Book Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton (edited by Jon Sweeney)

One of the challenges of the contemplative life is we usually arrive in this stage of spirituality and maturity after some kind of awakening. For many that is accompanied by some kind of loss, tension, or crisis. The experience comes first and we may not have the language to make sense of it yet.

We then live in a radically new perspective. Even long-time Christians feel as if they’ve been born again, whether they’ve ever used that language to describe their spiritual life or not.

In this case, the mind follows after, trying to make sense of the experience, to capture it, to communicate it. The difficulty of putting it into words is partly why so many spiritual teachers, Jesus included, use metaphor and symbol to communicate what the kingdom is like. It’s a radical shift in consciousness.

If we persist, we discover there’s a living tradition within our own Christian history of people who’ve walked this path. We can draw guidance along the path from these great figures, like John of the Cross, or the author of the 13th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing.

For modern Westerners, some of the gateways to this kind of thinking, whether we call it monastic wisdom, contemplative teaching, or mystical theology, include writers like Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating. But each of these owes a great debt to Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Another author who has delved into this territory in recent decades is Franciscan Jon Sweeney, author, speaker, and editor in chief at Paraclete Press.

He has put edited a work called A Course in Christian Mysticism based on talks from Thomas Merton delivered at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky from 1961 to 1964. It has the characteristic breadth, scope, and authority of Merton’s great works.

It is, along with Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, one of the great works available on the Christian Mystics, and has the advantage that Merton’s life and thought is closer to our own and therefore speaks to the contemporary reader in ways we can hear and apply directly.

More than mere information, these talks serve as instructions so we may hear and understand. The purpose of these lectures was to facilitate the contemplative life for monastics at the time. More and more, this kind of teaching is available outside the monastery walls as we experience what Matthew Wright calls a 2nd Axial Age.

For Merton, though, the mystical experience doesn’t lead to an anti-intellectual posture. Mysticism and theology are hand-in-glove. “Without mysticism there is no theology. Without theology, there is no mysticism.” Scholar Andrew Louth has made similar statements.

The book is a thorough treatment of the subject matter, including an overview of mysticism in John’s Gospel, the desert Fathers, Cistercian mystics, and the apophatic tradition of the West, including Dionysius, St. Augustine’s influence, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the great Christian mystical flowerings of the 14th and 16th centuries.

As Christianity becomes more and more post-denominational, there is a thirst for both genuine mystical experience and an understanding of our own traditions and rootedness. There are few books that address this need more directly with the authority of a practicing contemplative than A Course in Christian Mysticism.

Here’s a taste of some of the perspective we get in this synthesis of Merton’s talks on a subject like the relationship of contemplation to Scripture:

“There is no explicit doctrine of a so-called contemplative life in the Gospels. We have seen above that all is included in our life in Christ, our life in the Church, the sacramental life of charity which culminates in knowledge of Christ through the Spirit, and the return to the Father. But the Alexandrians, uniting Hellenistic philosophy with the Gospel in a living, highly valuable synthesis began to look at the Christian knowledge of God in the light of a ‘contemplative summit’ of Christian experience and ‘philosophy.’ This was not a perversion of Christian truth – it threw new life on the full meaning of the Christian life in the Spirit.”

Sweeney includes poignant discussion questions for small groups at the back of the book for each of the thirteen lectures collected in the book. As churches look to find ways to integrate mystical teachings and practices into their own local parishes and congregations, this book is an absolutely fantastic place to start.

Going Further

The Thomas Merton Reader
Living Sacraments: The Christian Mystics & The Inner Journey To God by Contemplative Light
Marc Thomas Shaw’s Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul

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