness that is God, waiting to "receive something" from Him, we are still far from the most intimate and secret unitive knowledge that is pure contemplation ... The next step is not a step. You are not transported from one degree to another. What happens is that the separate entity that is YOU apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from infinite freedom. Love identified with Love.
If the entity of "I" apparently disappears in my psyche, I can put total energy and concern and love toward God alone. Thus, I might fulfill the first great commandment:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment." (Mt 22:37-38)
Thomas Merton called this a "pure love" which could draw the mercy of God and bring peace to the world. He wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation:
It is in this ecstasy of pure love that we arrive at a true fulfillment of the First Commandment, loving God with our whole heart and our whole mind and all our strength. Therefore it is something that all men who desire to please God ought to desire — not for a minute, nor for half an hour, but forever. It is in these souls that peace is established in the world. They are the strength of the world, because they are the tabernacles of God in the world. They are the ones who keep the universe from being destroyed. They are the little ones. They do not know themselves. The whole earth depends on them.
This "self-forgetfulness" was mentioned by St. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle when she was describing the final stage of the spiritual life, the 7th Mansion:
First, there is a self-forgetfulness which is so complete that it really seems as though the soul no longer existed, because it is such that she has neither knowledge nor remembrance that there is neither heaven nor life nor honor for her, so entirely is she employed in seeking the Honor of God ... And thus, happens what may, she does not mind in the least, but lives in so strange a state of forgetfulness that, as I say, she seems to no longer have existence ... absolutely none ...
This "self-forgetfulness" is, in fact, desired and accepted by the self as a voluntary death in order that God's will be obeyed. Thus, the self joins in the mystery of the Death of Christ so that we might also be Risen with Him. Thomas Merton clearly expressed this truth in his work He is Risen.
When the "I" is forgotten, the self is untouchable by "pride," the most subtle and dangerous enemy, which won victory over the strongest spiritual fighters: Lucifer, Adam and Solomon. Merton wrote poetically about any person who chooses to forget the "I":
Here is a man who is dead and buried and gone, and his memory has vanished from the world of man, and he no longer exists among the living who wander about in time: and who will call him proud because the sunlight fills the huge arc of sky over the country where he lived and died and was buried, back in the days when he existed?
"Pride" is, in fact, only an accidental phenomenon. It cannot stand by itself. Considered philosophically, pride is our enemy. The supposed substance to which all pride belongs is in fact the "I," the illusory ego. When the self reaches the spiritual level of losing self-awareness and the "ego" disappears, the pride also vanishes. Self-forgetfulness is therefore the sign of the death of our inmost enemy because pride "cannot exist where one is incapable of reflecting on a separate "self" living apart from God."
This first important spiritual transformation is therefore "the loss of the ego." The ego was born earlier in our life psychologically. In this transformation it is now dead psychologically. When the illusory ego vanishes the Paradise Man lives in the atmosphere of a total freedom. His heart turns back to the innocence and spontaneity of a child, the status of which Jesus said:
"Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18, 3)
The Paradise Man feels an immense peace and joy. Free from the busyness, fetter and distraction of the false self, the Paradise Man is full of life and ready for a higher change.
The second transformation of the self is an ontological change, and as a change in being, it is the more important event. As was stated above, the true self cannot enter the Kingdom of God by mere human effort. Rather, the Kingdom of God will enter him. Merton wrote:
From our side of the threshold of this darkness, it looks deep and vast ... and exciting. There is nothing we can do about entering in. We cannot force our way over the edge, although there is no barrier. But the reason is perhaps that there is also an abyss. There you remain, somehow feeling that the next step will be a plunge, and you will find yourself flying in interstellar space.
We cannot force our way into the Kingdom of God. Nor does the Kingdom of God invade the human realm, especially into the area of human choice. It happens that the true self voluntarily invites the coming of God into our life with our faith, trust and hope.
In union with God, the indwelling grace of God transforms the self and makes it a New Creation, breathing the new life of the Holy Spirit. This is not superficial change, but rather it is an ontological and substantial change to the degree that St. Paul said: "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:20) The true self after joining in the death of Christ, rises also with Christ in the risen life. In union with God, the self is united intimately to the degree that we do not think, will and act, but God thinks, wills and acts in us. Merton wrote of this unity:
So it is with one who has vanished into God by pure contemplation. God alone is left. He is the "I" Who acts there. He is the One who loves, knows and rejoices ... They are the clean of heart. They see God. He does their will, because His Will is their own. He does all that they want, because He is the One Who desires all their desires. They are the only ones who have everything that they can desire. Their freedom is without limit.
This second change of the true self, on the level of being, in the deep union with God is obviously made by an act of God, a movement within God's Kingdom. Merton further developed this in The New Man:
Ontologically the source of this new life is outside and above ourselves, in God. But spiritually, both the supernatural life and God Himself Who gives it are in the center of our being. He Who is infinitely above us is also within us, and the highest summit of our spiritual and physical life is immersed in His own actuality. If we are only truly real "in Him," it is because He shares His reality with us and makes it our own.
It is also an ontological change in the reality of the true self which shares in the Incarnation of Christ. By this mystery, the Word of God was incarnate not only in the human nature of Jesus, but also in the whole of humanity. In this way He makes His presence in all men and women of all ages. He made them all one with Him in a "Mystical Body." His resurrection created miraculous effects, He changed the whole humanity into a New Humankind beginning a New Heaven and a New Earth. Thomas Merton described such universal revolution in The New Man:
Before He died on the Cross, the historical Christ was alone in His human and physical existence. As He Himself said, "unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone. But if it die, it brings forth much fruit." [John 12:25] Rising from the death, Jesus lived no longer merely in Himself. He became the vine of which we are the branches. He extends His personality to include each one of us who are united to Him by faith. The new existence which is His by virtue of His resurrection is no longer limited by the exigencies of matter. He can now pass through closed doors, appear in many places at once, or exercise His action upon the earth while remaining hidden in the depths of the Godhead: yet these are only secondary aspects of His risen life. The primary aspect of His risen life is His life in the souls of His elect. He is now not only the natural Christ, but the mystical Christ, and as such He includes all of us who believe in Him. As a theologian says: "The natural Christ redeems us, the mystical Christ sanctifies us. The natural Christ died for us, the mystical Christ lives in us. The natural Christ reconciles us to His Father, the mystical Christ unifies us in Him." (Fr. Prat, S.J. –The Theology of St. Paul, Westminster, Md., 1952, vol. i, p. 300).
And His Spirit, as the Soul of the whole Mystical Body, blows freely in all parts of the body to sanctify them and to transform them, until they are united fully in Christ, the Incarnated God. Thomas Merton expressed in The New Man:
The "new life," the life of the Spirit, life "in Christ," is communicated to the spirit of man by the invisible Mission of the Holy Spirit — a direct consequence of the Resurrection of Jesus. Therefore the "new creation" instituted by the Second Adam is in fact a prolongation of His Resurrection. The new world which is called the Kingdom of God, the world in which God reigns in man by His divine Spirit ...
This substantial second transformation of the true self is, therefore, the birth of "the new man." In this new man, humanity shines more as God than as man. Mystics use many beautiful metaphors to express how the self looks when united with God. St. Teresa of Avila used the picture of a white butterfly born from the dead body of a silkworm. Merton used the picture of a crystal which bears a new quality when it is filled with light. No matter what metaphor they used, mystics often confirmed that the self in the state of "union" appears to be more like God than man. St Bernard of Clairvaux gave a description in his book On The Love of God:
Just as a little drop of water mixed with a lot of wine seems entirely to lose its own identity, while it takes on the taste of wine and its color; just as iron, heated and glowing, looks very much like fire, having divested itself of its original and characteristic appearance; just as air flooded with the light of the sun is transformed into the same splendor of light so that it appears not so much lighted up as to be light itself: so it will inevitably happen that in the Saints, every human affection will in some ineffable manner melt away from self and be entirely transfused into the will of God.
3. God: The Paradise
To speak ultimately, those who had the gladness of seeing God and being intimately united with God, enjoyed God as their paradise but they could not describe this experience, because in ecstasy mystics forgot their own experience. Besides, no human language can express the reality of heaven. Merton explained this point:
Would you call this experience? I think you may say that this only becomes an experience in a man's memory. Otherwise it seems wrong even to speak of it as something that happens. Because things that happen have to happen to some subject, and experiences have to be experienced by someone. But here the subject of any divided or limited or creature experience seems to have vanished. You are not you, you are fruition. If you like, you do not have an experience, you become experience: but that is entirely different, because you no longer exist in such a way that you can reflect on yourself or see yourself having an experience, or judge what is going on ... And here all adjectives fall to pieces. Words become stupid. Everything you say is misleading ... unless you list every possible experience and say: "That is not what it is." "That is not what I am talking about."
Mystics, therefore, speak about God only as experience in their memories. An earthly language only manifests relatively some minimum degree of precious experiences about God. With such strict limitation, mystics have expressed God as Being, Life and Love ...
4. God, the Pure Being
In the Old Testament Moses, after encountering God in the desert, had only a general statement about what God had revealed about Himself: "I AM WHO AM." (Ex. 3:14)
Thomas Merton recalled his own first encountering God as Being through the understanding of Etienne Gilson: God is "Aseitas;" that means:
"the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can only be one such Being: that is God."
God exists as all existing things do, but the difference is that He exists without limit, absolutely, He is Pure Being.
Thomas Merton was shaken by such understanding of God, which enabled him for the first time to accept God and admire Him. This moment made Merton admire Catholic philosophy and later drew him to become a convert. Merton wrote in his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain:
"And the one big concept which I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life."
Day in and day out, Merton meditated and contemplated on The One Who revealed Himself, "I AM WHO AM." This experience of God as Being grew in Merton and prepared him to enter a dialogue with Buddhist Mysticism in the closing years of his life. Merton felt so dear and so close to Buddhist Zen Masters who expressed their Absolute One to be "The Suchness," the Absolute "Ground of Being" in all things.
In studying Teilhard de Chardin, Merton was deeply impressed by the spirituality of this scientific theologian, which begins with love for the gift of existing. He quoted the prayer of Teilhard de Chardin:
O God, Whose call precedes the very first of our movements, grant me the desire to desire being ... that by means of that divine thirst which is Your Gift, the access to the great waters may open wide within me. Do not deprive me of the sacred taste of being, that primordial energy, that initial point of support: SPIRITU PRINCIPALI CONFIRMA ME.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Paradise Man"
Copyright © 2016 Linhxuan Vu.
Excerpted by permission of Xlibris.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Union with God, 11,
1. Immanent and Transcendent God, 11,
2. In God, the Self Transforms, 13,
3. God, the Paradise, 19,
4. God, the Pure Being, 20,
5. The Living God, 22,
6. The Loving God, 29,
II Union with the World,
1. The World is Paradise, 33,
2. The Place for Celebration, 34,
3. The World is Lovely, 35,
4. The World is Immense and Full of Wonders, 39,
5. The World is Sacred, 42,
6. Work in Paradise, 46,
7. Creativity in Paradise, 47,
III Union with Humankind,
1. Unity in Humankind, 49,
2. Disinterested Love: The Main Activity, 53,
3. Paradise in a Suffering World, 56,
a) The sign of hope, 56,
b) The new dimension of suffering, 57,
c) The unity of paradise and the suffering world, 61,
4. Paradise Apostolate, 63,
5. Paradise and Social Reformation, 66,
6. Paradise in Ordinary Lifestyles, 69,
7. Christ: The Second Adam, 73,
Appendixes: 1. Glossary, 96,
2. People, 98,
3. Discussion Guide, 109,
4. Notes, 110,
5. Bibliography, 117,