“Gleanings” offers spiritual reflections from some of the Christian tradition’s most insightful and beloved authors. The selections in this issue are from the 2oth-century Cistercian Thomas Merton and the 13th-century Dominican Meister Eckharrt
Selections from Thomas Merton’s “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”
The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.
It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.
But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent…
In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer…We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.
(From Merton’s Meditations on Liturgy)
Meister Eckhart, “Where God Enters”
“What good is it for me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and my culture and my times?”
Here in time we make holiday because the eternal birth which God the father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature. Saint Augustine says this birth is always happening. But if it does not happen in me, what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me.
We intend therefore to speak of this birth as taking place in us, as being consummated in the virtuous soul, for it is in the perfect soul that God speaks his word. What I shall say is true only of the devout man, of him who has walked and is still walking in the way of God, not of the natural undisciplined man who is entirely remote from and unconscious of this birth.
Concerning it three things are to be noted. The first is where in the soul God the father speaks his Word, where she is receptive of this act, where this birth occurs. The second, has to do with man’s conduct in relation to this act, this interior speaking, this birth. The third point will deal with the profit, and how great it is, that accrues form this birth.
Note in the first place that in what I am about to say I intend to use natural proofs that you yourselves can grasp, for though I put more faith in the scriptures than myself, nevertheless it is easier and better for you to learn by arguments that can be verified.
First we will take the words, “In the midst of the silence there was spoken in me a secret word.” But, sir, where is the silence and where the place in which the word is spoken?
To begin with, it is spoken in the purest, noblest ground, yes, in the very center of the soul. That is mid-silence, for no creature ever entered there, nor any image, nor has the soul there either activity of understanding, therefore she is not aware of any image either of herself or any creature. Whatever the soul effects, she effects with her powers. When she understands, she understands with her intellect. When she remembers, she does so with her memory. When she loves, she does so with her will. She works then with her powers and not with her essence.
Now every exterior act is linked with some means. The power of seeing is brought into play only through the eyes; elsewhere she can neither do nor bestow such a thing as seeing. And so with all the other senses; their operations are always effected through some means or other. But there is no activity in the essence of the soul; the faculties she works with emanate from the ground of the essence, but in her actual ground there is mid-silence; here alone is a rest and habitation for this birth, this act, wherein God the father speaks his word, for she is intrinsically receptive of nothing but the divine essence, without means. Here God enters the soul with his all, not merely with a part. God enters the ground of the soul.
None can touch the ground of the soul but God. No creature is admitted into her ground, it must stop outside in her powers. There it sees the image whereby it has been drawn in and found shelter. For when the soul’s powers contact a creature, they set out to make of the creature an image and likeness which they absorb. By it they know the creature. Creatures cannot enter the soul, nor can the soul know anything about a creature whose image she has not willingly taken into herself. She approaches creatures through their present images, an image being a thing that the soul creates with her powers. Be it a stone, a rose, a person, or anything else she wants to know about, she gets out the image of it which she has already taken in and thus is able to unite herself with it. But an image received in this way must of necessity enter from without through the senses. Consequently, there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself. The soul, says the philosopher, can neither create nor absorb an image of herself. So she has nothing to know herself by. Images all enter through the senses, hence she can have no image of herself. She knows other things but not herself. Of nothing does she know so little as herself, owing to this arrangement.
Now you must know that inwardly the soul is free from means and images; that is why God can freely unite with her without form or image. You cannot but attribute to God without measure whatever power you attribute to a master. The wiser and more powerful the master, the more immediately is his work effected and the simpler it is. Man requires many instruments for his external works; much preparation is needed before he can bring them forth as he has imagined them. The sun and moon, whose work is to give light, in their mastership perform this very swiftly: the instant their radiance is poured forth, all the ends of the earth are filled with light. More exalted are the angels, who need fewer means for their works and have fewer images. The highest Seraph has but a single image. He seizes as a unity all that his inferiors regard as manifold. Now God needs no image and has no image: without image, likeness, or means does God work in the soul, in her ground wherein no image ever entered other than himself with his own essence. This no creature can do.
How does God the father give birth to his son in the soul? Like creatures, in image and likeness? No, by my faith, but just as he gives him birth in eternity and not otherwise.
Well, but how does he give him birth there?
See, God the father has perfect insight into himself, profound and thorough knowledge of himself by means of himself, not by means of any image. And thus God the father gives birth to his son in the very oneness of the divine nature. Thus it is, and in no other way, that God the father gives birth to his son in the ground and essence of the soul, and thus he unites himself with her. Were any image present, there would be no real union, and in real union lies true bliss.
Now you may say: “But there is nothing innate in the soul but images.” No, not so! If that were true, the soul would never be happy, but God made every creature to enjoy perfect happiness, otherwise God would not be the highest happiness and final goal, whereas it is his will and nature to be the alpha and omega of all. No creature can be happiness. And here indeed can just as little be perfection, for perfection (perfect virtue, that is to say) results from perfection of life. Therefore you truly must sojourn and dwell in your essence, in your ground, and there God shall mix you with his essence without the medium of any image. No image represents and signifies itself: it stands for that of which it is the image. Now seeing that you have no image other than what is outside you, therefore it is impossible for you to be beatified by any image whatsoever.
The second point is, what must a person do to deserve and procure this birth that it may come to pass and be consummated in him? Is it better for him to do his part toward it, to imagine and think about God, or should he keep still in peace and quiet so that God can act in him while he merely waits on God’s operation? Of course, I am referring to those whose act is only for the good and perfect, those who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of virtue that it emanates from them naturally, without their seeking. They live a worthy life and have within them the lofty teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such are permitted to know that the very best and utmost of attainment in this life is to remain still and let God act and speak in you. When the powers have all been withdrawn from their bodily forms and functions, then this word is spoken. Thus he says: “In the midst of the silence the secret word was spoken to me.”
The more completely you are able to draw in your faculties and forget those things and their images which you have taken in — the more, that is to say, you forget the creature — the nearer you are to this and the more susceptible you are to it. If only you could suddenly be altogether unaware of things, could you but pass into oblivion of your own existence as Saint Paul did when he said: “Whether in the body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows!” Here the Spirit had so entirely absorbed the faculties that it had forgotten the body: memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses, nor even those powers whose duty it is to govern and grace the body; vital warmth and energy were arrested so that the body remained intact throughout the three days during which he neither ate nor drank. It was the same with Moses when he fasted forty days on the mount and was none the worse for it: on the last day he was as strong as on the first.
Thus a person must abscond from his senses, invert his faculties, and lapse into oblivion of things and of himself. About which the philosopher addressed the soul: “Withdraw from the restlessness of external activities!” And again: “Flee away and hide from the turmoil of outward occupations and inward thoughts, for they create nothing but discord!” If God is to speak his word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace; then he speaks in his soul his word and himself: not an image but himself. Dionysius says: “God has no image or likeness of himself, seeing that he is intrinsically all good, truth, and being.” God performs all his works in himself and outside himself simultaneously. Do not fondly imagine that God, when he created the heavens and the earth and all creatures, made one thing one day and another the next.
All God did was: he willed and they were. God works without instrument and without image. And the freer you are from images, the more receptive you are to his interior operation, and the more introverted and oblivious you are, the closer you are to it. All things must be forsaken. God scorns to work among images.
Now you may say, “What is it that God does without images in the ground and essence?” That I am incapable of knowing, for my soul powers can receive only in images; they have to recognize and lay hold of each thing in its appropriate image: they cannot recognize a bird in the image of a man. Now since images all enter from without, this is concealed from my soul, which is most salutary for her. Not knowing makes her wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she knows clearly thatit is but knows not how nor what it is. No sooner does one know the reason of a thing than he tires of it and goes casting about for something new. Always clamoring to know, we are ever inconstant. The soul is constant only to this unknowing which keeps her pursuing.
The wise man said concerning this: “In the middle of the night when all things were in quiet silence, there was spoken to me a hidden word.” It came like a thief, by stealth. What does he mean by a word that was hidden? The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden. It appeared before me, shining out with intent to reveal and giving me knowledge of God. Hence it is called a word. But what it was remained hidden from me. That was its stealthy coming “in a whispering stillness to reveal itself.” It is just because it is hidden that one is always and must be always after it. It appears and disappears; we are meant to yearn and sigh for it.
Saint Paul says we ought to pursue this until we spy it and not stop until we grasp it. When he returned after being caught up into the third heaven, where God was made known to him and where he beheld all things, he had forgotten nothing, but it was so deep down in his ground that his intellect could not reach it; it was veiled from him. He was therefore obliged to pursue it and search for it in himself, not outside himself. It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within. And being convinced of this, he said: “I am sure that neither death nor any affliction can separate me from what I find within me.”
There is a fine saying of one philosopher to another about this. He says: “I am aware of something in me which sparkles in my intelligence; I clearly perceive that it is something, but what I cannot grasp. Yet it seems if I could only seize it I should know its truth.” To which the other philosopher replied, “Follow it boldly! For if you can seize it, you will possess the sum total of all good and have eternal life!” It hides yet it shows. It comes, but after the manner of a thief, with intent to take and to steal all things from the soul. By emerging and showing itself somewhat, it purposes to decoy the soul and to draw it to itself, to rob it and take itself from it. As the prophet said: “Lord take from them their spirit and give them instead thy spirit.” This too the loving soul meant when she said, “My soul dissolved and melted away when Love spoke his word; when he entered I could not but fail.” And Christ signified it by his words: “Whosoever shall leave anything for my sake shall be paid an hundredfold, and whosoever will possess me must deny himself and all things, and whosoever will serve me must follow me nor go anymore after his own.”
Those who have written of the soul’s nobility have gone no further than their natural intelligence could carry them: they never entered her ground, so that much remained obscure and unknown to them. “I will sit in silence and hearken to what God speaks within me,” said the prophet. Into this retirement steals the word in the darkness of the night. Saint John says, “The light shines in the darkness; it came unto its own and as many as received it became in authority sons of God; to them was given power to become God’s sons.”
Notice the fruit and use of this mysterious word and of this darkness. In this gloom which is his own, the heavenly father’s son is not born alone: you too are born there a child of the same heavenly father and no other, and to you also he gives power. Call this if you will an ignorance, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than all knowing and understanding without it, for this outward ignorance lures and attracts you from all understood things and from yourself. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whosoever denies not himself and leaves not father and mother and is not estranged from all these, he is not worthy of me.” As though to say: he who abandons not creaturely externals can neither be conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does indeed give it to you.
May the God who has been born again as man assist us in this birth, continually helping us, weak men, to be born again in him as God.
(Eckhart’s Christmas Sermon)