A Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney

Thanks to Englewood Book Review for the advance copy and publishing this review.

41PW55rhH-L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.

Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.

Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory. . .. The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation.” This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics (from prologue, xiii). Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.

Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.

In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (pg. 10).

As Merton journey’s back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.

He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius.  The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.

Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (pg. 57).  Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.

These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.

Advertisements

My Favorite Podcasts!

podcasts

So, do you have any favorite podcasts? Do you know what a podcast is? I have been listening to several favorites for the last couple of years as well as adding some newer ones recently.

For those of you still wondering what a podcast is then here you go. A podcast is a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically. As an Apple person, I have these podcasts automatically downloaded to my phone weekly.

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite podcasts.

For fun I like to listen to:

Serial – produced by NPR and hosted by Sarah Koenig, this podcast is in its second season as it investigates the case of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier,  who was released by Al-Queda in a controversial prisoner exchange. Sarah does not take any sides, and presents some interesting facts. The first season centered on Adnan Syed, a convicted murderer, whose conviction and guilt is in question. This is worth your time!

This American Life – another great podcast produced by NPR. This weekly radio show is hosted by Ira Glass and heard by millions of people. The topics vary from week to week, yet they are very relatable as you can imagine some of the situations happening in your own hometown.

KCRW’s Left, Right & Center – This podcast was referred to me by a friend and it brings the political issues of the week into conversation. All viewpoints are presented which does not favor one line of reasoning over another. The hosts of the show do a good job of keeping discussions on a level basis and arguments rarely get heated.

Marathon Training Academy  – for those of you that are runners, this is a great podcast that gives you smart tips for staying healthy while running as well as recaps of races. The guests that hosts Angie and Trevor Spencer have on the show range from authors to ultra runners. I have truly enjoyed this podcast and it motivates me to keep on running. They even have a MTA group that you can become a part of that is very interactive and supportive.

For those of you that like to delve deeper into theological questions and dialog these podcasts are great for both study and reflection. Some even address issues within the church.

200churches – I recently was introduced to this podcast and the creators goal is to present great ideas to small churches, 200 attenders or fewer in worship weekly. I have only listened to a couple of episodes and it has already gained my following.

Preachers on Preaching – this podcast is produced by The Christian Century magazine and is fairly new as well. Each episode has a different pastor discuss their experience with preaching and how they get to sharing the Word.

Working Preacher – this podcast is produced by professors at Luther Seminary, an ELCA seminary. This is a great resource, as well as their website,  for sermon prep.

Pulpit Fiction Podcast – another great resource for sermon preparation. This is probably one of my favorite go-tos if I am struggling to find something in the lessons during the week.

Home-brewed Christianity – Tripp Fuller brings this podcast to life with more in-depth theological discussions. He has some great guests on it all of the time and has actually just recently released a new book.

On Being  – this podcast could be placed in either category. It is great fun listening to some people’s thoughts regarding their faith and viewing themselves as spiritual beings. Krista Tippet asks great questions which truly allows each guest to show their true being. Humanity is at work in this podcast and can be easily related to faith.

Ground Control to Major Tom

ziggystardust

Those were some of the first words that I recall hearing while attending U2’s 360° Tour a few years ago. If my memory serves me right it kicked off the wonderful evening that was about to ensue as Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry took the stage to commence in an incredible concert.

I have to admit that I have followed David Bowie very little throughout my life. I am of course familiar with some of his top songs. I truly enjoyed the article that Rolling Stone released yesterday following his death. This offering from Lyndsey Parker at Yahoo Music also was incredible and highlights some of Bowie’s best videos. Both of these reminded me of some his great songs as well as some that I were not quite familiar with and will be added to my playlist.

My first impression that I had of David Bowie was from my older brother who included him in the constant mix of music that came from his room. It is the image that leads off this blog that is the first image of Bowie that comes to my mind because it was from an album my brother owned.

Bowie was never afraid to reinvent himself and step beyond expected boundaries. What an example for people that feel as though they are hemmed in. Throughout his music career he was constantly changing his persona and truly was an incredible musician and actor.

There are also parts of the spiritual that resides within much of his music from the very beginning with Space Oddity to the release of his last album just a few days ago, Blackstar. There was something about the title track that moved me when I viewed the video after it was first released. The lyrics speaking to a solitary candle that reminds me of the light that is within us all.

His swan song, Lazarus, is even more moving after his death on Sunday. It definitely could be seen as a prophecy of what was to come. He knew his time was short and the message that he leaves with his listeners is one of hope. The late night shows all touched upon his death last night and I really enjoyed the clip that Trevor Noah shared on the Daily Show in which David Bowie speaks to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. May you rest in peace David Bowie.

“If you feel safe in the area that you are working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you are just about in the right place to do something exciting.” ~David Bowie