I’ve just read Thomas Merton’s Dark Path by William Shannon. William Shannon takes Merton’s writings and life experiences to provide a field book for the apophatic spiritual path. The apophatic tradition begins with the premise that God or Truth can never be captured in language, and can therefore only be described by what it is not. Apophatic mysticism is found within all of the religious traditions and seeks a direct experience of the divine reality, beyond the realm of our ordinary minds or senses. This divine union is the goal of all seekers, and is the only solution to the riddle of life and death. Nothing else we can say, do, think, or become will satisfy the need we feel so desperately to know that “all shall be well” and that our doubts, fears, and perceived inadequacies are all, in the end, unfounded.
This book gives an overview of Merton’s major writings on contemplative prayer. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but was captured by the chapters on The Inner Experience, a book which in part compares the contemplative to the existentialist. As Merton was a ‘rip roaring Trappist’, his path and views are invariably rooted in Christianity. Yet I was able to strip away the religious references and find much food for thought rooted in his writings and thoughts on contemplation, views on the darkness and his ‘discovery’ of Zen Bhuddism and Eastern mysticism. Ironically though, and as Merton himself wrote (here I paraphrase) one doesn’t learn about contemplation by reading about it, but by direct experience of it. But one who has been there can have an ‘Aha’ experience when reading that which is so difficult to put into words and at which Merton is so eloquent.
“The darkness becomes an atmosphere of breathless clarity, in which we find peace and the deep night becomes the brightness of the noonday sun in which we find the one our heart desires.” – Thomas Merton
According to the apophatic way, in order to engage the spiritual source with the most intense intimacy, at the moment of union the mystic suspends all beliefs and disbeliefs. Taking an empty mind and an open heart, she steps over the mystical threshold and crosses into the realm of the unimaginable. This crossing into the state of complete surrender is the way of the apophatic mystic.
Once again, I am beckoned into the darkness. I am coming to know it as a friend and willingly heed its summons. I can look back on a time when I was literally dragged very reluctantly, heels dug in, into a dark night, but somehow stayed in it and came out the other side much richer for the experience. It is so tempting for the uninitiated to try and avoid a dark night at all costs or to cling on to the first piece of flotsam drifting past just to make it end sooner! But the price that we pay for avoidance is not finding the treasures in our depths. A dark night is the subject of one of my next fibre art pieces. I wrote a poem just when I was coming out of it and will use screen printing to put it into the piece.
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire