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Getting Mystical, again (“missing” Sunday post) February 2, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Bhakti, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Love, Meditation, Mysticism, One Hoop, Peace, Philosophy, Religion, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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Article 1. Whether the soul was made or was of God’s substance?

Objection 1. It would seem that the soul was not made, but was God’s substance. For it is written (Genesis 2:7): ‘God formed man of the slime of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man was made a living soul.’ But he who breathes sends forth something of himself. Therefore the soul, whereby man lives, is of the Divine substance.”


– from Summa Theologica (1a Qq 90, volume 13) by Saint Thomas Aquinas


“When the firstborn, P’an Ku [a primordial being in Chinese mythology], was approaching death, his body was transformed. His breath became the wind and clouds; his voice became peals of thunder…. All the mites on his body were touched by the wind [his breath] and evolved into the black-haired people. (Wu yun li-nien chi, cited in Yu shih, PCTP 1.2a)”


– quoted from Chinese Mythology: An Introduction by Anne Birrell

It seems that since the dawn of their existence, humans have told stories about how they came into existence. We may call some of these stories “myths” and some of these stories “science,” but all of the stories with which I am familiar revolve around air/breath and/or some kind of primordial fluid (usually water or milk). Many of these stories/explanations also involve what happens when that air or fluid comes in contact with soil or clay – and voila! Here we are.

There is something divine, universal, about breath and breathing. We all do it; we all must do it in order to be alive. In the ancient languages, like Sanskrit, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, people used the same word for breath that they used for spirit: prāņā, qi (or ch’i), ruach (in the body), pneuma, spīritus; respectively. Given this, it makes sense that every culture in the world has a spiritual practice centered around the breath and breathing.

Breath-focused practices are not the only elements that different cultures share; but, they are a natural place to start when we’re talking about yoga. If we were looking at the world and various cultures from a purely theologically standpoint we might also start with the breath. Or, we might start with God (whatever that means to you at this moment) and humans’ relationship with God. Either way we look at it, things can get “mystical” pretty quickly.

“(From myein, to initiate).

Mysticism, according to its etymology, implies a relation to mystery. In philosophy, Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite. According to its tendency, it may be either speculative or practical, as it limits itself to mere knowledge or traces duties for action and life; contemplative or affective, according as it emphasizes the part of intelligence or the part of the will; orthodox or heterodox, according as it agrees with or opposes the Catholic teaching.”


– quoted from The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (newadvent.org)


“2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight)”


– quoted from the definition of “mysticism” in Merriam-Webster Dictionary


“2 a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation or ecstasy.”


– quoted from the definition of “mysticism” on dictionary.com

Born today in 1915 in the Eastern Pyrénées (also known as Northern Catalonia) in Southern France, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, a writer, an activist, a scholar and a teacher of comparative religion. He joined the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) in 1941 and became known as “Brother Louis,” and then “Father Louis” after he was ordained in 1949. During his 27 years at Gethsemani he wrote over hundreds of articles and poems and over 60 books – including his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which has sold over 1 million copies and been translated into at least 15 languages. He wrote about everything from spirituality to social justice and pacifism, and lamented in his letters about the very real battle between good and evil that was (and is) playing out in the world. Merton’s dedication to Catholicism did not prevent him from being interested in other spiritual and religious traditions. If anything, his conversion and commitment fueled his desire to know God through all and any means necessary – which is why I sometimes refer to him as a mystical child of God, whatever that means to you at this moment.

On a certain level, “Father Louis” would appreciate the honoring that comes from being open to other people’s understanding of the Divine. His interest in comparative religion was not purely academic. In fact, he advocated interfaith understanding and had a strong desire to personally experience the practices of others. While his spiritual mentor and father figure Frederic Dunne (who became the head of Gethsemani in 1935), supported his interests, Merton’s quest to study Eastern religions and philosophies got him in hot water with the Order’s next head, Abbot Dom James Fox (a former Marine), who always seemed right on the edge of accusing Merton of heresy and blasphemy. Yet, the Abbot Fox still allowed Merton to teach the novices and even supported the establishment of a full-time hermitage.

Shortly before Merton died in 1968, a new abbot (Flavian Burns) became the head of the Order. Abbot Burns had entered the Order as a student of “Father Louis” and supported his mentor’s pilgrimage to Asia, where he was finally able to spend time in the communities of Eastern religions and philosophies that he had so long admired. Thomas Merton died, unexpectedly, while in Thailand after speaking at an interfaith conference.

“If you want to have a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”


– quoted from Thoughts In Solitude by Thomas Merton


“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.”


– quoted from Thoughts In Solitude by Thomas Merton


“When ambition ends, happiness begins.”


– A Hungarian proverb

What The Reverend Thomas Merton found when he studied other religions and philosophies – and when he was able to sit in community with others – was that the bone-deep desire to be connected transcended theological and philosophical beliefs. Perhaps because we are human, he found that even when certain ideas seemed diametrically opposed there was common ground: the breath, the community, the silence – and what swelled up in the heart when one sat in silence (alone and/or in community) and breathed.

There are a lot of Thomas Merton quotes in this practice. I encourage you to grab one (above or below) that resonates with you. Set a timer for 90 seconds; 5.6 minutes; 8 minutes and 30 seconds; 9 minutes and 36 seconds; or whatever time you have. Get comfortable, get stable; sit and breathe.

Don’t think about the words like an analyst.

 Just let them sit lightly on your heart, like the words of a poet… or the spirit of a mystic.

“The first step toward finding God, Who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself: and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error.”


– quoted from Chapter 13, “My Soul Remembered God” No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.”


– quoted from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton


“The beginning of this love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, then we do not love them: we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”


– quoted from Chapter 9, “The Measure of Charity” in No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”


– quoted from Chapter 1, “Love Can Be Kept Only by Being Given Away” in No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”


– quoted from Love and Living by Thomas Merton


“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”


– Thomas Merton, O. C. S. O.


“We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”


– quoted from Chapter 7, “Being and Doing” in No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how.”


– Thomas Merton, O. C. S. O.

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”



– quoted from Chapter 3, “Seeds of Contemplation” in New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton  


“First of all, our choices must really be free – that is to say they must perfect us in our own being. They must perfect us in our relation to other free beings. We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.”


– quoted from Chapter 24, “Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer” in No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for ‘finding himself.’ If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.”


– quoted from No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton


“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”


– quoted from Passion for Peace: The Social Essays by Thomas Merton


“Merton’s two-step diagnosis of all problems in human relationships: ‘We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves. And we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.’”


– quoted from The Source: Good News Bible for Today’s Young Catholic


Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.




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