Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thomas Merton's Ways of the Christian Mystics

"Peregrinatio, or "going forth into strange countries," was a characteristically Irish form of asceticism. The Irish peregrinus, or pilgrim, set out on his journey, not in order to visit a sacred shrine, but in search of solitude and exile. His pilgrimage was an execrise in ascetic homelessness and wandering. He entrusted himself to Providence, setting out with no definite aim, abandining himself to the Lord of the Universe. Since Ireland is an island, this meant entrusting oneself to the hazards of sea travel, and there are records of Irish peregrini who simply floated off aimlessly into the sea, abandoning themselves to wind and current, in the hope of being led to the place of solitude which God Himself would pick for them. In this way, some came to Wales or Cornwall or to the isles of western Scotland."
                      Thomas Merton Ways of the Christian Mystics (1961)

A previous article on one of Thomas Merton's books generated some excellent discussion and also caused me to reflect on some of my other favorite Merton books. Ways of the Christian Mystics is another fascinating book on Chrisitan mysticism which is well worth reading and studying. I say this because the book (and others discussed on this site) emphasize the importance of an inner mystical Christianity, which also emphasizes praxis. In other words, true Christianity is not just about believing certain ideas, but is also about behavior and seeking to live a specific kind of life in a community. Moreover, this is another book which the serious Celtic Christian should read and have in their personal library. I would specificaly recommend readers read the entire book but to focus specifically on the chapters on Pilgrimage to Crusade; the English Mystics; and Protestant Monasticism.

Readers with a specific Celtic interest should note the introduction contains an excellent discussion on aspects of Celtic spirituality, specifically the distinctive Irish notion of pilgrimage.  I've provided a sample in the quote above, and the discussion is not to be missed. It places the mission of Columba and Brendan in historical context. The Celtic monk's vocation "was to mystery and growth, to liberty and abandonment to God, in self-commitment to the apparent irrationality of the winds and the seas, in witness to the wisdom of God the Father and Lord of the elements." (pg. 16). Columba, Brendan, and thousands of others went! No doubt this idea was a backbone in the Celtic mission.

There is also a fascinating discussion of Protestant monasticism. This book was written fifty years ago and mentions Taize in passing but accurately describes the landscape in the church today. Here Merton sounds prophetic as monastic groups have literally exploded in popularity in the Protestant world. These orders (Celtic, Franciscan, Dominican, and Benedictine) can enhance one's spiritual experience and church members in all mainline denominations are encouraged to join. "Most important of all, Proestant monasticism implies a rediscovery of the contemplative patterns of life characteristic of the ancient Catholic orders. Active works of charity have an important place in the life of the new communities, but it may be said that they are predominantly contemplative." (pg. 168)

Journey, having a rule of life, reflection on Scripture, prayer, and being part of a community. These are all features of the Christian mystic, past and present. We are fortunate to have a writer like Thomas Merton who can open up old worlds of the past, and make them seem new and fresh.


  1. Hey, Fr. Andrew. You got linked by "Celtic Christian Tradition" on Facebook. Pretty nifty.

  2. Very cool! And always great to hear from you Fr. Sean!