Wilderness & Paradise

Wilderness & Paradise

In recent years some odd theories have been put forward which, in order to highlight the noteworthiness of an active turning to the world and a ‘secular Christianity,’ have deemed it vital to simultaneously bring monastic solitude into disfavour. The ‘contemplative’ life of a religious is found to be of ‘Greek origins.’ Striving with temptation in the wilderness today, is seen as a peculiar and antiquated artefact of a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church which was called gnosticism, or perhaps some other heretical group. Solitude is revealed as essentially incompatible to the Christian message and life which are generally communal. Simply put, in this context the whole monastic ideal suddenly becomes theologically questionable. 

So how seriously should these idiosyncratic theories be taken? Should they influence a religious to embrace an entirely defensive and apologetic standpoint toward our monastic vocation? Or do we have to whilst remaining true to our vocations as hermits, monks and nuns, find ways of living unmonastically in order to defuse and negate this criticism? Do we need to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that we, hermits, monks and nuns are all intrinsically ‘secular’ too and that our monastic style of behaviour —or conversatio morum— is in actual fact our facing in the direction of the world and not in fact, away from it? 

We are not claiming to resolve this intricate question of the religious’ relation to the modern world. Before that question can even be tackled, the religious must have a concrete perception of what they themselves are supposed to be. If they set about, by compromising themselves they will not be able to avoid ambiguity and compromise in considering his relationship to the world. 

Monastic theology is not merely a search for a few specious texts in Scripture and the Fathers which will excuse or justify the monastic vocation. It is rather a study and meditation of revealed truth which enables the religious to understand how they, in a most special way, can respond to the call to follow Christ in the wilderness. 

Two studies by Protestant theologians, show that the theme of a call into the wilderness, a vocation to recover the paradisiacal life after suffering temptation with Christ in desert solitude, is but a variant of the fundamental themes of all Biblical theology: the pascha Christi, the call of the People of God out of Egypt, through the Red Sea into the Desert and to the Promised Land; the theme of the Cross and Resurrection; dying to sin and rising in Christ; the theme of the old and new man; the theme of the fallen world and the new creation. Not only is a Christian withdrawal to a ‘desert solitude’ excusable, licit and even praiseworthy, but the whole theology of the second Gospel is built upon the theme of Christ in the desert. 

The study by Dr Ulrich Mauser is limited to the biblical use of the desert theme, especially in the gospel of St. Mark. Dr George Williams in his survey of biblical, patristic, medieval and radical Protestant thought, gives us a remarkably interesting picture of a ‘Paradise-Wilderness’ concept running through the entire history of Christian spirituality and playing a most important part not only within monasticism but also in Protestantism and particularly in the universities and seminaries founded by the Protestants in the ‘wilderness’ of the North and South Americas. Both these books are of significant importance to men and women religious, and we will attempt to give a brief survey of their contents here, evaluating their consequences for a monastic theology relevant to our own needs. 

The Eremos, the desert wilderness ‘where evil and curse prevail,’ where nothing grows, where the very existence of man is constantly threatened, is also the place specially chosen by God to manifest Himself in His ‘mighty acts’ of mercy and salvation. Obedience to a divine call brings into this dreadful wilderness those whom God has chosen to form as His own people. The convocation of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai is the story of God leading men on what appears to be a ‘march into the open gates of death’ (Mauser). God places Israel in a seemingly impossible situation where, however, He reveals His name to His chosen, and thus places them directly in communication with Him as a source of unfailing help. On the basis of this free relationship rests the covenant of God with His people. 

YeShimon (Judean Desert), the Place of Desolation where Jesus spent 40 days.

Failure to trust Yahweh in the wilderness is not simply an act of weakness: it is disobedience and idolatry which, substituting the golden calf for the ineffable name, seek to shorten the time of suffering by resort to human expedients glossed over with religious excuses. Only a free act of grace can restore the violated covenant by reawakening in the people a true sense of the meaning of their desert vocation. They must recover their understanding that the desert calling implies a complete and continual dependence on God alone. For Israel, the desert life was a life of utter dependence on a continued act of grace which implied also a recognition of man’s own propensity to treachery and to sin. We know how the prophets urged Israel under her Kings and at the time of the Babylonian exile, to remember the desert time of espousals and to anticipate a new Exodus which would restore the authentic relationship of bridal love between Israel and her God in a ‘renewed wilderness time’. We know that this theme was taken over in the Pauline writings. 

Dr Ulrich Mauser shows that this is the message of John the Baptist at the opening of the second Gospel. The fact that the Baptist preaches ‘in the wilderness’ is of theological significance in Mark, for whom ‘the wilderness is a theme full of theological implications and not primarily a locality.’ John is in fact announcing what the prophets announced before him: One who is to come from God will appear in the wilderness and initiate the final work of salvation. Israel must go out to meet this one in the wilderness in an act of sincere repentance which acknowledges her whole history as one of disobedience and infidelity. The Baptism of John is a sign of recognition that God’s people are under judgement. Even Christ is baptised, thus showing His willingness to ‘endure God’s judgement’ and indeed to die for the sins of the people. Immediately after this, Jesus goes out to be tempted in the desert, for ‘only Jesus fully realised what it meant to go out into the wilderness: it meant the determination to live under the judgement of God.’ His going out into the desert is then the necessary outcome of His baptism. 

For all others, baptism is simply a gesture of temporary repentance. They return to the cities. But Jesus goes on into the wilderness as the sign that His baptism is fully serious, and that He is ‘the only true penitent whose return to the desert is (not merely a token gesture) but unfeigned’. One might argue that Christ’s stay in the desert is itself only a temporary retreat, a pause for thought and recollection in preparation for his active mission. Not at all; ‘The forty days,’ says Dr Mauser, are not ‘a period passed forever once Christ starts his public ministry,’ but as in the case of Moses and Elias, the desert retreat ‘sounds the keynote of his whole mission.’ 

Mauser then traces the development of the wilderness theme throughout the whole Gospel of Mark. ‘Mountain’ and ‘Sea’ are variants of the ‘wilderness’ in Mark. Invariably all stories of Jesus, in Mark, which have an ‘epiphany character’ take place in the ‘wilderness’, that is to say ‘on the mountain’ or by or on the sea. The underlying concept of Mark is in fact the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, the overcoming of the powers of evil in the world by the struggle in the desert, the agony in the garden and death on Calvary. Hence the whole Gospel of Mark is, for Dr Mauser, a development of the struggle of Jesus and Satan in the desert. To live in this state of struggle with the adversary of God, and to sustain this conflict in direct and complete dependence on God Himself, is the ‘wilderness life’. Even if one lives this confrontation far from the actual desert, one is in fact living ‘in the wilderness’ and ‘with Christ in the desert’. We see here the basic idea of all monastic theology firmly rooted in the second Gospel. 

What of ‘contemplation’? The Gospels do not use the expression ‘contemplative life,’ but the idea is expressed in other language. Christ is transfigured on the mountain, i.e., in the wilderness. The cloud, which would later have such fruitful destiny in Christian mystical literature, is since Exodus a permanent feature of the desert tradition: the ‘visible form of the governing, guiding yet hidden form of Yahweh’s presence’. The desert life is not only darkness and battle, it is also light and rest in the Lord who is our only help. ‘The epiphany of the glory of God is an indispensable element in the desert tradition.’ In fact, says Dr Mauser, the transfiguration is the sign of the Father’s approval of the obedience of Jesus in His desert vocation, His fidelity to a life of persistence in the desert.’ 

This persistence will of course lead finally to death, because the mountain of Calvary is the culmination of the desert vocation. ‘Jesus’s determination to persist in the desert … finds its conclusion in His decision to suffer and to die.’ Why? Because the very secret of life itself is that by renunciation one overcomes death and suffering (Mark 8:35) and enters upon life everlasting. The disciples of Christ who are called in a very real sense to follow Him ‘in the wilderness’ do not really understand the meaning of their calling. They are to a certain extent blind to the teaching of their master and to the significance of His life. The real cause of this blindness is their incapacity to surrender totally to their own desert vocation. ‘The unwillingness to endure tribulation and persecution, the care for security in the world, in one word the unwillingness to suffer — prevent the disciples from seeing and accepting all the implications of Christ’s teaching in their own lives.’ 

Even the apostolic mission of the followers of Jesus is marked with the sign of the wilderness. They are, in fact, called ‘on the Mountain’ and this, for Dr Mauser, is the ‘indication of (the) basic condition of their mission’. When they are sent out to preach in Mark 6.8 ff, the instructions given them are similar to those given to Israel at the beginning of the desert journey. In one word: the disciples of Christ are to be kept alive by nourishment from God, and they must not waste time and energy caring for themselves. The miraculous feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness in Mark 6 represents at once the convocation of the new Israel in the desert and the messianic and eschatological rest of God’s people with their King in the desert which has become His Kingdom and where He feeds them with His might in the new manna, the eucharist. 

From this brief resumé we can see at once that Dr Mauser has given us a monastic reading of Mark’s Gospel which is more thorough and more solid than almost anything we have in monastic literature since the Fathers. As monks we owe him thanks for a treatise in biblical theology which sums up the whole meaning of our own vocation to follow Christ in the wilderness, in temptation, to the cross, strengthened by His epiphany in the ‘cloud’ of contemplation, nourished by his eucharist and by the hope of the ‘eschatological rest’ with Him in the paradise of the transformed and flowering desert which is His Kingdom. 

The intricate relationship between the themes of desert and paradise is developed in a fascinating manner by Dr George Williams. The Church of the martyrs believed that the desert had become the arena, the sandy place where they fought the beasts and overcame the adversary of God in their agonia. Then the monks went out into the actual desert as Christ had done and their monastic struggle with temptation became a ‘martyrdom’ in witness to the faith, in obedience to Christ, in direct dependence on God for the grace without which one could not resist. This struggle was rewarded and the Church of martyrs and monks became also a ‘provisional paradise’ in anticipation of the eternal Kingdom. 

These themes are quite familiar to anyone who has read the monastic Fathers. But what is particularly interesting about Dr Williams’ book is the way in which he traces the development of the wilderness-paradise theme through the medieval universities (with their traditional autonomy from outside control) to Protestant sectarians who sought refuge in the ‘desert’ and ‘paradise’ of the New World, and who there built seminaries and colleges as ‘gardens in the wilderness’. Dr Williams sums up his thesis in these words: ‘Many major and minor movements in Christian history have been in substantial degree the history of the interpenetrations of the biblical and post-biblical meanings of the wilderness and paradise in the experience of God’s ongoing Israel’. 

Besides exploring the wilderness-paradise theme in the Bible, especially in the prophetic writings, Dr Williams gives special attention to Qumran and to Christian monasticism. Qumran was an ‘apocalyptic community that imitated the ancient sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai’, seeking to prepare the way for a priestly and a royal Messiah (two Messiahs in fact) by a paradisic covenant and communal life. The aim of Qumran is summed up in a phrase that has most fruitful implications for monastic theology: ‘the purity of paradise truth recovered within the fellowship of a disciplined wilderness encampment sustained by the Spirit’. Williams traces the themes of desert and paradise through Christian monasticism, shows the gradual interiorisation of this theme in the mystical literature of the Middle Ages, especially of the Victorines. He demonstrates that it persisted in the spirituality of the Mendicants and in the Universities, and quotes many texts from radical Protestantism which have the authentic ring of ancient monasticism, except that they apply to sectarian communities rather than to conventual families living under monastic vows. 

Puritan of the Massachusetts Bay Colony New England, on their way to church. December 22, 1620.

These texts incidentally offer much food for thought to anyone interested in ecumenical dialogue with Protestant visitors to our American monasteries. They show how completely a theme which is fundamental to monastic theology was taken over in the theology of radical Protestantism in the seventeenth century and hence entered into the formation of the Christian ideal of North American culture that grew up out of the Puritan colonies of New England. These words of John Eliot, a seventeenth-century New England Puritan, might equally well have come from one of the Trappist founders of the Abbey of Gethsemane: ‘When the enjoyment of Christ in his pure Ordinances is better to the soul than all worldly comforts, then these things (the hardships of the wilderness) are but light afflictions.’ Roger Williams is said to have practically ‘made an incantation of the word wilderness.’ Kentucky, we know, is still haunted by the thought of that ‘wilderness road’ through the Appalachian Mountains, over which the settlers came from Maryland and Virginia, including those Catholics who gathered around Bardstown where the first Cathedral west of the Alleghenies was dedicated in 1816. Bishop Flaget of Bardstown invited the first monks to North America. 

In conclusion, one very important aspect of Dr Williams’ book must not be passed over in silence. He is acutely aware, as too few Americans still are, of the criminal wastefulness with which commercial interests in the last two centuries have ravaged and despoiled the ‘paradise-wilderness’ of the North American mountains, forests and plains. The struggle to protect the natural beauties and resources of this country has not ended, and it is by no means to be regarded as an eccentricity of sentimental souls, bird watchers and flower gardeners. The disastrous storms of the thirties in the south-western dust bowl finally brought home more or less to everyone that conservation of soil and natural resources was an absolute necessity. Yet this does not prevent wastefulness, stupidity, greed and sheer destructive carelessness from going on today. So Dr Williams says, in words that monks above all should be ready to understand and appreciate: ‘Ours is the age of the bulldozer as much as it is the age of the atomic bomb. For good or ill, we need no longer conform to the contours of the earth. The only wilderness that will be left is what we determine shall remain untouched and that other wilderness in the heart of man that only God can touch.’ Anyone who reads the book will find this theme developed with its theological and religious implications. Meanwhile we might reasonably draw at least one obvious lesson from it. If the monk is a man whose whole life is built around a deeply religious appreciation of his call to wilderness and paradise, and thereby to a special kind of kinship with God’s creatures in the new creation, and if technological society is constantly encroaching upon and destroying the remaining ‘wildernesses’ which it nevertheless needs in order to remain human, then we might suggest that the monk, of all people, should be concerned with staying in the ‘wilderness’ and helping to keep it a true ‘wilderness and paradise.’ The monk should be eager to preserve the wilderness in order to share it with those who need to come out from the cities and remember what it is like to be under trees and to climb mountains. Surely there are enough people in the cities already without monks adding to their number when they would seem to be destined by God, in our time, to be not only dwellers in the wilderness but also its protectors.’ This judgement may, admittedly, reflect a personal preference. The two books discussed here certainly show that even a monastic life in an industrial setting can also find a theological basis in the Bible and monastic tradition provided it is in fact a true ‘wilderness life’ in the spirit of the theology of the apostolate in the Gospel of St Mark. 

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Discovering the true self in God with Merton’s guidance

Discovering the true self in God with Merton’s guidance

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (New Directions, 1961)

I discovered Thomas Merton in the midst of a laboratory. I was a doctoral student in pharmacology at New Jersey Medical School working on a model of motoneuron disease known as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and remember standing in the middle of the lab one day, procrastinating by thumbing through TIME magazine. I enjoyed reading the book review section and was struck by a new biography of a monk named Thomas Merton. I had never heard of Merton, but the summary of the book was intriguing. I went home that evening and reread the book review. The highlights of his life were fascinating: an intellectual from Columbia University whose cultural and literary life was relinquished for one of solitude and silence in a Trappist monastery. I was drawn to Merton like a magnet. I bought Monica Furlong’s Merton: A biography and read it in a single evening. I then went and purchased Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and after finishing this book knew that I wanted to follow Merton’s path. The rest, as they say, is history.

What drew me to Merton (and still does) was his deep inner search for truth and light, his inner yearning for God. I encountered his New Seeds of Contemplation while teaching a graduate spirituality course at Washington Theological Union. This book, in particular, encapsulated his spirituality for me — not in a biographical sense — but his profound soulful depth which at times seem to touch infinity. In fact, it is the opening chapters of this book that I return to again and again because they are, to me, like the opening chapters of Genesis, revealing the truth of creation and our capacity for God.

Two particular ideas stand out in the beginning that I think govern the flow of ideas throughout the book: prayer and self-identity. Merton explores the integral link between prayer and identity in his opening chapters, “Pray for Your Own Discovery” and “Things in Their Identity.” He plumbs these ideas with the mind of a philosopher and the pen of a poet: “The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God’s will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity. To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, my very self.”

Often we think of ourselves as finished products, as if God created us and then disappeared. But Merton, like the spiritual writer Beatrice Bruteau, realised how short-sighted this thinking can be. The “I” is not a finished product, something left over from God’s creative activity; rather it is the very process of God’s creative action. Merton, too, had something of this idea when he said, “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.” To know this truth, Merton wrote, we are to “pray for our own discovery.”

To pray, in the monastic sense, is to enter into dialogue with God, heart to heart. Prayer is that deep silent encounter in which the innermost centre of our being continuously stretches toward that which is not yet seen or fully known; yet, it is a type of deep knowing that we belong to God. Merton drew on the integral relationship between God and the human person, as if defining the double helix of divinity and humanity: our lives are intertwined with God’s life. “God utters me like a partial thought of himself,” he wrote. Hence the only path to true happiness is prayer, and prayer begins with self-discovery.

Merton’s chapter on self-identity is a classic on par with Saint Augustine’s opening page of the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Merton wrote: “The secret of our identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.” In fact, one could hear the voice of Augustine echoing throughout Merton’s prose. For New Seeds of Contemplation aims to do what Augustine himself did, to discover the ground of our happiness, our true vocation as human persons. Merton’s work like Augustine’s Confessions is not a “how to” book but a foundations book; the ground of contemplation, the realisation that there is no cogito or ego only SUM. Contemplation is the transcendence of all divisions into the higher reality of oneness-in-love: “It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.” 

It is apparent that the parable of the seeds (Luke 8:4-15) influenced Merton’s thought. A farmer knows that seeds must be planted on rich fertile soil, free of rocks and debris, if good seeds are to bring forth good life. Similarly, to say that God utters me like a partial thought of himself is to say there is a seed of God planted in my life, but the inner soil of my heart must be fertile and free of hardened rocks if this seed is to grow into the fullness of my life. Merton becomes eloquent at times, his artistic prose drawing the lines between Creator and creature, like a painter scanning the canvas of the soul. Nowhere is he more expressive than in his chapter on the true and false self:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. … My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life. And such a life cannot help but be an illusion. … The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. … Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in him. … Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find him (pp. 34-36).

The search for true identity requires an honest self-love. Love of self is not selfishness but a humble recognition of our lives as true, good and beautiful. Without real love of self, all other loves are distorted. Lack of self-knowledge, St. Bonaventure once wrote, makes for faulty knowledge in all other matters. Merton realised that so many people are weighed down by deep hurts, anger, resentment, lost loves, broken relationships, desperately seeking to fill their lives with happiness and peace. As he himself was searching for truth and identity, he came to a deep insight, that each human person already has what they are looking for: “Within myself is a metaphorical apex of existence at which I am held in being by my Creator.”

Merton thought that to live the truth of our own existence is to be a saint. “A tree is holy,” he wrote, “simply by being a tree;” flowers are saints gazing up into the face of God. We humans are no less called to be ourselves and in being ourselves to radiate the glory of God. However, very few people grasp the holiness of their lives. Rather, there is an implicit belief that God is watching from above and that we have to make our way to heaven to see God. Merton said, “We cannot go to heaven because we do not know where heaven is or what it is,” so God comes to us. God comes down from heaven and finds us, just as God sought Adam in the Garden of Eden. There is nothing we can do or say that can alienate God from our lives. We can disown God, but God cannot disown us because God cannot disown God’s own self; the self that is the very source of our lives. (2 Timothy 2:13)

Merton understood this inscrutable mystery by saying “our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us.” Our praying to God is God praying in us. Our lives and God’s life are so intertwined that loving God is God loving God’s own self in us. Prayer is waking up to this reality, coming to a new consciousness of God’s in-dwelling presence. “We become contemplatives,” Merton wrote, “when God discovers himself in us.” So God does not desire that we become anything other than the true self which God has loved from all eternity.

The chapters unfolding in New Seeds flow from this foundational truth of self-discovery in God. For if our life’s journey is knowing the truth of ourselves in God, then all wars would cease, violence would be banished, the world would be a sacred sphere, broken bones would be healed and hearts mended. If we could discover this great mystery of God in us, we would be truly free, and out of this freedom the seeds of our lives would sprout into a new world of justice and peace.

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