Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being….
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt… This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life…
Contemplation is no pain killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential alter which simply ‘is’.
In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not realize that this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what’, not a ‘thing.’ That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no ‘what’ that can be called God. There is ‘no such thing’ as God because God is neither a ‘what’ nor a ‘thing’ but a pure ‘Who’. He is the ‘Thou’ before whom our inmost ‘I’ springs into awareness.”
What a brilliant characterization of the spiritual path! So phenomenologically apt. So beautifully free of the usual dead-end conceptions of theism and atheism. Merton was a Catholic monk who was able to assert, more powerfully than most atheists, that there is ‘no such thing as God’ – and far from making me give up my Christianity, Merton’s comment makes me feel closer to God.
How true, how brave is Merton’s assertion that contemplation is “a terrible breaking and burning of idols” which consumes even ordinary holy conceptions and taken-for-granted religious pieties. An assertion worthy of Nietzsche. Even more, worthy of Christ.
Human life consists of a building up and a breaking down. This is obvious with the body: we nourish, nurture and grow it, only at some point for it to start declining, which we then do our utmost to delay, minimize and overcome.
There is a building up and breaking down of the identity as well. Except unlike with the body, the breaking down of identity is not headed only towards death, but towards a renewal – towards a building up of a new identity even as the physical body declines.
Often the question is asked how humans differ from other animals. And one key difference is looked for: language, reason, culture, etc. But what is missed is how there are many steps in between, say, chimpanzees and 21st century human beings. The assumption is made that there was a key point at which primates turned into humans, into us.
Of course this is not true. Primates turned into many different forms of hominids. A neanderthal was very different from a chimpanzee in that he had a robust cultural identity: he had clothes, fire, maybe even art. Each generation of chimpanzees have to rediscover their capabilities – the discoveries of one generation aren’t passed on materially to their offspring. But with homonids this was already possible. They were born into culturally practices which were passed on from generation to generation.
This meant that a homonid wasn’t just growing physically, but also gaining a cultural identity. The two forms of growth were interlinked.
And so it went for hundreds of thousands of years. In the process, homo sapiens came on the scene with greater sophistication of cultural growth. And yet, this much remained the same: there was no growth anew a second time of one’s identity. Goodness and greatness was defined by how well you realized the identity that you were brought up in: as a warrior or a farmer, or a priest, etc.
It is tempting to think of the Axial age 3,000 years as the olden days, and to mark modern days much more recently (like 500 years ago with the European Enlightenment). But we actually mark the Axial age as a new beginning, with the birth of religions as we now think of them (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), because it is the beginning of a form of consciousness that is completely natural to us now, but which would have been unthinkable to even our homo sapien ancestors 10,000 years ago.
The key transformation of the Axial age is the development of a rebirth of one’s consciousness. That one can grow and be enculturated in one way into adulthood and even through the peak of one’s physical growth, and even then, as the physical growth starts to decline and so one’s identity rooted in physical capacities declines, one can grow yet again and so one can redefine one’s identity.
Socrates accepting death cheerfully. Lao Tzu leaving the city on the back of a buffalo. The Buddha renouncing his kingdom. Christ willingly sacrificing all on the cross. In each case the main point is the same, and it evokes something new in Earth’s history: a living creature which plumbs to the depths of its own mind and habits, and recreates itself!
This means that a human being like us is the being who is defined by two births. The first which happens to him physically, mentally and culturally and which he doesn’t, and cannot, consciously initiate. And a second which happens to him as he reflects on the first birth and the ensuing life, and seeks to craft himself anew.
The first life enables us to develop the capacities necessary for loving God. The second life is ours to fashion as we put in practice those capacities and so seek God and love Him.
In most of our life we teeter in between the hopes of the first life and the promises of the second life. Confident that the first life is enough, one wants to achieve the virtues and recognition that have been ingrained through one’s enculturation. “No, I don’t want to die to my first self! I want to perfect the first self! That is my true self! Death to the first self isn’t a prelude to a new beginning. It is just death! I will fight this death and resist it with all my might!”
And yet, a part of us also knows that the first life is incomplete. That it cannot be complete, for it is founded on the judgments of others when we were still physically and mentally immature. That there must be something more than what even I imagined for myself when I was not yet fully developed. That fulfillment and perfection can’t be just realizing the goals and ideals that were implanted in me culturally and which I internalized in a youthful energy.
No, my life begins when I question everything I knew about myself and build a new life on a solid foundation. This rebirth is the transformation of Saul to Paul. It is the beauty and power of Descartes’ cogito.
Socrates said that philosophy teaches one how to die. What he meant is not just physical death, but more primarily, the death of the first self. One who has embraced the death of the first self and lives into the second birth is freed from the fear of physical death. We fear what we do not know. If I can’t accept my first death, then physical death looms as just the biggest form of death there is. But if I embrace my first death, then death becomes a friend. Not a robber of what is mine, but a gateway to a rebirth. To a chance to see the world anew, with fresh eyes. With the innocence and joy of a child.
To see the world as God sees it. To see myself as God sees me.