On December 10th the church remembers blessed Thomas Merton, and Kentucky monk who, when you read him, sounds much more philosophically Eastern than Western. He noted that his time spent amongst the ancient Buddha statues in Asia was perhaps his most formative religious experience. Indeed, his whole career as a writer, theologian, and scholar of comparative religion was directed at traversing boundaries both within Christianity and outside of the faith.
As a mystical theologian, one of what Fr. Richard Rohr would call the “perennial tradition,” he doesn’t fit nicely in any category. Rather, he seems to expand every category.
If Lent is a time for the pious, Advent is when the mystics have their day, Beloved.
Mystics are those theologians (and, I think I find myself in this category) that are found in every religious tradition but permeate the borders of them all with their notion that the oneness of everything is the deepest truth, and we’ve merely forgetten it.
The mystics in the Celtic tradition have this thought that the “original sin” (if you want to call it that) of humanity was not disobeying God, but rather forgetting their oneness with God and one another. In learning the difference between good and evil they started to draw boundaries in the world, false boundaries to organize people into the “in group” and the “out group.”
Humans were better than all the rest of creation, rather than a part of it.
Men were better than women.
The Divine was outside of the world, rather than in it.
I’m right, you’re wrong.
These boundaries cause harm and separation and conflict…and that’s where we go wrong.
This does not, of course, try to eliminate differences. By no means! Any path that tries to erase differences is a path of ignorance. “We all bleed red blood” is just an excuse some use to ignore the uncomfortable conflicts that happen when we live in close proximity to difference.
Mystics, rather, embrace difference as all part of the same beauty and don’t erase them, but rather erase the status-making game that humans attempt to play when encountering difference.
Merton, and the mystical tradition, meditate on the idea that “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “in and out,” and all these other comfy compartments we use to organize our spiritual and secular lives are unhelpful in the end. In fact, the idea that there is a “spiritual life” and a “secular life” is a false dichotomy, we’d say!
Dualisms, our penchant for making things “this or that” is the primary sin of humanity.
All is one.
Merton has this lovely quote about Advent, saying, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” (_Seasons of Celebration_ by Merton)
For him, “Christ” was not the historical Jesus bound to a faith tradition, but rather the Cosmic Divine Presence the permeates all things (if you look at the Epistle of Ephesians you get glimpses of this expansive idea of the Christ). Advent, then, is that time when we wait for the transformation of everything, all things, into an embodiment of God’s presence. An embodiment that time cannot hold, but yet somehow does in fits and spurts.
We wait for everything to be resolved, in other words.
Sometimes we forget that the ongoing process of turning and changing everything back into our oneness is happening…but it is. Mystics like Merton trust this.
Another poem of Merton’s, a poem about Christmas, starts out like this:
“Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited…” (Room in the Inn)
A world full of compartments and containers doesn’t leave any room for Christ, and so Christ comes uninvited to break down the barriers, Beloved, between (as Paul would say) “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free…” (Galatians 3:28).
Advent is the time of year when we remind ourselves of this, again, and wait, watch, and wonder at how it happens, slowly but surely, in these shadowed days.
For your Advent playlist, throw on one of the most mystical bands out there, Coldplay, and spin “Fix You.” It’s a song about perceived failures and how, from the inside out, you (and me) are being made whole again.