I am aware that a case can be made that there is some implicit irreverence in the Seinfeld installment where Kramer and George’s father come up with a feast called “Festivus” as an alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah. But I laughed a lot while watching it anyway. You may remember Kramer’s punch line: “Festivus for the rest of us!” I thought of that line recently when reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading Merton. But I finally did, at the recommendation of a friend. It is a moving account of his conversion and decision to become a Trappist monk, as well as an intriguing portrait of life in the United States in the years just before World War II. (Anyone who believes that Joseph McCarthy had no basis for suspecting a widespread Communist presence in our universities owes it to himself to read Merton’s reminiscences of his years at Columbia University.)
And what could Merton’s book possibly have to do with Kramer and “Festivus”? Well, it struck me that I have never — not once — experienced anything close to the mysticism Merton describes; and that if something akin to mysticism is essential to what it means to be a Catholic, there is a need for a “mysticism for the rest of us”.
Merton writes of “feeling as if I was going to explode” after receiving Communion, of being “overwhelmed like a tidal wave” by grace, of weeping profusely when chanting the Magnificat, of the “exultancy of the fear of God.” Well, I pray regularly and go to Mass and receive Communion almost every day and immerse myself in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, everything from Benediction to the Stations of the Cross to the throat blessings on St. Blaise’s Day. It is all very important to me. I take it seriously. But, sorry, no bouts of weeping, no tidal waves of emotion, no imminent explosions. My Catholic life is very different, something warm, reassuring, comforting, more like a nice old blanket than a jolt of religious intensity.
I couldn’t help but wonder, then, while reading Seven Storey Mountain, if I have a problem, if perhaps my religious beliefs are in the lukewarm category that Jesus said He would “vomit” from His mouth. I hope that is not the case.
What do I think is the explanation for my failure to encounter God as intensely as the mystics? What I offer for your consideration are just my personal reflections on this matter. I am not sure if they are theologically sound. Take them for what they are worth. But I think they have some merit. My hunch is that most lifelong Catholics, the people I see at daily Mass and the Sacraments, are in the same boat as I am, that they too have never experienced the overwhelming bouts of religious fervor that Merton describes.
First of all, we have to keep in mind that God’s graces are a gift. We are not “entitled” to the rewards of religious ardor that Merton and the mystics have experienced. Why would God grant these uplifting periods of religious intensity to some of us and not to others? To Merton and not to me? That is God’s business. If we have not been given the grace to experience mysticism, perhaps it is not something God wants us to find in this life. It could be that our job is to do the best we can with the graces God has given us, rather than brood over why we have not been given something more rarefied.
Am I saying that God in His wisdom might not want all of us to experience the intensity of Merton’s mysticism? Yes. I don’t see why that might not be the case. God makes some of us smarter, taller, stronger and better looking than others. He may not intend for all of us to be mystics in the full sense of the term.
Perhaps I should rephrase that. What I mean is that perhaps what most of us experience when we kneel in prayer at Mass and speak to God is the full extent of the religious fervor we are meant to encounter in life, even if it never comes close to the experiences that bring tears and tidal waves of emotion to the mystics; perhaps that is all that God the Father and Jesus expect from us; that it is our version of the mystical experience; that it is more than sufficient.
We should keep in mind Jesus’ words about there being “many mansions in my Father’s house.” What Our Lord meant was that there are many ways to serve Him, many versions of worship, many different dispensations of grace and reactions to those graces. Was Thomas Merton a “better” Catholic because of his mysticism than a priest or nun actively involved in the world as an administrator of a Catholic university or hospital? A better Catholic than Mother Teresa? Than Pope John Paul II? Are Catholics returning quietly from Communion less devout than the born-again Christians we see at religious revivals, with their eyes closed, swaying and shouting out their love of God? I say, not necessarily. Only God knows the answer to these questions.
There is another angle to consider: Could it be that lifelong Catholics, whose Catholicism is like my “nice old blanket”, should be grateful for our more pedestrian religious life, instead of feeling shortchanged because we have been deprived of Merton’s religious intensity? Maybe. It strikes me that the intensity of the mystical experience comes most often to those who have come to Jesus, such as Merton, as part of a conversion process. The same is true of the born-again Christians shouting out “Praise the Lord.” It is why the Trappists and other cloistered orders find themselves with large numbers of recruits in the years after major wars.
If, in contrast, Jesus and the Church have been a constant presence in our lives since childhood, supporting us in times of grief and helping to express our joy in happy times, such as at weddings and baptisms, we are not likely to go through the profound sense of deliverance and reassurance that the convert experiences, the great relief of rising to the air and the sunlight from dark waters in a near-drowning experience. There is no reason to feel shortchanged if you do not know what that is like.
Jesus had something to say about this, you will recall. Complaining about not experiencing Merton’s mysticism strikes me as comparable to the peevishness of the older brother who resented his father’s welcome to the Prodigal Son.