Friday, March 27, 2009

The Nature, Soul, God


As I mentioned in class the other day, the transcendentalists were greatly concerned with the spiritual element of nature and its relationship to God and the Soul.

But what does all of this mean according to you?

Put another way:What is nature? What, or who is the Soul? And of course, what, or who is God?

I challenge you to use your imagination and consider those images which come to mind when you hear or read the words: Nature, Soul, God.

This essay is due Thursday, April 2, 2009, by class-time.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

From the Firewatch into God: Merton and The Sign of Jonas


Below I share with you some pieces of my thesis I wrote for the completion of my Masters in English degree from Arcadia University. It will hopefully serve as a guide for you in constructing your response to the following question:

How is Thomas Merton's epilogue to the Sign of Jonas, entitled, "The Firewatch," a metaphor for man's spiritual journey?

Please answer in a well-developed, five paragraph essay indicating three aspects of Merton's journey through the monastery on his July 4, 1952 nightwatch that suggest a search for God. Name those aspects and relate them to the idea of spiritual journey.

This assignment is due Thursday, March 26, 2009 by class time.

Monk Peach, FSC
  • from Chapter One of " 'Into the Cavern': A Study of Consciousness through the Lens of Thomas Merton's Mystical Poetics":
In a February 26, 1952, journal entry from The Sign of Jonas, Merton speaks of “different levels of depth”[i] in a way that advertently or inadvertently reflects Jamesian mystical epistemology. Using the sea as his archetype for the oceanic feeling of peaceful nothingness, Merton plunges into three levels of the “sea” (or, for our intents and purposes, mystical consciousness): the surface (or action), beneath the surface (or darkness and rest), and in the depths (or the “rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air”) (SJ 338-39).

Once beyond the first level of action, the monk enters into the second level of depth beneath the surface distractions of the world. There, he experiences the speechlessness of which James speaks; there is an ineffable quality to this immersion into contemplative territory, where “There is no sound” and “Nothing is happening” (SJ 339). Merton admits:

I think God intended me to write about this second level, however, rather than the first. I abandon all problems to their own unsatisfactory solutions: including the problem of “monastic spirituality.” I will not even answer, as I answer the scholastics, that the Desert Fathers talked not about monastic spirituality but about purity of heart and obedience and solitude, and about God. And the wiser of them talked very little about anything. But the divine life which is the life of the soul as the soul is the life of the body: this is a pure and concrete thing and not to be measured by somebody else’s books. God in me is not measured by your ascetic theory and God in you is not to be weighed in the scales of my doctrine. Indeed He is not to be weighed at all. (SJ 339)
Thus the mystic’s sense of God is reduced not to some confining theoretical doctrine or postulation, but articulated only through direct experience itself. In this sense, man’s intelligence is suffused with divine intelligence. For, as Merton would have it, in the third level, that is man’s innermost being, “love burns with an innocent flame, the clear desire for death: … Clean death by the sword of the spirit in which is intelligence. And everything in order. Emergence and deliverance” (SJ 340).

Merton suggests that man, then, must die to his old self, as philosopher psychologist, Carl Jung, suggests—or as with Jonas in the belly of the whale—and be redeemed in the baptismal waters of Christ’s resurrection, God’s guarantee of salvation for the human person whose experience of the divine leaves him psychologically free of distractions that chain him to a world of ceaseless action. The freedom of redemption is the intellectual freedom of “no thought” as it is with the mystic (i.e. Merton) who “pursue[s] thought no further” (SJ 341). Reborn into a life of stillness, the human person is called, according to Merton, to be like Jonas:

We must get Jonas out of the whale and the whale must die at a time when Jonas is in the clear, busy with his orisons, clothed and in his right mind, free, holy, and walking on the shore. Such is the meaning of the desire for death that comes in the sane night, the peace that finds us for a moment in clarity, walking by the light of the stars, raised to God’s connatural shore, dryshod in the heavenly country, in a rare moment of intelligence. (SJ 341)
That said, Mysticism and the mystic way are, to a degree, phenomenological as well. In other words, the mystic’s experience of God begins with the world of phenomena, which, through practices of meditation and contemplation, are eventually understood noetically as vestiges of God. “The sign of Jonas is written in our being,” writes Merton, “No wonder that this should be so when all creation is a vestige of the Creator but also contains, written everywhere, in symbols, the economy of our Redemption” (SJ 341).

[i] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1981 [1953]) 338; subsequent references will be cited as “SJ” parenthetically in the text.

  • from Chapter Four of thesis:

Transcending the Dichotomy and Reconciling Opposites:
Merton’s “Fire Watch” as an Ignition of the Unitive Spark Within

As is particularly evident in The Sign of Jonas, Merton’s life was characterized by the restlessness of the artist with undeniably mystic sensibilities. Like the artist of which Merton speaks in his reappraisal, there was in Merton’s life always that procreant urge to write. Though this is not to say that Merton never entered into the “abyss of the infinite actuality of God Himself” (SJ 351) as his “Fire Watch” epilogue to Jonas and his account of enlightenment in Sri Lanka indicate.

Merton had to write. Like the artist of whom he speaks in “Poetry and Contemplation,” Merton always returned to himself as poet. In characteristically clever fashion, Merton found a way, at least rhetorically, to resolve the paradox that his own vocation as monk, mystic, and poet reflected, relying of course on the power of God: “It remains true that at a certain point in the interior life, the instinct to create and communicate enters into conflict with the call to mystical union with God. But God himself can resolve the conflict. And He does. Nor does He need any advice from us in order to do so” (SJ 354). Merton came into dialogue with God as both a writer and contemplative rather than as either one or the other. Echoing a fellow Merton scholar, Robert G. Waldron notes in, “Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas: A Jungian Commentary,” that the lyrical loveliness of the “Fire Watch” epilogue is the “direct, though paradoxical, result of Merton’s efforts to deny his vocation as writer, one which he thought at the time was incompatible with his higher vocation as a contemplative.”[i] The “Fire Watch” symbolizes, “Merton’s merging of both vocations, that of writer and that of contemplative, in language that transcends duality and reaches toward the ineffable beauty of God.”[ii]

In this way, Merton’s writing, like his fire watch, is therefore an “examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness” (SJ 352). Merton thus walked back into the darkness from which he was born and to which he returned in the spirit of Christ’s resurrection. As the apex of Merton’s spiritual journey, in Jonas at least, from solemn vows to priestly ordination, the “Fire Watch” takes the reader on a flight similar to that in the closing chapters of Bonaventure’s Itinerareum mentis in Deum.[1]

Elbow to elbow with Merton, we move through different levels of the monastery on a cloudless and hot summer night in Kentucky where we see that Merton’s journey has thus far “rendered him aware of the history of the monastery, his own personal history, the history of humankind—all intertwined in one history: Merton’s and everyone’s.”[iii] Merton comes to grips with his past—in all of its “deceits, errors, and sins”[iv]—and his monastic vocation in true mystical style, passing through the hallways of memory, will, and understanding; ascending the stairway of purgation; and eventually reaching the tower of illumination that transcends both time and space.

“The nocturnal fire watch leads Merton to the realization,” says Waldron, “that to plunge into the night (the unconscious) is to embark on a journey of self-realization, to wholeness.”[v] We get a good sense of this self-discovery in the epilogue to Jonas. It is in darkness where Merton meets clarity—an event that would replay itself throughout Merton’s life. With the gift of his writing as God’s grace, Merton is granted the freedom to suspend all other activity and simply contemplate God’s presence there in the monastery, the place to which he came so as to re-enter the world and thus begin his journey to God in word, sacrament, and deed (i.e. psychological integration).

[1] trns. The Soul’s Journey into God.
[i] Robert G. Waldron, “Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas: A Jungian Commentary,” The Merton Annual 4 (1991) 59.
[ii] Ibid., 58.
[iii] Ibid., 64.
[iv] Ibid., 64.
[v] Ibid., 68.

  • from the concluding pages of thesis:

From the Whale’s Belly into God

Following Merton on his mystical journey as portrayed in his poetics, we are taken through a vast spiritual landscape traversing the “burning promised land” that is the world of the mind in conscious and unconscious form. It is a pilgrimage inspired by the tension of paradox—the threshold between seemingly opposing forces such as life and death, being and nonbeing, solitude and community, contemplation and action. His poetics give witness to Merton’s, albeit precarious, crossing of the bridge between the great ramparts of his conflicted existence. We see that Merton was lead to his destiny as a prophet marked by the sign of Jonas the prophet and of ultimate reconciliation: Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In the end, it is in writing, as in his prayer, that Merton seemed most confident in crossing the figurative Rubicon from here to eternity.

In his poetics Merton made the dialectical and quantum leap into the depths of his own psyche, his own being, his own soul. By way of his poetics, in prose and poem, we are led by an elusive figure navigating the myriad passageways of Merton’s unconscious, symbolized by his monastery walk during the nighttime firewatch into God. This silent watcher, this poet takes us on the imaginative trajectory of human intuition that reconciles opposites and leads us back to our original, unified source:

But there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question. Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.

…Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer. The world that Your love created, that the heat has distorted, and that the mind is always misinterpreting, shall cease to interfere with our voices.

Minds which are separated pretend to blend in one another’s language. The marriage of souls in concepts is mostly an illusion. Thoughts which travel outward bring back reports of You from outward things: but a dialogue with You, uttered through the world, always ends by being a dialogue with my own reflection in the stream of time. With You there is no dialogue unless You choose a mountain and circle it with cloud and print Your words in fire upon the mind of Moses. What was delivered to Moses on tables of stone, as the fruit of lightning and thunder, is now more thoroughly born in our own souls as quietly as the breath of our own being.

The hand lies open. The heart is dumb. The soul that held my substance together, like a hard gem in the hollow of my own power, will one day totally give in.

You, Who sleep in my breast, are not met with words, but in the mergence of life within life and of wisdom within wisdom. You are found in communion: Thou in me and I in Thee and Thou in them and they in me: dispossession within dispossession, dispassion within dispassion, emptiness within emptiness, freedom within freedom. I am alone. Thou art alone. The Father and I are One.

The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:

“What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin.

There are drops of dew that show like sapphires in the grass as soon as the great sun appears, and leaves stir behind the hushed flight of an escaping dove. (SJ 361-62)

And so, with Merton as our mystic, poetic, and prophetic guide, not unlike Elias or Jonas, we stop asking questions and enter resolutely into the Divine mystery of our own existence, our own psyche, free of all duality, floating like a dove in the “now”—in the silent, eternal music of the spheres.

Copyright 2008 by Robert K. Peach, FSC

All rights reserved. No part of the above excerpts may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, elctronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retreival system, without permission in writing from the author.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

St. Augustine's Confessions


In a scholarly style, I would like you to produce a formal, five paragraph essay in which you discuss a theme demonstrated in "Book II" of St. Augustine's Confessions.

This will require you to follow the format below:

P1 (intro/thesis)

P2 (brief summary of "Book II" including direct quotes and paraphrases)

P3 (a discussion of the theme and how it is protrayed in the text, using direct quotes and paraphrases, as well as an interpreation of what the citations mean)

P4 (a further discussion of theme, indicating another aspect in which it is portrayed in "Book II")

P5 (concluding statement that indicates answers to any questions or observations that still need to be addressed in reaction to the text)

Some writing tips:
  • When writing a literary analysis, you will focus on specific attribute(s) of the text(s).
  • When discussing these attributes, you will want to make sure that you are making a specific, arguable point (thesis) about these attributes.
  • You will defend this point with reasons and evidence drawn from the text. (Much like a lawyer!)

an example of a decent thesis statement:
  • In "Book II" of St. Augustine's Confessions, the author demonstrates man's perfectibility as seen in his emphasis on the beneficence of punishment regarding what he believes are the vice-filled exploits of his youth involving undisciplined lust and mischief.

an example of a decent citation and subsequent interpretation:
  • Lamenting his fall from grace, likened to the biblical fall of Adam and Eve, St. Augustine admits early on in "Book II" that "I could not have been wholly content to confine sexual union to acts intended to procreate children, as your law prescribes, Lord" (25). He adds, "But I in my misery seethed and followed the driving force of my impulses, abandoning [God]" (25). Here, St. Augustine attributes his despairing loss of God's presence in his life to the lusty desire of his flesh--longings that he seems to have acted on, therefore bringing about a painful guilt. In such guilt for his sins of the flesh, St. Augustine claims to have learned from his mistakes: "I should discover to be in nothing except you Lord, nothing but you. You fashion 'pain to be a lesson' (Ps. 93: 20 LXXX), you 'strike to heal', you bring death upon us so that we should not die apart from you (Deut. 32: 39)" (25). In this way, St. Augustine realizes the upside of "falling" down; man may fall, but he still has the power to pick himself up and move towards perfection in God. What's interesting, here, is that St. Augustine seems to suggest that man's greatest punishment is not directly related to a violent act from God; rather, man's punishment is in the sense of separation he experiences in the committing of his own sin: "Where was I in the sixteenth year of the age of my flesh? 'Far away in exile from teh pleasures of your house' " (Mic. 2:9). Thus, St. Augustine uses the Bible to indicate that punishment is in the isolation from love caused by vice. This is most evident in his concluding remarks: "My desire is for you, justice and innocence, you are lovely and splendid to honest eyes; the satiety of your love is insatiable. With you is utter peace and life immune from disturbance. The person who enters into you 'enters into the joy of the Lord' (Matt. 25: 21)" (34).

This reflection is due on Wednesday, March 18, 2009.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Creating Your Myth


In his lecture "The Self as Hero" from Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell writes:

Now, all these myths that you have heard and that resonate with you, those are the
elements from round about that you are building into a form in your life. The thing worth
considering is how they relate to each other in your context, not how they relate to something
out there--how they were relevant on the North American prairies or in the Asian jungles
hundreds of years ago, but how they are relevant now--unless by contemplating their former
meaning you can begin to amplify your own understanding of the role they play in your life.

In this way, Campbell suggests the importance of understanding our own histories as reflective of the archetypal hero journey, filled as it is with a specific pattern of departure, fulfillment and return. Campbell also mentions the specific quests within the hero's going and returning: the entrance into the darkness of the unconscious, the reconciliation with one's shadow, the integration of the anima (for males) and the animus (for females), and the atonement with the "father."

That said, I would like you to, using one myth that Campbell describes in his lecture, explain the hero journey and what is involved in it. This will involve summarizing the myth and pinpointing trials, the specific psychological correlates of the trials, and spiritual themes of the tests the hero must undergo.

After you have done that, do what Campbell recommends: relate them to your life. Explain an experience that you have gone through that parallels the hero journey as delineated by Campbell.

This assignment is due Thursday, March 12, 2009.