As I share my thought processes with you today, I hope to be able to bring a new dimension to the understanding of faith as a living, moving entity that exceeds rational concept. Rather it is a metamorphic, chameleon like catalyst that changes as it grows and matures throughout the spiritual transformation process. As I have just completed a book on Teresa of Avila, I will identify the synergies between Merton’s spiritual consciousness model and her Interior Castle.
What I find compelling in Merton’s deep, rich discussion about faith, is that it is just that, deep and rich whilst other less profound descriptions of faith are not that, they do not touch the heart, nor do they cohere with the nature of the spiritual journey.
When Merton describes faith, we cannot help but feel a sense of excitement. This is a surreal, living entity that moves and grows and eventually transforms us. It is the first step we take in a unique and epic odyssey. We have no idea what wonders and adventures lie beyond, as we encounter the twists and turns in our spiritual journey. For Merton, faith is that complete opening up to God and whatever he has for us to do or to be.
Merton seldom intellectualizes anything about God. He will offer brilliant explanations of our faith life, which are complex and deeply profound, but when he talks about God and his relationship with God, all is stripped down to his personal and spiritual experience of God. His humility shines through in every word. The intellectual Merton surrenders into the sanctity of the presence of God.
In moving from faith to wisdom we cross a bridge into a watershed area, that is not in the world but on the edge of liminal space. In the early part of this journey we embrace an entity which we cannot see or understand with our minds. Paradoxically, we know and we don’t know what this is. This is because the faith journey takes us out of our familiar world beyond the confines of what we can see, touch and understand, to a place where we know and experience only through the heart. This is liminal space. God is infinite, invisible and intangible but our hearts know his presence.
If we try to understand faith through the mind, if we try to analyse it rationally, we fail. This is because faith, as the catalyst of our transformation in God, is not of this world; it is of God’s world which is beyond our rational understanding. We must reach a point in our journey where, in our darkness and confusion of unknowing, we can surrender everything to God, so that we can know him through becoming like him. We release the attachments of the world that will draw our focus and our intention away from God and will mar our faith journey.
This journey is not a blind submission to a religious authority but a seeing of the light of God’s grace, through the eye of the heart. It is grace unfathomable, freely given and lovingly embraced. It is this faith, this infusion of the light of God, this submission to the unknowable that marks a significant milestone on our faith journey. We are no longer in control of our world, God is in control of all that we are and he will transform us, by grace, into his image.
Imagine a curtain of diaphanous lace, a delicate gossamer that the light shines through and warms us. If we reach out to touch it, to understand it, to know it, it simply disintegrates into nothing. So we stand back in deep humility to contemplate this beauty. God’s creation is a profound exquisiteness that transcends all that the world can offer. My heart swells with love as I ponder this awesome God. Only his fingers can touch and manipulate this delicate divide and usher us through to the other side. Only the tenderness of God’s touch will protect it from fragmenting as we move through this curtain of faith, into a wisdom beyond what we know and understand. This wisdom is not about having all the answers; it is about knowing without proof; faith and trust in the Spirit to make all things good; humility in the face of unanswerable questions and the acknowledgment that God will prevail, even when it doesn’t make sense.
I spent some time reflecting this week on what it is that perpetuates violence and global wars in our world. What is it, for example, that makes Joe Biden and the new leadership in Iran throw fire bombs in each other’s faces. What about the horrific destruction in Gaza and Israel. What of the appalling spiritual torture inflicted on those on the receiving end of ethnic cleansing and what is the hatred at the root of such an inhumane process. Why can we not respect differences? Merton argues and I concur, that we are afraid. Afraid of what? What are the leaders of the world who perpetuate this violence to body and soul, afraid of? My guess is that they are afraid that tolerance, and reconciliation would somehow minimise or weaken them, or make them appear as cowards. These leaders who perpetrate these deeds are not just caught up in the world, they are ensnared in the deepest and darkest web of evil and they need our prayers. Thomas Merton sums it up perfectly in saying “They cannot trust anything because they have ceased to believe in God.” My response : what a tragedy!
Merton’s argument is that faith is the beginning of a journey that leads to deep wisdom. I have attempted, in the diagram below, to depict this journey, but it needs some elaboration. Drawing is not my strong point.
Just like when we enter Teresa of Avila’s early mansions in the Interior Castle, we are beset with what she calls demons and snakes. This is her way of referring to the irrational, uncontrolled unconscious mind percolating through to the surface of the conscious mind, to cause us to project this suppressed psychological material into worldly attachments. For example, addictions, greed, egotism and so on………. We cannot move out of this darkness without strapping on the armour of God, the armour of faith, so that we can begin to move towards sacred wisdom. The diagram shows by the white cloud shape which surrounds the unconscious and conscious minds that there is constant interaction between these two states of consciousness. The conscious mind influences the unconscious and vice versa.
A disciplined prayer life will allow us to break through the cloud barrier and through the diaphanous curtain we spoke of earlier into Teresa’s higher mansions which reside in liminal space. This is where we surrender our safety net of rational understanding and surrender to the world of surreal and sacred wisdom. This wisdom does not belong to us, it belongs to God. Here we stand in his presence, empty and ready to absorb what we don’t understand and cannot know except through our hearts, now filled with the love of Christ. Here wisdom helps us to know without knowing, to be curious rather than to expect clear cut answers, to hold out our hands and walk with God, not knowing what the road ahead is, but knowing that it is where we will go. We will experience things that are more than we can ever have imagined, we will occupy a consciousness of boundaryless, infinite, unfathomable love.
The yellow triangle shows us the trinitarian element in Merton’s argument; how these three elements represent mind, body and soul. Teresa will concur that it is the soul that is transformed in this faith journey.
What is wisdom then? It’s faith transformed into a state of balance, where the rational mind and the irrational part of man that is prone to malevolence, is illuminated and mediated by divine wisdom.
There should be no sense of hierarchy in the structure of spiritual consciousness. The ultimate aim is to achieve a balance between the three elements in order to find their ultimate form in the triangular trinity. As we know, from the theological concept of the Trinity, the three entities are one, there is no separation that might evoke some sense of dualism, there is only unity in structure and in action.
The journey of faith to wisdom moves through this diagram, representing a catalyst for transformation and transcendence over worldly and human control, emerging into the liminal space of the supernatural. This is the space beyond the conscious world, where God resides and where love prevails.
Movement through these theological models presented by Merton and Teresa of Avila is initiated by faith. Faith begins as a naive, limited and worldly entity which expands as it moves along its spiritual pathway. As it progresses it morphs into something different. As faith transforms, it transcends that which we can know and understand, into ineffable, mysterious, unutterable Wisdom. The Wisdom of God. Its journey ends here in this sublime state of utter spiritual perfection. It is here where love is the way and the inhumane violence against God’s creation did not make it through the gossamer curtain.
My proposition thus is: we must tear down the gossamer curtain, just as God tore apart the curtain of the temple on that dreadful day in Calgary, and lead the people of the world through to where their actions and thoughts may be bathed in divine wisdom. It is up to us to model and project this Wisdom of God in the world, through our faith so that it can expand and grow to fill the hearts of as many people as possible. I believe, if we do this, we can influence the birth of world peace.