My annual “Quotes Month” (July) has extended a third of the way into August now. It is time that I get to say something of my own, and I want to address an issue that (I think) concerns most of us Christians in this gradually globalized world: There are certain kinds of “mysticism,” of “meditation,” and of “contemplation” which, while not false, are not what we are after as Christians.
I, for one, do not consider Buddhist techniques of meditation, the contemplation associated with a Chinese garden, or the mystical acts of various Sufi orders to be “false” in the sense of made up, psychologically projected, or the result of an evil angelic influence. There are, to be sure, temptations involved in these great human achievements, if we treat them as ends which usurp the divine commands and divine pedagogy revealed in the Scriptures (and particularly in the Gospel). But all created goods come to us with such temptations. That is no reason to call them false.
In these non-Christian mystical and contemplative systems, with their outlooks and their solutions to the great human questions, there is something of the very much human. There is some potential of human nature drawn out of the historical situation in which people have found themselves, cared for, tended, and allowed to manifest itself clearly.
But, in the main, in the non-Christian mystical and contemplatives systems, one finds something inherent in human nature rather than something supernatural and gained for us on the Cross.
In fact, there are two main lines of approach to mysticism or contemplation.
One is the receptiveness of love, charity, agape. It is the child in the hands of the Father. It is the one filled with a Spirit whom he or she cannot control (passing even beyond any human control of the virtues). It is the one whose wisdom is not acquired by any learning or technique but rather given from the scandalous Cross and finding glimpses of the Crucified One in all those here-below. A human being suffers, in the fullest modern and etymological senses, divine things. God gives. We suffer it, and we suffer. This is the quintessentially Christian contemplation. It is a contemplation in suffering and of changing sadness into joy. It is without technique. It is found in quiet and in the city. It is demanded of Christians. It is morally required of us to, at least, tend towards such divine contemplation, towards such love.
The other mysticisms and contemplatons are (in general) techniques. They attain to something by human doing. For humans to thus attain to it, it must be locked within created nature and accessible to human beings in their very structure as human beings. It is not supernatural. It does not come from the Cross. It is not, in that sense, quintessentially Christian, nor is it demanded by God of any Christian. It is not an experience of salvation. It is, like all the marvels of created nature, there to explore — but only within the bounds of a life oriented to the God who revealed himself. (If one is interested by it, one must not sin in attaining it.)
These other mysticisms are thus not “false.” They are not made up, imaginary, the product of psychological delusions, or the creation of the maliciousness of the devil. They are true, and they are mysticisms — but only in a limited and analogical way. They may attain some incommunicable experience, like a yogi attains after much psychologico-rational purification or a Zen Buddhist after a particularly shocking experience that bars logical analysis. They may touch on something absolute, but the absolute is not the Absoluteness of a God who imparts his very self, his charity, into our hearts and adopts us as children.
The “absoluteness” here is relative, like the absoluteness of one’s own being. There is nothing conceptualizable or thinkable beyond one’s own being or existence, within oneself. When the yogi, the Sufi, or the Buddhist gets to the point where rational thought stops and something great is attained, not piecemeal, but in a great brilliance that absorbs and flattens all, they have “seen” something real. But it is not God, for God gives himself and is not attained by creatures. It is simply a relative absolute, a created absolute, great and unleashed from within human nature, by a kind of backward path into the interior depths as they exist in humankind. It is an achievement, not a gift or a grace. It is not a saving grace, only a temporal (but seemingly atemporal) good.
This is why Thomas Merton (in his middle period) distinguished a mysticism which “seeks to penetrate the ontological ground of being” from a mysticism which is “religion of [supernatural] divine gift.” They are not identical. To treat them as identical is to have already lost the greater of the two. That which is revealed and of the Cross is not the same as that which can be reached by our own effort.
Of course, even within these non-Christian mysticisms, there are the pleas for divine help. It is not all one’s own effort. (Islam, Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan, and bhakti yoga in India are clear examples, either realized or in potentia, of this.) One may say to God, “Please.” And there, even in the midst of a life oriented towards the attainable and the things of created nature, one may find an openness to the God who “exists and rewards those who seek him” (cf. Heb 11:6). For with even the slightest belief in that supernatural gift and aid, then there is space for God to implant the eternal life and mysticism essential to Christianity within the tree of temporal life and mysticism.
A Christian is free to pursue techniques of prayer. Even more, a Christian is free to pursue “meditation” techniques which aim at certain mystical experiences. But they cannot be forced on others. And these “mystical” techniques must never be confused with real Christian prayer, which takes divine revelation as its measure. They may be permitted. They must never be enforced. And they are not what we, ultimately and in the final analysis, are after. For we aim, not only at a certain experience of things that God has created, but to union with God by the supernatural means he has given, and to love him forever.