As I am writing about meditation, I feel the need for a warning. I read one of the more popular books on the subject last year, Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I took my time going through the book, taking a week or two on each chapter, rereading it a few times. I was appreciating the first third of the book. Then the main point of the book began to be how to empty yourself. Certainly we go through the process of dying to self. And we are to have the same attitude of Jesus, who emptied himself to become truly human. When we emulate this attitude we are ready to serve others. But for Merton the attitude of emptying himself becomes the central point of his meditation. He moves into chapters on detachment, inward destitution, and renunciation. “If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent Him to us as He is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find Him we must enter into silence. Since God cannot be imagined, anything our imagination tells us about Him is ultimately a lie and therefore we cannot know Him as He really is unless we pass beyond everything that can be imagined and enter into an obscurity without images and without the likeness of any created thing.” *
By the end of the book Merton indicates that if you seek this process of self emptying long enough, you will come to a place of complete darkness. “And it is in this darkness, when there is nothing left in us that can please or comfort our own minds, when we seem to be useless and worthy of all contempt, when we seem to have failed, when we seem to be destroyed and devoured, it is then that the deep and secret selfishness that is too close to us for us to identify is stripped away from our souls. It is in this darkness that we find liberty. It is in this abandonment that we are made strong. This is the night which empties us and makes us pure.” **
I thought, “How can this be getting closer to God, for ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’?” (1 John 1:5) Much of this clearly goes against scripture — the blood of Christ and the power of the resurrection are what make us pure. The Word and all of creation declare the Glory of God. These are not lies. Though our understanding is quite incomplete, we can learn much and we are changed. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The book simply has way too much focus on self. This did not fit the lessons I had already had on contemplation. I learned long ago in my struggle with lust that as long as I was focused on my sin and my weakness, I was stuck. It is only when I began to focus on God’s holiness and his strength that I began to be able to truly overcome. I began losing interest in the book as Merton’s teaching appeared to me to be more Buddhist than Christian and slowed down even more. I only reluctantly finished the book.
Providentially, about the time I began the book, I also started to occasionally look at what articles were being published by The New Yorker. Their take of politics is a good deal different than mine but they are famous for good writing. You can read a few articles a month without a subscription. To my surprise, they had an article entitled “Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet,” December 18th. Many encounters with Hindu and Buddhist monks are referred to. The article includes a quote from Merton’s biographer, Rowan Williams, on how Merton “could give almost equal veneration to Catholic and Buddhist traditions.” It is quite clear where Merton received his teachings on emptying yourself.
Though I enjoyed most of Firstlights by Sue Monk Kidd, I need to warn you that she is a fan of Thomas Merton and includes two references to Zen Buddhism. I wondered where to go next in my reading on contemplation. I was wanting to find more on contemplating the nature of God. I found a few wonderful tidbits in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. But I was hoping for a book. In checking out a number of books on Amazon, I found some more which are referred to in either the description or the reviews as a marriage between Eastern and Western meditation. And many others who also seem to mainly emphasize emptying yourself. Evidently this theme goes back in Christian meditation literature to at least the 4th Century.
Our enemy, the Devil has long used the tactic of mixing other religions into the worship of Jehovah. Every time the Israelites gave into this it was to their great detriment. He continues to do this today. Deepak Chopra has written a fiction entitled, Jesus, A Story of Enlightenment. In the book Jesus is guilty of joining a plot to commit murder and fulfilling his lust. He doesn’t really understand his life until he travels to mountains in the east to learn from a Guru. Chopra’s Jesus has nothing to do with the real one. His motives for creating him are clear on the front jacket, “I don’t want the Jesus in this book to be worshiped, much less to push him forward as definitive. The events of the tale are pure fiction. But at a deeper level, the Jesus in this book feels real because we’ve gotten a glimpse into his mind. One flash of insight answers many prayers.” This is pure deception, he simply wants Jesus to be mixed in with his own version of “spirituality”.
Long we’ve been tempted to mix in a love for worldliness. Now we are tempted with many other religions including Wicca, New Age, fascination with aliens, even the worship of angels. Much of American and European society are currently offended by pure Christianity. The temptation is strong to compromise in this area as it would make us more acceptable to them. I urge you to take care, be sure to worship only the God of the Bible. And make the Father, Son and Holy Spirit the largest focus in your meditation. It will change your life, it certainly has mine.
* Thomas Merton “Seeds of Contemplation”, ch. 19 From Faith to Wisdom, p.102, Anthony Clarke, Wheathampsted, Hertfordshire, April 10, 1961
**Thomas Merton (April, 1961). “Seeds of Contemplation”, ch. 35 Renunciation, pp.200-201, Anthony Clarke, Wheathampsted, Hertfordshire, April 10, 1961