Thoughts on The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

I finished Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, quite a few days ago. When my husband asked me what I thought of it, the main thing that I kept trying to get across is how amazed I was by how much ground Carl managed to cover in so few pages. Despite the title, it’s really not a very big book – just 300 pages.  But it does cover a substantial amount of material in those 300 pages!  It’s truly quite an accomplishment.

I wrote a post about 75 pages into the book about how I was a bit troubled by the idea of “selling mysticism”.  Having finished the book, this still troubles me.  The book could potentially be categorized as a guide for aspiring mystics which would be OK except based on my understanding of mysticism, an aspiring mystic is an oxymoron.  Had the book been titled The Big Book of Christian Spirituality or The Big Book of Contemplative Christianity or something just slightly less ambiguous than “mystic”, it wouldn’t trouble me in the least.

It’s not that I think of mysticism as something magical, unattainable and only for the few. Nor do I consider mysticism to be “special”.  Mysticism is simply a term that expresses a human potential that is very difficult to explain in rational terms. The trouble with writing a guide for aspiring mystics, as I see it, is that by turning mysticism into an achievable goal, we weaken that potential rather than strengthen it.  The Buddhists say that the desire to be enlightened is a direct obstacle to enlightenment itself.  Desire is desire is desire, even if it is for something lofty like enlightenment or being a mystic. What we seek we will forever seek.  Realization does not necessarily require a quest, it is the quest. Eventually, we have to abandon the quest for our object of desire and “leap”.  In the old French text, “The Quest of the Holy Grail” was not called “The Quest for the Holy Grail”.  The title has been distorted by a goal driven culture.  Consider the difference between a “Quest of God” and a “Quest for God”.  The two barely resemble one another.  One is focused upon a journey (process), the other upon an end result/acquisition (a goal).

Carl is obviously aware of this conundrum.  He provides an entire chapter on Christian paradox because he says that mysticism is “all about paradox”.  I agreed with the vast majority he listed but disagreed with a few, too.  Especially, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Perfect love casts out fear.”  True, love casts out fear.  But “the fear of the Lord” isn’t “fear, or dread or existential angst”.  It’s Awe.  Which, of course, doesn’t require a belief in God but works just fine if you do believe in God.  And of course I have a problem with – “Mysticism is the quest for God.  You cannot seek God unless God has found you.”  Obviously, I do not agree that mysticism is the quest for God.  Nor do I agree that all love is about seeking a beloved.  Love is a choice and a journey.  Not necessarily a quest for a beloved. Carl says things don’t work out at the end of Romeo and Juliet, but they do. The House of Montague and the House of Capulet, after decades and possibly centuries of being at war with each other, are reconciled in the end. Romeo and Juliet’s youthful, trusting love was not in vain. To me mysticism isn’t about seeking God.  It’s the realization that we are already One with God.  It is trust in God because God is trust.  (Jeremiah 17:7 NASB.) Even though everything is a mess, all is well.

Carl says mystics would be at home in Missouri, the “show me” state, because seeing is believing.  But I think what mystics understand is that it’s really the other way around.  We don’t actually believe it when we see it.  We see it when we believe it.  How we choose to perceive the world is a choice we make.  I do, however, fully agree with the paradox he used with the Missouri example:  “Mysticism is about experience.  Mysticism cannot be limited to experience.”  Mysticism is rational because it is based upon experience.  Mystics warn that our experience should be tested before trusted – is this an authentic experience or something generated by my own egoic drive?  But at the same time, mysticism is not limited to experience because it is transrational. That is a beautiful paradox!

Carl says mysticism is like tofu.  Not a bad analogy in and of itself, but he goes on to say, “If tofu’s strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever dish it’s cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture on its own.”  True, tofu is extremely adaptable.  But my husband and daughter will eat tofu straight from the carton.  They like it that way.  Maybe that’s a little weird, but there are others like them.  And anyway, the spiciest spice does not define taste or texture on its own anymore than does tofu.  What is tasted requires a taster.  The taster’s judgment about what is tasted is based on personal preference, not on the actuality of what is tasted. The apparent lack of defining taste or texture in tofu is not its weakness. That is its strength.  Just as tofu does not require a savory dish to make it palatable, mysticism doesn’t have to take on a particular religious dogma in order to be perceived as beautiful.

Nietzsche was not religious, but is considered by many, including me, to be a mystic.  He likewise inspired numerous people of various religious and non-religious backgrounds who are considered by many to be mystics:  Martin Buber, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Paul Tillich, Jung, Rilke, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence…  (Toward the end of his book, Carl says that “at the heart of eternal being is ever-evolving becoming”.  That’s very Nietzsche!)  Tofu is just fine on its own for lots of people. So is mysticism.  Maybe you like tofu in savory dishes better than you like it plain and prefer mysticism expressed through beautiful religious symbols and practices.  But that doesn’t mean it must be expressed in that way. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.

Of course, in all fairness, Carl’s book is specifically about Christian mysticism and was likely written primarily with Catholics in mind.  I belong to a mainline Methodist Church which is big into things like Prevenient Grace and the Quadrilateral (the balance between and within scripture, tradition, reason and experience).  Our church was founded by a mystic, John Wesley – “the reasonable enthusiast” – so I don’t think many Methodists would have a problem with Carl’s book.  (Enthusiasts in Wesley’s day were the crazy charismatic types who were more concerned with magic and the spirit world than the rational world.  Wesley was called an enthusiast because he had mystical experiences, but he was also a solid rationalist.)  As far as I can tell, nothing in Carl’s book counters Methodism and I don’t think it would offend anyone except, perhaps, disgruntled ex-Catholics and the more literal among us. It might be the perfect book for some people in our church although I can only imagine the more ecumenical being interested in reading it because it is so heavily Catholic. Most with an ecumenical bent would likely already be familiar with what Carl has to say because the problem with covering so much ground in so few pages is that Carl can’t go as deeply into these concepts as he is definitely capable of going.

I actually bought the book hoping it would provide a bridge between paganism and Christian mysticism since Carl was a pagan in a previous life. I have lots of Unitarian Universalist friends who are very skeptical of Christianity.  Most of them are UU Pagans.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this book will provide much help in bridging that particular gap.  However, having once been an integral part of Catholicism for a decade of my life (and that I continue to be involved with it through my husband’s family), I do think Carl’s book will likely be very helpful to many people within the Catholic community.  It speaks their language and is solidly grounded in Catholic tradition.  I plan to purchase another copy for my husband’s brothers and sister to share. They have all been active Catholics their entire lives and have likely never once missed a weekly mass.  But it’s only been within the the last decade or so that they have developed a more spiritual interest in their religion.  When I met my husband, he was contemplating becoming a Jesuit priest.  Not sure why he had such strong spiritual leanings so young while the rest of his family did not, but it was definitely his spirituality that attracted me to him. Had I read this book 20 years ago when I was first becoming Catholic (primarily for his sake – I was already deeply rooted in Methodism), I would have devoured it and would have wanted to discuss it with every person willing to discuss it with me.  I also think the decision to become Catholic would have been much easier for me.   Of course, can’t say it makes me want to return to Catholicism now that I’ve left it, but that’s another matter altogether.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

As long as we acknowledge that mysticism is, at its heart, about a deep and profound mystery that cannot be put into words, we can (and, perhaps should) acknowledge that it is precisely in this dimension of mystery that people of different faiths and different wisdom traditions can relate to each other – not in a spirit of competition of hostility, but in a genuinely open, compassionate, and respectful manner. (p. 64)

First of all, mystical Christianity is less about attaining unity with God and more about creating the inner emptiness where you can offer God hospitality.  (p. 161)

So again we enter the realm of paradox.  Mysticism is a journey; and it’s not a journey.  It’s a climb up the mountain; it’s a transformation that happens right here, right now – no movement necessary.  Since paradox is at the heart of mystical experience, the journey/not-journey becomes yet another key to unlocking the depth of the Christian mysteries.  (p. 184)

The paradox at the heart of mysticism emerges from the paradox of being human.  That which is infinite cannot be be squeezed into a finite container, no matter how grand and noble and beautiful that container may be.  (p. 191)

The Naked Now by Richard Rohr

Rohr says the overall message in his book, The Naked Now, is that:

  • All saying must be balanced by unsaying, and knowing must be humbled by unknowing.  Without this balance, religion invariably becomes arrogant, exclusionary, and even violent.
  • All light must be informed by darkness, and all success by suffering. St. John of the Cross called this Luminous Darkness,  St. Augustine, the Paschal Mystery or the necessary Passover, and Catholics proclaim it loudly as the mystery of faith at every Eucharist.  Yet it is seldom an axiom at the heart of our lives.

A few interesting points…

True spirituality is not a search for perfection or control or the door to the next world; it is a search for divine union now.  The great discovery is that always what we were searching for has already been given! I did not find it; it found me.

What makes Jesus different than founders of other religions is that he found God in disorder and imperfection and told us that we must do the same or we will never be content on this earth. Hope and union are the same thing.  Real hope has nothing to do with certitude.

Much of religious seeking today is immature transcendence which is dualistically split off from any objective experience of union with God, self or others.  If it is authentically experienced, Christianity is overcoming the split from God’s side, once and for all.  (“Why do you waste time looking to one another for approval when you have the approval that comes from the One God?”  John 5: 41, 44)

Faith is often clarified and joy-filled hindsight – after we have experienced our experiences.  But the path ahead will always be a mixture of darkness and light.

The essential religious experience is that you are being “known through” more than knowing anything in particular.  Yet despite this difference it feels like true knowing.  This new way of knowing is called “third eye” seeing.   We do not pray to Christ, we pray through Christ.

Many are convinced that the correct Hebrew YHWH is an attempt to replicate the sound of inhalation and exhalation.  When you breathe, you are speaking God’s name.  It is our first and last word.  There is no Islamic, Christian or Jewish way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way.  There is no poor or rich way.  The playing field is utterly leveled. Breath, wind, spirit and air are precisely – nothing.

The word mystic simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. This was Jesus’ entire point.  Jesus was the first non-dual religious teacher of the West.  One of the reasons we have failed to understand his teaching is because we tried to understand it with a dual mind.  Nondual thinking was consistently assumed, implied and even taught in Christianity for 1600 years before it went underground.  Balance is the name of the game. Not perfection.

Theism believes there is a God.  Christianity believes that God and humanity can exist in the same place.  These are two utterly different proclamations of the universe. Most Christians are very good theists who just happen to have named their god Jesus….  We think of ourselves as mere humans trying to be spiritual when the Christian revelation is that we are already spiritual.

We do not see things as they are.  We see things as we are.

Three levels of conversion:

  1. Intellectual – moving out of the world of sense perception into the universe of being.
  2. Moral – purification of motives
  3. Religious – transformation into love.  Changing ourselves and letting ourselves be changed by a mysterious encounter with grace, mercy and forgiveness.

Metanoia  – change your mind.  Jesus’ first message in the gospels.

Paul’s word for “ego” was “flesh”.

The “kingdom of God” is not about a place or afterlife.  It is about a way of seeing and thinking now.   The kingdom of God is the naked now.

Prayer is “resonance”.  Prayer is about changing you, not about changing God.

The struggle to forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now often breaks us through to nondual consciousness.

Christianity became rational in order to oppose rationalism, which made it lose it’s secret wisdom.  [Perhaps Wesley understood this and that’s why he’s called the "Rational Enthusiast"?]

God is the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  St. Bonaventure

Religious people today are much more invested in either/or thinking than scientists.

Although Ken Wilber would largely identify as a Buddhist, he is our post-modern Thomas Aquinas, and one of the best friends and loving critics religion has ever had.

We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward unity with God.  We became a religion of belonging rather than a religion of transformation.

John Wesley Sermons (Thomas Oden Translation)

I’ve finished all of the sermons in the little John Wesley Book of Sermons translated by Thomas Oden and have gotten a lot out of most of them.  It’s like reconnecting to something I once understood about Christianity but had long ago forgotten.

Most of the sermons are based on understanding, compassion, love and forgiveness.  Wesley says that all sins are forgiven because God does not condemn.  Therefore, there is no reason, whatsoever, to be afraid of your past.  Christ set us free so quit being slaves to sin.  Quit being a slave to the past.

This was likely groundbreaking stuff in 18th century England when church was all about morality.  Wesley was preaching to the poor and outcast and he usually had to do so outside of the church because the Church of England had closed it’s doors to him.  They didn’t like what he was preaching. One time, he went to preach in his father’s church and they wouldn’t let him, so he preached on his father’s tombstone, outside of the church.  He always drew a crowd.  I’m not so sure I totally understand why he always drew a crowd, but he was extremely popular among the poor.  He supposedly attracted as many people as 30,000 at a time!

In one of his sermons, he says that God is not harshly disapproving of you, so why should you be afraid?  Get up.  Leap!  Walk.  Go on your way.  You have no reason to fall into the grip of the fear that brings with it pains of judgment.  Just love God who loves you.  That is sufficient.  Not exactly the message the ruling class wants to send to the lower classes.

This may have been what I was taught in my Methodist Sunday School classes, but it certainly is not what I was taught in all of the many Christian organizations I belonged to in junior high and high school.  I had conflicting ideas about God when I was younger.  On the one hand, I believed God was Love.  I could easily equate the two.  Love is God; God is Love.  On the other hand, I also believed God condemned those who displeased him.  So God was Love and Love was God as long as you were pleasing to God.  It didn’t ever really make sense.   We were told we were saved by grace, but what that really meant was that grace could only be given to us if we first believed in the right things.  It wasn’t really grace because you essentially had to earn your way into it.  Grace, by definition, cannot be earned.

In another sermon, Wesley says that God was revealed to Moses, but not with physical eyes.  He didn’t literally “see” God.  Quoting Exodus, Wesley says that what Moses saw was God as compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever constant and true, maintaining constancy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin, and not sweeping the guilty clean away.  I’d never really thought about Moses in this way before.  There are all kinds of stories in the OT of God wiping the guilty clean away, or at least wanting to wipe them away.  Apparently, he would have done this several times if the prophets hadn’t talked Him out of it.  (Noah is the only prophet I can think of who didn’t try to convince God to save his people.  He didn’t argue.  He just built the ark and let God wipe everyone out without so much as a peep.  Noah was an exceptionally wimpy prophet!!)  Maybe Moses represented a new generational understanding of God at that time, as did Wesley for his time?

It would be interesting to go back through history and see how it plays out – is there always a tug of war between those crying out for morality and new voices coming to the forefront insisting on forgiveness?  If so, then it’s kind of interesting that it is currently humanist atheism and progressive Christianity that are the moral defenders of the universe these days.  Neither group is particularly forgiving or tolerant.  I’d never really thought of this before.  Perhaps today’s voices of forgiveness are those of transpersonal psychology (Eckhart Tolle, A Course in Miracles, etc.) and Integral Spirituality?

The last sermon is about working out our own salvation.  That’s kind of like saying, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Quit waiting for someone or something to save you.  Wesley writes, “Even those who have no law – no written law – are their own law for they display the effect of the law – the substance of it, though not the letter for it is inscribed on their hearts by the hand which wrote the commandment on tablets of stone. Their conscience is called as witness as to whether they act suitably or not.”… “God works in us, therefore we must work.”  This, to me, is basically the same thing as Richard Rohr’s idea of Contemplative Action.   Trust that inner voice, and it will give rise to action.  You will know what to do.

Russian Spirituality with Fr. Thomas Hopko

My husband and I signed up for the third year of a Christian mysticism survey in San Antonio sponsored by the Oblate School of Theology.  We didn’t know about the first two years and I actually heard about the series through Carl McColman in Atlanta, of all people! It was kind of fun telling the people who asked that we had driven in from Austin because we had learned about the series from a guy in Atlanta.

Not so sure what I thought about the first lecture, however. It was given by Fr. Thomas Hopko who is Dean Emeritus at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox School of Theology.  He was a lively, engaging speaker and fun to listen to, but he didn’t cover what I thought he was going to cover. He was also extremely opinionated so it was difficult to know if we were getting a balanced perspective on Russian Orthodoxy or just his. He was just way to Orthodox for me!

I was looking forward to learning more about the mystics within Russian Orthodoxy and he barely touched on them.  Instead, he offered a general overview of Russian Orthodox spirituality which was probably really difficult to do in the short amount of time he had.

I took a few notes…

Did you know that Christianity is not a religion? No. It’s not. It’s the fulfillment of all of the religions and also the end of them all.  (Did I mention that Hopko is extremely biased toward his religious point of view?  ) Also Catholic means full/whole. It doesn’t mean universal.

What is called the dark ages in the Western world was actually the golden age in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

In the early days of Christianity, Eastern Christians were completely independent of the Western Christians.  In fact, the Eastern Christians had never even heard of St. Augustine. When he was finally known in the Eastern Christian world many years later when the Eastern Christians finally interacted with the Western Christians, he wasn’t well-liked. This interaction eventually produced a  huge schism around 1054 (the symbolic date). It started as a spiritual and theological split, but ended up political and military. 

What happened was that Rome added the Filioque to the Nicene Creed  (“and the Son” was added to “… who proceeds from the father”).  This caused a scandal because 1) it changes what is said in the Bible; 2) no one is to change the creed, but it was changed; and 3) it’s NOT TRUE!  It distorted the Godhead.  

At first it was just miscellaneous churches adding it to the creed, but then it was sung in Rome which was considered hugely problematic. When the Pope officially added the Filioque to the creed, both churches symbolically excommunicated the other and Western theologians began defending the Filioque. What finally sealed the deal, however, was when the Crusaders from the west, who came to free the Christians from Islamic rule, sacked the Eastern Christians and destroyed Churches that had stood for centuries. For Eastern Christians (Greeks, Slavs, Arabs), it’s like this happened to them yesterday. The feeling is still very strong. They hate Roman Catholicism more than Islam.

Eastern Orthodoxy ended up under Islam for 500 years. The only part that was free of Islam rule was Russian Orthodoxy, which was free from rule until Marxism (which produced 7 million Russian Orthodox corpses). In the 17th century, the Eastern Church became westernized, but the Russian Orthodoxy remained unbroken from the schism until Marxism.

In the West, theology became separate from worship and Christian life which turned worship into nothing more than piety.  In the East, the church is what it prays. You cannot separate individual spirit from the communal spirit (including the spiritual ascension of saints). Hopko said the Russian Orthodox religion is like playing with fire. If you aren’t careful , you end up myst, i, and cysm – spiritual delusion. You end up completely mad. It’s like playing with the devil.

He made a joke:  When a Protestant loses his faith, he becomes a gentleman. When a Roman Catholic loses his faith, he becomes a social, liberal radical. When a Russian Orthodox loses his faith, he becomes a demon and a monster.  (Think Lenin who was Russian Orthodox and Stalin who attended a Georgian Orthodox Theology School.)

Hopko says there are 8 realities of Russian Orthodoxy:

  • Father
  • Son
  • Holy Spirit
  • Scriptures
  • Sacraments
  • Services
  • Saints
  • Each other

Self-centeredness is the big evil.  What God does is sort of akin to a rock tumbler.  We’re like dirty, uneven rocks and he bashes us all together until the dirt starts falling off and our edges smooth out and we are rounded and fit nicely with one another.  The Biblical God of love smashes us to clean us. (Lovely imagery, isn’t it??) Hopko says the relaxation response has nothing to do with the Jesus Prayer. Every Demon in Hell attacks you when you recite the Jesus prayer.   (He didn’t go into what the Jesus prayer is.)

Hopko says prayer is a shedding of blood. Theology is not studied, it is suffered. And the center of Christianity is the crucified Christ.  You have to have a conviction about a bloody Jewish corpse on a cross hanging between two thieves.   Theology is Christ centered and Christ is God centered.  The Biblical problem is not atheism. The Biblical problem is idolatry. You either worship the real God or the God you make up.  And Hopko says, get real (well, he said something like that). Everybody is for love. But what is love? For Christians, it is revealed in the bloody corpse hanging on the cross.

We are called to BE God through grace. We are not simply imitators of Christ.  We are called to BECOME God.  But this is impossible. So God gives us grace through the Holy Spirit and this makes it possible. In the bible, the term “to know” means to have sexual intercourse. “To know God” doesn’t mean to know about God. It means to have sexual intercourse with God. (Metaphorically, at least.)

What makes life, life? Delight in God. The knowledge of God. God is interacting with us and we are always changing.  God is a living God. In order to experience this God, we have to acquire the scriptural mind, the Lectio Devina. If this is going to be real for us, then there are three things we have to do:

  1. Go to church. In the Russian Orthodoxy, the liturgy is the same for everyone in every single Russian Orthodox Church.  You don’t make it up, you enter into it.  It’s not like going to Church in the West.  This liturgy is organic because there are always new saints being canonized and the liturgies, I assume, are dedicated to the saints.
  2. Say your prayers.  You have to have a rule of prayer.  The Lord’s prayer, for instance.  But the English translation is a terrible mistranslation, so get a good translation.   Also, meditate.  But never evaluate your progress.  You also must have a spiritual director to report to.   Prayer is to help us keep the commandments.  It’s not about hearing voices or having strong emotions or feeling good.    We are just looking to be faithful to God.
  3. Ceaseless prayer.   Rejoice always in everyting.  Give thanks.  Pray without ceasing.    Our problems are not resolved, they are dissolved.  (They no longer feel like problems to us.)

There was a little makeshift bookstore in the lobby so I purchased The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymously penned book about the devout practice of the Jesus Prayer:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I got the translation by R.M. French with a forward by Huston Smith. There was a different translation by Olga Salvin with a forward by Hopko but I thought I’d probably be better off with a translation forwarded by Smith because Smith’s definitely not too orthodox for me. Also, French’s translation came highly recommended. I’m reading about 11 books at the moment, what’s one more??

The Castle by Franz Kafka

I read The Castle because Thomas Merton had highly recommended it in connection with with Camus. In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus devotes a chapter to “Hope and the Absurd in Kafka”. But it is Camus’ The Plague where Merton makes the comparison. He says that both The Castle and The Plague “deal symbolically with the relation between the inscrutable powers that influence man’s destiny without his being able to understand them.” Merton seems to take it for granted that K. has been summoned by the Castle. But I’m not so sure I agree.

For me it was difficult to tell whether K. was actually summoned by the Castle or if he, for whatever reason, decided he wanted to leave his hometown and find a new place to live so made up the summons. He clearly has no intention to go back home and frequently says he plans to make the village his home. It’s very ambiguous. Whatever the case may be, he is given the run around and cannot penetrate The Castle no matter how hard he tries.

Merton says that Kafka is speaking about religious alienation: “man’s struggle to bridge the gap between himself and a realm of utterly inaccessible transcendence.” The problem is that man attempts to “imagine and understand grace in terms of hierarchic organization, that is to say, in terms of “law”‘. For anyone who understands the New Testament, it is clear that this involves a contradiction that is beyond any solution. But for anyone who knows church history, it is also clear that the contradiction is in fact, inevitable. They cannot understand grace in any other terms.”

For Merton, the hero of The Castle is Amalia. She refuses an insulting summons from the Castle and she and her family are disgraced by this refusal. The Castle is always to be obeyed but she chooses to do what is “wrong” (yet she is in the right). She is Sisyphus. “She refuses unquestioning obedience to an arbitrary and revolting command. Her act is precisely the kind of choice which Camus describes as “revolt” against the arbitrary and the absurd, in affirmation of one’s personal life, one’s own authenticity and existential truth.” A significant point: it is not the Castle that ostracizes Amalia’s family, it is the villagers. Also, Irving Howe points out that part of what makes Amalia heroic is that she does not challenge the Castle’s dominance or criticize it. She simply refuses to have any connection with it. She is sustained by suffering and a quiet resolve. (Olga calls Amalia’s refusal “the original cause” of the family being despised. (Original sin that creates the fall?)

K. is “the stranger” to the village. He doesn’t understand the internal workings of the society and is constantly bungling his efforts to get into the Castle. The administrators of the Castle seem to be unsure what it is he has come to the village for but because they never make an error, they assume he is there to do land surveying, as he says. But rather than employ him, they do what they can to keep him somewhat complacent while giving him the runaround. On the one hand, he is standing against the system. On the other, he’s trying to figure out how to become a part of it. He’s no hero like Amalia is a hero. But that he wants to reach the heart of The Castle puts him in stark contrast to most of humanity that prefers comfort and complacency to struggle.

Max Brod was a friend of Kafka’s who pieced the book together after Kafka’s death. He, like Merton, put a strong emphasis on the religious aspects. He said the Castle represents a wish “to get clear about ultimate things” with the recognition that it is impossible to get clear about ultimate things because the world will not yield to lucidity.

Kafka wrote, “Man cannot live without permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.” K. searches for a way to penetrate the castle, completely exhausts himself, but his lifelong quest does not lead to a conclusion.

Kafka was Jewish so it is possible the book could also have to do with being displaced from your home and trying to fit into a totally different culture. There are many instances where it is clear that people don’t really want him in the village but simply tolerate his being there. Even the Chambermaid claims that K. is lower, socially, than she is. But at the same time, several people look to K. to help them break out of the system.

It could be specifically about a Jewish experience, but this experience has now become common within all of modern man. Irving Howe writes, “No other writer of our century has so strongly evoked the caustral sensations of modern experience, sensations of bewilderment, loss, guilt, dispossession. These are sensations known to millions of people quite unaware of Kafka’s writings and without any claim to philosophical reflection.” Robert Atler says that the distinctive quandaries of Jewish existence have become quandaries for all mankind. Kafka merely recognizes them. (He’s not out to convert anyone.)

I found the book to be incredibly tedious in parts which was very likely intentional on Kafka’s part. When K. falls asleep during Brugel’s advice, I thought I might fall asleep, too! It just went on and on and on and on… And you never know, is Brugel offering something of value? Should I be paying closer attention to his ramblings? Or is this just more of the same old runaround K. comes up against at every turn?

The book actually ends mid-sentence. Max Brod said he once asked Kafka how he intended to end the book and Kafka replied:

The ostensible land surveyor was to find partial satisfaction at least. He was not to relax his struggle, but was to die worn out by it. Round his deathbed the villagers were to assemble, and from the Castle itself word was to come that though K.’s legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was to e permitted to live and work there.

So Kafka never intended to have K. reach the castle.

Just a few quotes I found interesting:

After Freida has allowed K. to look through the peephole at Klamm (the Castle authority), the landlady chastises him: “But just tell me, how did you have the face to look at Klamm? You needn’t answer, I know you think you were quite equal to the occasion. You’re not even capable of seeing Klamm as he really is; that is not merely an exaggeration, for I myself am not capable of it either.” (This from a woman who was summoned by Klamm so apparently has slept with him.)

The Mayor: “Is there a Control Authority? There are only Control authorities. Frankly, it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?”

K. to the teacher: “…but that I had other things to think of than polite behavior is true enough, for my existence is at stake, which is trheatened by a scandalous official bureaucracy whose particular failings I needn’t mention to you, seeing that you are an acting member of it yourself.”

Olga to K. on getting official appointment in the Castle: “…let us say someone like that [someone wanting to seize an opportunity for Castle promotion] goes in for the examination, for years he waits in fear and trembling for the result, from the very first day everybody asks him in amazement how he could have dared to do anything so wild, but he still goes on hoping – how else could he keep alive?” (Kierkegaard?)

Merton’s Essays on Camus

Merton came to grips with his problems within Westernized Christianity through Buddhism and Solomon thinks it is very likely that Camus would have come to grips with his problems as an atheist through Buddhism had he been allowed to make the trip he was planning to India to study Buddhism rather than being killed in a car accident.

It’s not that Buddhism is “the answer”, but it provides the missing link in Western man’s understanding of himself. Buddhist philosophy bridges the vast divide that has been created over the centuries in Western thought between lived experience and reason. Building the bridge doesn’t require that we become Buddhists. Merton remained a devoted Catholic. All that is required is a shift in perception.

Interesting quotes from the rest of Merton’s essays on Camus

Camus: Journals of the Plague Years

  • “This is the source of Camusian anguish: Cartesian man, the detached subject, who is because he thinks (and thinks because he is Cartesian man), having started out with the assumption that everything thinkable is comprehensible, suddenly finds out that everything thinkable is absurd. Why? Not because of a metaphysical flaw in objective existents but because there is something the matter with the relation of the thinking subject to the object of thought. And what is wrong seems to be the relationship itself, to which Cartesian man has condemned himself by making it the ground of all his certitudes, including the certitude of his own existence.”
  • “Camus is, if anything, a classic moralist on the stoic pattern rather than an existentialist thinker.”
  • “To prefer abstractions to life is to end in absurdity and despair. Suicide is the collapse of the individual in the presence of the absurd. Murder – mass murder, war, genocide, and even capital punishment – is a moral collapse of society under pressure of the absurd.”
  • “The whole point of his first novel, The Stranger, is that innocence begins with the refusal to say what one does not and cannot mean, but that society demands of us that we repeat a whole series of prescribed declarations which we could not possibly mean if we reflected on their full implications… This is more than a judgment that society tends to be absurd: society will kill the man who refuses to be absurd along with it. Lucidity is punishable by death… The revolt is itself the beginning of authentic existence.”
  • “Clamence [from The Fall] is perhaps a kind of “saint without God”. He is activated not by life giving grace, but by the self-scrutiny of an ironic and hatefully lucid mind that is incapable of love. To be so activated is to be purified and damned at the same time, a kind of extreme Augustinianism in which to be judged is not a final end but only an endless fall into the void, a fall for which there is no ultimate landing. The only possible relationship with another is the relationship of subject to object, of judge to penitent – proving to the other that all have sinned and all are in despair, that all must condemn each other; proving that we are all in the void, that if God is dead all is permitted and all is meaningless… In such a universe, Love does not exist… Whether Nemesis or plague, The Fall represented a dead end beyond which there was no further progress possible in Camus’ artistic development. He had to take another course.
  • ” ‘The Absurd’ is not an object. It has no metaphysical existence of its own. It is not there until you put it there. You put it there by standing outside reality and looking in. You make life absurd by holding it at arm’s length. Once you step over the boundary line between subject and object, void and the absurd are no more. There is only that fullness which we begin to experience when we realize that “lucidity” is the light itself – the light we look not at, but with; the light that we not only have, but in some way are; “the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” What Camus needed still to discover was that this light is pure mercy and pure gift and not the reward for a subtle, ironic. and self-conscious ethical concern.”


Terror and the Absurd: Violence and Nonviolence in Albert Camus

  • “Absolute liberty becomes a prison of absolute duties” – including the duty to exterminate thousands of one’s fellow men in the name not of a happy and life affirming present but of a hypothetical happiness in the future. The “death of God” means in the end an imperialism of the spirit that seeks world hegemony and total control at the price of unlimited murder and terror.”
  • “God is regarded somehow as a need of man’s mind and heart; and indeed a certain kind of apologetic in the past has been all too ready to advance this distorted and inadequate view of God. Here God is seen simply as the projection of man’s need for clarity, for rationality. The act of faith, then becomes a determination to convince oneself that no matter how absurd things may look, they are in fact quite reasonable because God must make them reasonable. One believes because one refuses to despair of an absolute and infallible reason… But this assumes that God is merely called in to our lives as a kind of logical Deus ex machina and that he is little more than a convenient hypothesis. Is this what is really meant by God in Christianity?”
  • “…The vision of a St. Francis is not the vision of an abstract and purely transcendent God dwelling in eternity, but the immediate, overwhelming, direct, tangible confrontation of “God who is” simply in the “is-ness” of every day reality. The belief of a Franciscan in eternal life does not determine how he lives – it flows from his life and is part and parcel of that life. If Camus had been able to follow this through he would have realized that the abstract God he could not believe in was not, and never had been, the living God of authentic Christianity.”
  • Camus’ ethic was exactly that of Franciscan poverty. Camus writes: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write ‘I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.’ And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no.”
  • “The logic of revolt demands dialogue, openness, speech. Therefore revolt protests against the conspiracy of silence which, everywhere, both under totalism and under capitalism, seals men’s lips so that they do not protest against organized murder but approve it.”
  • “The question arises why Camus so easily identifies nonviolence with silence, submission and passivity when authentic nonviolent resistance is active and should be highly articulate, since, if it is understood in the Gandhian sense, it demands much more lucidity and courage than the use of force does… In any case, Camus refuses to accept absolute nonviolence. His Rebel may take up arms, and may indeed by compelled by duty to do so, but with one most important reservation: “Authentic action in revolt will consent to arm itself only for institutions which limit violence, not for those that give it the force of law.”… This is all very fine – but what war-making institution does not in practice claim to be limiting violence and fighting for peace? The escalation of the Vietnam War by the Pentagon is all, allegedly, in order to limit violence!”


Prophetic Ambiguities: Milton and Camus

  • Merton compares Nietzsche’s “Superman” to Milton’s Satan which makes me think he’s probably completely misread Nietzsche. He was writing in the 1960s so that’s not surprising. It’s taken a long while to weed out the truth from fiction about Nietzsche – especially since his “Will to Power” became heavily and falsely associated with Nazism thanks to his sister who edited his texts in favor of Nazism without his knowing.
  • Paradise Lost: “The title itself states the problem: man is created for peace, delight, and the highest spiritual happiness. In traditional language, he is created for contemplation. Not a loss of self in mystical absorption but self-transcendence in the dynamic stillness which, as the Zen Masters said, is found not in rest but in truly spontaneous movement. But man’s weakness and superficiality, his inordinate love of a self metaphysically wounded with contingency, makes the Paradise life impossible. And yet here too was no solution, only a kind of despair. What for Milton was a blind alley has become in modern consciousness, an obsession with illusory vitalism.”
  • “Though Camus may have started with Sisyphus, a figure somewhat similar to Milton’s Satan, he soon distinguished between liberty and anarchy, authentic rebellion and totalist nihilism, and in the end rejoined the kind of classic view of liberty which was the one Milton himself really held.”
  • “All these contradictions are symptomatic of one truth: our seemingly well-ordered and well-functioning society is a nihilist city of pandemonium, built on hybris and destined for cataclysm…But our future depends above all on this: the recognition that our present nihilistic consciousness is fatal and the development of a toally new state of mind, a whole new way of looking at ourselves, our world, and our problems. Not a new ideology, not a new formula of words, not a new mystique: but as Tillich said – a new man.”


Camus and the Church

  • “If there is to be a choice between faith and the absdurd, his [Camus’] stoic consciousness will, in the end, dictate the choice of the absurd. And the “absurd man” of Camus remains strangely isolated, even though, if he is consistently faithful to his steady view of the absurd, he should proceed to a revolt that joins him in solidarity with other men of his own kind. But this solidarity lacks human validity unless it is in the service of life and humanity. In otherwords, revolt is legitimate only if it refuses all complicity with mass murder and totalitarianism of whatever kind, whether of the right or the left.”


Three Saviors in Camus: Lucidity and the Absurd

  • “The Augustinian concept that the love of God was the ground of true communion among men because the caritas for God and man was one love, not two, apparently never struck Camus, though he knew Augustine up to a point. One of Augustine’s most characteristic doctrines is that the love of God is worthless if it does not imply communion with our brother: and the living unity of those united in charity forms one body, the Mystical Christ, “the city of God.” Here, one would imagine, was a basis for the kind of communication and solidarity Camus was really looking for. But we cannot question the sincerity or the reality of his repugnance for the pseudo Christianity that has so deformed the veritas caritatis and the caritas veritatis of Augustine!… Instead, Camus comes out with a rather feeble maxim of liberal and humanist morality. One respects his intention. Yet in reading the story, one feels that the ending is inconsistent with what the story itself has told us about the people he claims to love.”


The Stranger: Poverty of an Anti-Hero

  • “Neither for Milton nor for Camus is the mere fact of rebellion sufficient to justify either Satan or Mersault. (Of course it is clear that the utter poverty and in some ways the helplessness of Mersault, and above all the total refusal of rhetoric and declamatory self-justification set him apart from the Satan of Paradise Lost.) But students and critics have habitually fallen into the temptation of thinking that the Satan figure is justified by his own rhetoric and by his own revolt.”
  • “Acceptance of the absurd, in Camus’ terms, does not justify life, does not give it meaning; it is the lucid acceptance of unmeaning. Furthermore, this is not the end, only the beginning: for to live in meaninglessness and absurdity is not an end. That would be simple nihilism and Camus was completely opposed to nihilism. But when one can face a life that is “without justification”, one is, according to Camus, prepared to go beyond to that solidarity in revolt and ultimately to that unity in love which he intended to explore in his later works. One starts, in other words, by renouncing the desire to be justified – one renounces hope of a consoling sense of one’s own clarity and rightness – in order to go on to that lucid solidarity in action and resistance that are conscious of their own limitations and respectful above all of life.”

Merton on Albert Camus’ The Plague

I broke down and bought The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. I was going to wait until the summer but because I I’ve been so obsessed with Camus and would prefer to just move not to something new, I decided to make my way through it now.

There are seven essays in this collection on Camus and supposedly these are among his best (and also what made him so well-known in the 1960s).

The first essay is on The Plague. The essay is excellent and well-worth reading. Here is a cryptic (but lengthy) summary based on what I highlighted…

In 1936, Camus wrote his thesis at the University of Algiers on St. Augustine. He specifically attempted to explain Augustine’s attitude toward evil which he found repugnant. It’s this idea of original sin that he presents in The Plague. Like traditional Christianity, Camus solves it in terms of human freedom, but where Christianity likewise introduces grace as the higher form of liberty, Camus refuses to recognize it because he doesn’t understand it. Merton says Camus has has been deceived by a distorted notion of grace because so many Christians have a distorted notion themselves. Nevertheless, there are elements in Camus where clearly the undistorted view of Christian grace and liberty have contributed unconsciously to the formation of his “austere and compassionate ethic”.

According to Camus, he attempts to show men how to “fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society” in all of his works. Merton says he does this most convincingly in The Plague.

The reason that Camus has the story take place in Oran is because it is an entirely European story. He needed a new city that was made up of French colonialists and didn’t have a Kasbah. That’s why there are no Arabs in the story. The idea Father Paneloux presents, that the plague is a punishment for sin, echoes the ideas of the French Catholic Priests and Bishops after the fall of France during “the great penitence of Vichy” (1940-1944). Paneloux revises his ideas after watching a child, injected with a serum taken from the victims itself, suffer greatly. The reason the child suffers so horribly is because the serum was actually helping him gain strength to fight against the plague. The child eventually dies anyway and Paneloux is changed by the experience and likewise changes his attitude from one of judgment and punishment to self-abandonment and sacrifice. He joins the sanitary squad with Rieux and Tarrou which represents the French resistance units. (Many French Catholic priests joined the French resistance movement after France fell.)

Merton says “The Plague is the most positive and conclusive of all Camus’ novels. The real drama of the book is found in the treatment of the theme of evil on two levels: The Plague as physical evil and the Plague as a deficiency in the human spirit. Merton writes, “Camus summons the Plague to bear witness to the fact that no systematic thinking can be fully realistic if it excludes the radical absurdity of an existence into which evil or irrationality can always break without warning. Yet we seem to assume that human affairs can be laid out neatly in reasonable patterns, as if everything were always in order and as if this order were completely accessible to any mind that carefully studied causes and their effects.”

Modesty is a key word in the book. It implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom. This hesitancy to trust our own wisdom is created by the presence of doctrines and systens that have already explained everything for us and far too conveniently. These systems justify evil as a kind of good. Modesty is a lesson to be learned int he school of the absurd. For instance, modest people like Rieux and Tarrou are willing to do their job without trying to prove anything. They are willing to lay down their lives without insisting that there is something to prove by this action. They don’t feel the need to justify what it is they do.

Merton suggests that one of the reasons for Camus’ modesty is that he distrusts success. He is repulsed by the idea that material success is an implicit reward for virtuousness. (This is definitely one of the more complacent myths that abounds in bourgeois society.)

“Comprehension” is another key word in The Plague. The word comes up when Tarrou tries to explain what would motivate him to create the sanitary squads. It would seem he has a code of morals but can’t define what they are so uses the inadequate word, “comprehension” instead. This implies that what is “good” about Tarrou isn’t that he is doing something courageous. It’s a comprehension that sees and loves the goodness in his fellow man. Ignorance, on the other hand, is the lack of comprehension. It ignores the absurd and prefers its own values to the values that are worth defending.

Camusian modesty and comprehension are antiheroic. To call Sisyphus the hero of the absurd is really to say he is a non-hero. What Rieux and Tarrou do is non-heroic in the same Sisyphean sense. At times their task seems hopeless but they continue anyway, not in order to prove themselves better than the Plague, but because they are alive and want to help others to stay alive, too. To act in the Sisyphean spirit is to act not on grounds of moral good or evil. Nor is the act a means to receive a reward or avoid punishment. It’s simply a witness to human truth.

For Camus, modern day virtue is a sort of social disease. It’s a matter of talk, conventional attitudes, and cliche thinking. It has nothing to do whatsoever with the classic ideas of virtue. It’s more about obtaining compliance in order to keep the machine running. But in the face of something like the Plague, the automatic functioning of society ceases and there arises a new order of freedom and love in which everyone who takes part does so by choice rather than by default of being a part of society. This choice is based on two motives that Camus approves: revolt against the absurdity and arbitrariness of an evil destiny and determination to give their lives in the affirmation of man, of life, and of love. Those who do not manage to arrive at this solution are either passive and helpless victims of the Plague or its accomplices.

Often what society preaches as justification of man’s existence turns out to be an almost satanic repudiation of that existence. What society calls “the good life” is in fact a systematically organized way of death. It is built on the death of the noncomformist, the alien, the odd ball, the enemy, the criminal. While life, joy, love and peace are theoretically extolled, what keeps the machine running is murder, greed, violence, hatred and war.

The first step toward freedom is the affirmation that though the reasons which are supposed to justify existence don’t justify anything at all, there is reason to affirm life as a matter of stubborn Sisyphean choice. This revolt against the absurd sets man on the right path. Existence is a fundamental value in itself. It needs no justification. One must live in constant revolt against an absurd social philosophy which is nihilistic and based on murder. One must live in solidarity and love with those whom one is ready to defend against the attacks of “the absurd” – against the death drive built into the structure of social existence. We must build a new order of love to confront the false order of hate. But how do we go about building this new order?

Camus doesn’t answer this question. Christians would answer this through an understanding of Grace. But Camus has rejected the notion of Grace. He sees it as simply another form of justification – in this case, justification for the existence of God and proof of the righteousness of the Christian establishment. But this is a greatly distorted understanding of grace. The truth is that an act which springs from grace is purely gratuitous and seeks no justification other than its own gratuitousness. Grace seeks freedom from any limitation and any need for explanation other than itself. Without realizing it, Camus put himself in the thick of a very old argument of grace versus the law and is on the side of grace.

Merton notices the same problem of Original Sin that Solomon does in Camus. (Solomon said that Camus attempts to drop God but maintains original sin.) Merton says The Plague draws its real power on the death wish and the destructiveness that is built into man’s own life. It’s power is based on an indifference to life and to authentic values. On this, Merton writes:

The power of a dictator and of an authoritarian and violent party is made possible by the attitudes and dispositions already present in the people who submit to them, because in the depths of their hearts they want to submit. That is why, in Camus’ eyes, the sermon of Paneloux urging people to submit to the Plague as a just punishment is – like the sermons of French clerics urging acceptance of Nazi rule – simply a form of collaboration with the evil in man, an act of obedience to the innate fury of pestilence and of death. But how can Rieux believe this if he does not also, in some form or other, believe in something remarkably like original sin? This Camus fails to explain.

But then again there is Tarrou’s ethic of comprehension which demands constant attention (although it continues to maintain an idea of original sin) …

“We can’t stir a finger in the world without the risk of bringing death to somebody.” But does that not make all life unlivable? Once again innocence is equally impossible whichever way you look at it. But Tarrou reaches certain practical conclusions. First: it is possible to refuse all conscious and deliberate co-operation in any social action, any doctrine, any policy, whether revolutionary or conservative, which justifies murder in order to exploit it freely. In other words, though one cannot avoid all implication in some form of violence, one can at least refuse to co-operate with the social machinery of systematic and self-justifying violence. One can reject specious ideologies which permit massive killing in war, in pogroms, in nihilistic violence on the grounds of race, religion, class, nationalism and so forth.

Merton says that this is a form of the monastic spirituality of exile because he who refuses to cooperate with the establishment can no longer be considered a part of the establishment. It’s a Christian attitude. Also, Merton says that Tarrou’s desire to be a “saint without God” is not as anti-Christian as it sounds. St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote: “You should do your actions in such a way that, if it were possible, God himself would not know you were doing them.”

Of course, Merton contests Camus’ conclusion that a Christian must inevitably by someone like Paneloux. He says Camus assumes that grace is that which gives one the ability to submit to a God who acts like an aribtrary tyrant. That it gives one the power to submit to a will one does not understand and even to adore and love what appears horrible. Camus finds this idea revolting and Merton says he is absolutely right to find it revolting. But Camus is wrong to assume that this idea is central to Christianity. Merton calls Paneloux a spiritual profiteer. His form of spirituality exists in symbiotic unity with the establishment which creates a sort of false supernaturalism. If you try to divert man’s capacity to love and turn it aside from concrete human reality to the purely abstract and spiritual, this deadens and distorts man. The Christian theologian Teilhard de Chardin writes: “The capacity to love cannot with impunity be dissociated from its object: if you try, mistakenly, to cut off our affectivity from love of the universe, are you not in danger of destroying it?”

Merton, like Solomon, concludes that Camus’ “modesty” might lend itself to too much desperation. But Camus still managed to have scruples over the murder of an innocent child. “He refused to justify that death in the name of God. He also refused to justify it by an appeal to history, to evolution, to science, to politics, or the glorious future of the new man.” Merton says this is at least a step in the right direction.