On Experience

It depends how you define it, but “experience” probably needs to play more of a role in theology than it does. How can it not? Taken at its broadest, “experience” simply means everything that happens, all that occurs, as it enters the field of human awareness. Thus, revelation itself is one particular form of experience–the experience of God showing himself; the reading of Scripture is an experience; praying, being baptized, and thinking about the Trinity are all experiences in this sense.

Typically, experience gets slagged, I think, because of two fears. They are two narrowings of the notion of experience. The first is the fear that granting “experience” a role means granting that an individual’s experiences shape their theology. But of course the individual–along with their experiences–shapes their theology: the real question is whether they are going to shape it apart from Scripture (and the Church and its tradition). So bad theology takes the form: “God for me is more like…” Good theology proceeds in the light of revelation, in the form given to it by particular individuals.

The second fear, closely related to the first, is that “experience” will form some kind of second (or third or fourth) source after and potentially against Scripture. It can. But it doesn’t have to. Certain forms of feminism want to leverage women’s experience against parts of Scripture. But if reading Scripture is itself an experience, then their relationship is a bit more complex. Experience is properly the all-encompassing web–from the human side, for experience too is a creature–within which the reading of Scripture is an event, a particular experience. And further, we should not assume we know what we are experiencing. Only after the resurrection, and then sometimes only gradually, did the apostles discover what they had experienced (John 2:22). Note the past tense. Put starkly, the unbeliever thinks they are experiencing life, but the Christian understands it is really death they know (1 Tim 5:6).

All this is to say: spiritual theology is important. And how did we get here? Well, any spiritual writer worth their salt–Augustine, Merton, those collected in the Philokalia–knows that we are often willing to deceive ourselves about what we experience. We only know in part the realities of which the Bible speaks (1 Cor 13:12). As Merton puts it, “Yet we act as if we understood sin and as if we were really aware of the love of God when we have never deeply experienced the meaning of either one” (A Search for Solitude, 23). And sometimes we know them plain wrongly: in 1966, Merton had an affair with a nurse. At the time he talked of the “mysterious, transcendent presence of her essential self,” but later he was able to see it as “incredible stupidity” (The Intimate Merton, 297, 336). The deception is not always so severe, and sometimes, when we are given the grace, we are able to see with gratitude-inducing clarity the traces of God’s work in our lives.

“Experience,” then, is not something that has to be excluded from theology; rather, it has only to be named. And it can be named as limited, healthy, destructive–more theologically, as “sin” or as “grace,” as “death” or as “life.” Indeed, so objective a thinker as Aquinas can say, that “anyone may know,” at least “conjecturally,” that “he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things” (ST I-II Q112 A5). A theologian who does not experience the realities of which he speaks, who is not “delighting in God,” will write a theology that at best sounds oddly hollow, and at worst is false and destructive of faith.

But we must trust that Paul’s prayer is for us as well: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19a).

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Merton on the Oddness of Saints

One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him. In fact, they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends. And he has inescapable difficulties in applying all the abstract norms of ‘perfection’ to his own life. He cannot seem to make his life fit in with the books.

Sometimes his case is so bad that no monastery will keep him. He has to be dismissed, sent back to the world like Benedict Joseph Labre, who wanted to be a Trappist and a Carthusian and succeeded in neither. He finally ended up as a tramp. He died in some street in Rome.

And yet the only canonized saint, venerated by the whole Church, who has lived either as a Cistercian or a Carthusian since the Middle Ages is St. Benedict Joseph Labre. (New Seeds, 103)

Thomas Merton on Scripture

Merely to set down some of the communicable meanings that can be found in a passage of Scripture is not to exhaust the true meaning or value of that passage. Every word that comes from the mouth of God is nourishment that feeds the soul with eternal life. “Man does not live by bread alone but in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Whether Scripture tells of David hiding from Saul in the mountains and Saul’s men surrounding his hiding place like a crown, or whether it tells about Jesus raising up the son of the widow of Nain or of the prescriptions for the evening sacrifice of incense, or sings the hymn of Deborah or tells us that Eli, the priest of Shilo, thought Hannah was drunk when she prayed to have a son, whether it tells us in the Canticle that the Spouse has gone down to see if the vineyards are in flower or shows us the new Jerusalem coming down from God adorned as a bride or rebukes the incestuous Corinthians or leads Paul to the river in Macedonia where the women gather and the Holy Spirit opened the heart of Lydia, the seller of dye, to hear the Gospel—everywhere there are doors and windows opened into the same eternity—and the most powerful communication of Scripture is the “implanted word,” the secret and inexpressible seed of contemplation planted in the depths of our soul and awakening it with an immediate and inexpressible contact with the Living Word, that we may adore Him in Spirit and in Truth. By the reading of Scripture I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed round me and with me. The sky seems to be more pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green, light is sharper on the outlines of the forest and the hills, and the whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music in the earth under my feet. (The Intimate Merton, 70-1).

Thomas Merton on World Peace

Inspired by Jamie Smith over at his reading blog, I’ve started into Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, the now-classic story of his conversion and entry into a Trappist monastery. Here’s a wonderful bit from his reflection on time spent in public school:

Is it any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments? [(Harcourt & Brace, 1948), 51.]