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An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Thomas Merton edited by Patrick O’Connell
Cistercian Publications, ₤19,99
Reviewed by Peter Tyler

Click here to purchase: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition: Bk. 3 (Monastic Wisdom)

Forty years after his death there seems no let up of the tide of posthumous publications from the pen of Thomas Merton, the ‘great communicator’ of the Twentieth Century Cistercian tradition. This latest volume is in the ‘Monastic Wisdom’ series published by Cistercian and is the third in a series of edited notes given to the monks and novices of Gethsemani Monastery in the nineteen fifties and sixties which have been titled ‘Initiation into the Monastic Tradition’.

The first two have been on Cassian and pre-Benedictine monasticism and we await Merton on St Benedict to be published this year. These lectures are unique in that they were not directed at the novices of the monastery but for professed priests as a final course in ‘pastoral theology’ to complement the speculative theology they had been taught in preparation for ordination. Consequently Merton is able to go into greater depth than perhaps he would dare with the novices. The classes were delivered in 1961 so they are vintage ‘late Merton’ yet even here there are views expressed that in the short time left to him (he would be dead within seven years after delivering these talks) he would later alter. Patrick O’Connell is to be commended on doing an excellent job in editing the talks. Although they are clearly lecture notes he adds sufficient background and context material, as well as fleshing out some of Merton’s brief remarks, that neither distort nor detract from the text. In fact, the slightly unpolished nature of the text gives it a rawness and ‘edge’ sometimes missing in his more polished published work. Merton may get things wrong at times but we hear here his genuine, unique voice: spontaneous, opinionated and passionate about the ‘prophetic role’ of monastic life in the late twentieth century.

TAs to content, the lectures aim to cover ‘Christian mysticism’ from ‘The Apostolic Fathers to the Council of Trent’, if this sounds vast Merton’s original idea had been to carry on post-Trent to the modern day. A plan, probably wisely, given up quite quickly. Merton’s notion of ‘mysticism’ is largely in the James/Underhill tradition of a quasi-ontological tradition that manifests itself at different types in the course of Christian history. He has no hesitation in labeling some writers as ‘true mystics’ and others as ‘false’. He is particularly concerned with ‘orthodox’ (ie correct ‘mysticism’) and unorthodox or, as it were, ‘deregulated’ mysticism. This was pretty much the standard position of Catholic teachers on the subject up to the nineteen seventies when academic work initiated by ‘contextualists’ such as Stephen Katz began to question this approach. Although we still find versions of it today (most notably in Bernard McGinn’s ‘Presence of God: History of Western Christian Mysticism’) contemporary studies would tend to emphasise context and hermeneutic more than Merton tends to do.

TDr Peter Tyler is Reader in Pastoral Theology and Spirituality and Programme Director for the MA in Theology. At St Mary's University. Twickenham. He has written numerous books including The Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality (co-edited with Prof Richard Woods, Bloomsbury 2012),

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