A Review of
A Course in Christian Mysticism
Reviewed by Alexander Steward
If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.
Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.
Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory… The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation” (xiii). This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics. Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.
Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.
In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (10).
As Merton journeys back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.
He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius. The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.
Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (57). Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.
These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.
Alexander Steward is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Richmond, Michigan.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com