The primacy of experience – both IT and NOT-IT

Merton in prayer at the Abbey of Gethsemani

Thomas Merton is above all a theologian of experience writing that he sees spiritual things ‘from ‘the point of view of experience rather than in the concise terms of dogmatic theology or metaphysics’, and often turning to what he calls ‘the byways of poetry and intuition’. For him ‘Christianity begins with revelation’ and ‘a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations.’ He saw his on-going task as one of ‘the solitary explorer’ searching ‘the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities and in those certainties that lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety’. The searching was always to go beyond oneself, beyond the confines of expected experience. Importantly the spiritual experience involves a relational aspect depending, as Merton writes, on the ‘presence of a Person’ – a Person who is free and so the experience becomes a gift and a ‘free act of love on the part of Him who comes’. For Merton the spiritual experience is a grace that takes place in a relationship with God and for Merton within the frame of faith.

His views on this are highlighted in a letter Merton wrote to a young man John, who, under the influence of LSD believed he had had a mystical experience of God summing up the whole experience with the phrase: ‘This is IT’. John wrote to Merton to find out his view.

In his response Merton describes such spiritual experiences as ‘universal, natural and normal’, and appreciates that what John experienced on LSD was a sense of being alive, an awakening of the self, the sense of being human. He also sees that implicit in John’s letter there is a longing for something. Such experiences outside a religious frame are something private, and part of an individual truth. The danger of taking the experience out of relationship with God, and indeed out of a religious paradigm is that it might increase narcissism leading to a relationship within and between different aspects of the false self.

Merton reminds John that God is unknowable/Other and outside our capacity … and yet created in the image of God we have some sense of what God might be like … So, John’s experience was both IT and NOT IT. Acknowledging the being that is experienced as part of a relationship brings the realization that as Merton describes it ‘the whole shooting match is a gift’. The way that a connection can be made in a mystical experience is through some form of unexpected enlightenment that reaches through narcissism and the false self through to what Merton calls the true self:  

‘The wonderful, devastating, and unutterable awe of humble joy with which a Christian realizes: “I and the Lord are One”, and when if one tries to explain this oneness in any way possible to human speech – for instance, as the merging of two entities – one must always qualify: “No, not like that, not like that”’.

– or both IT and NOT IT ­­– as in the Sanskrit expression Neti-neti that translates to ‘neither this, nor that’ or ‘not this, not this.’ The experience is not to be pinned down, but rather an invitation to engage in further searching and opening to the light.