Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Only Mind Worth Having – Thomas Merton and the Child Mind

This book has been accepted for publication in the Winter of 2016… so advance information. I’ve spent a couple of years, well actually more, thinking about this subject and presented a paper with almost the same title at the last International Thomas Merton Society Conference in 2013. But the subject continued to fascinate me and the book has been through several incarnations. It’s also doubled in length. I’m now preparing it for proper editing:

This book takes Thomas Merton’s belief that the child mind is ‘the only mind worth having’ and explores this in the context of Jesus’ challenging, paradoxical and enigmatic command to become like small children, and, how this can be understood as part of contemporary spirituality and spiritual practice. To follow Christ’s command and to become as small children in our spiritual life requires a great leap of the imagination. The book sets out to answer what it might really mean to do this when you are an adult without it becoming sentimental and mawkish, or regressive and pathological in some way.

Drawing on the experiences of Thomas Merton and others it is suggested that in some mysterious and paradoxical sense recovering a sense of childhood spirituality is the path towards spiritual maturity. The term ‘child mind’ was used by Merton who made reference to this in terms of the process of ridding oneself of what he called the false self and uncovering the buried mysticism of childhood. A few days before his death he experienced an epiphany where he wrote that he had found what he had searched for and got ‘beyond the shadow and the disguise’.

Using both psychological and spiritual insights the book explores the implications of the concept of the child mind as an awakening, an annunciation of something we can become. It is suggested that the move from childhood spirituality to being grown-up and then to a spiritual maturity through the child mind is a move from innocence to experience and then to organized innocence, or from dependence to independence to a state of being in-dependence with God.

All the difference

There are some very lovely Quaker quotations that have stayed with me from the twenty odd years when I was a member of the Society of Friends. Often the writings are honed from experience and born from a direct unmediated experience of divine reality so they have an authenticity and a depth to them. This is the opposite of what one might call formulated theology which may also have emerged at some point from experience but has been formatted or reworked over the centuries to fit with a doctrine or to resonate with the institution of religion i.e. the church.

In my old copy of ‘Christian Faith and Practice’ … there is a newer version now used – there is an account, a very brief one, of the life of George Lloyd Hodgkin born in 1880 and who died in 1918 when he fell ill in Baghdad taking relief to Armenia. He spent his short life searching for and in the service of Truth and one of his testimonies goes as follows. he wrote this in 1912:

So much of life is just going on and going on, long after the excitement and stimulus has faded … there is so much to ask for that I get very lost. And then I just come back to the simple longings, the simplest prayers of all; that Christ may be in those we love, that our love may be more Christ-like, more unmoveable, that we may be … by God’s side whatever happens. We must give up trying to hold His hand, and just stretch out our hands – even if they are just fists – for God to hold. There is all the difference … between holding and being held.    

This is  a state of vulnerability and dependence with utter trust in the ‘more than ourselves’.

‘We had hoped…’

One of the saddest expressions and experiences is that of disappointed hope. In the story of the road to Emmaus the two disciples are explaining why they seem so dejected.. they say ‘But we had hoped that he was the one’ (Luke 24, v. 21). Hope can be crushed so easily and then it can lead to cynicism and despair.

We had hoped that the world might become a better place. We had hoped that people would stop killing one another. We had hoped that as a society we might take better care of the vulnerable and the defeated. We had hoped that multinationals and especially oil and fossil fuel companies might realise that the environment is more important. We had hoped that money and power was not seen as everything…and so the list of dashed hopes goes on and on and this has been the case throughout history.


It can be the same in terms of personal history – I had hoped that life might have turned out differently, I had hoped that I could be a better person, I had hoped that I might do this or that or the other. I had hoped I might have been … and so that list goes on too. Somehow it is about how to establish some sort of right relationship between what has happened and what might happen in the future. Only in this way can the present become bearable. Ultimately both psychotherapy and spiritual practices demand some sort of acceptance of disappointments and unrealistic illusions.  Through both comes the realization that the ego is not master in his or her house. Through both comes the awareness of an authenticity that involves the light and the dark and not some spurious optimism that everything will work out all right.

Thomas Merton wrote about the false hope of technology and secular progress and wrote : ‘Perfect hope is achieved on the brink of despair, when, instead of falling  over the edge, we find ourselves walking on air’. it involves entering into the darkness of the human condition and discovering life and meaning where from the outside the observer only sees death and absurdity.

It’s worth reading to the end of Luke’s gospel account of that seven mile walk to Emmaus… through the darkness of the crucifixion and the destruction of the earthly hopes for redemption came something so extraordinary and mysterious that the world is still struggling to believe and hope in it.

Everyday betrayals

Good Friday that dark and paradoxical day for Christians is also a day about betrayals – the betrayal by Judas; the betrayal of the disciples who could not keep awake; the betrayal of the crowd who supported Jesus; the betrayal of those in power; the betrayal of the so called justice system, and, most movingly the betrayal of Peter – the close friend.

Perhaps when it is a big deal and we are asked to assert our faith in front of some important person it is almost easier, it becomes the grand gesture, we are at that moment very important so perhaps it is almost like an ego boost to state our loyalty and belief. The poignancy of the story of Peter is that his betrayal of Jesus was the very opposite, it was to the servant girl – see the account in Luke’s gospel. In other words it was a side show and an everyday betrayal and one that I for one know only too well.

Trying to meditate last night after a Maundy Thursday service my mind kept wandering and many minutes passed before I realised I had lost my attention – it happened again and again and each time was a little betrayal – but there are so many little betrayals. ‘So could you not stay awake with me one hour?’

The canticle A Song of the Redeemer puts it like this:

‘Why are your robes all red, O Lord, and your garments like theirs who tread the winepress?

I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me.’

There is some comfort that in religious houses across the world there will have been those who stayed awake to keep watch throughout last night so he was not alone….