Merton comes to mind a lot these days as Christian mysticism seems to be enjoying a kind of renaissance. Carl McColman just published The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. People are gushing over Catholic contemplative Richard Rohr -- and Lord, do they gush. He's like a tonsured rock star. Okay, he's not really tonsured; I think he's just balding. But you get the idea.
I like mystics, and I'd like to think I have a deep respect for the contemplative tradition. I'm familiar with St. John of the Cross (as in, I've actually read St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila to boot) and The Cloud of Unknowing. I'm no stranger to meditation or centering prayer, even if I haven't stopped to visit all that much lately. I learned to chant Psalms from an audiobook by Cynthia Borgeault. I know how to do lectio divina, and the difference between the moral, allegory, and unitive modes of reading scripture.
But -- and I say this at risk of hurting people of goodwill -- I don't buy all the hype. I don't like the implication, which is easy to get when reading contemplatives and the people who love them, that contemplation is the sine qua non of all religious life, that it is the thread that connects all religions, that it effects an unassailable unity with the Divine that constitutes the teleological end humanity itself.
I think meditation can be good for us, and to the extent that it can help us to not be such assholes, I'm very much in favor of it. But I think it's good for us the way that practicing the piano might be good for us, or physical conditioning might be good for us. I have no doubt that it opens up new insights and makes available new experiences, but it does this somewhat in the same way that learning to appreciate wine might, or learning to like opera. Coffee drinkers know the Joy of the First Cup. Others, who have not gone through the proper initiation, do not know this joy. They are cut off from this particular gnosis. I don't want to gloss over the ways in which meditation offers access to altered brain states that differ significantly from these other practices (unless one really overdoes the wine), but the gist of things, for me, is this:
The mystical or contemplative experience is the perfectly normal outcome of a particular kind of human practice.
I know this sounds reductive, but I'm not saying that this experience is reducible simply to its corresponding brain-states. Nor am I denying -- in fact I would insist -- that this experience is and must be given meaning within the framework of some tradition or another. But at the end of the day I see no clear evidence that this necessarily involves, implies, or requires transcendence, if by this one means some kind of definitive connection to things beyond the empirical world.
I also see no reason to think that contemplation isn't something that some might specialize in just as others might specialize in music or sports. Being a good musician -- and there are some profound experiences that go along with that -- is also the perfectly normal outcome of a particular kind of human practice, and some seem to be more suited to this than others. Ditto sports and other forms of practice. Each of these, incidentally, holistically engages the body/mind complex, so no special pleading from the contemplative camp on that one.
I am not, however, anywhere near Ken Silva on this issue:
...it’s my contention that the practice of meditation in altered states of consciousness—transcendental i.e. transforming—is actually laying the foundation for a Global Religion, which will one day be headed by the Anti-Christ. That’s why I’ve been warning Christians to stay away from the growing fad of Contemplative/Centering Prayer, which is itself transcendental meditation-lite.Um, yeah. Okay. Here's me, backing away slowly...
Actually, while Silva's paranoid fears of a "Global Religion" are part and parcel of his irrational and superstitious mythology, and I'm not sure his characterization of centering prayer as "transcendental meditation-lite" would be sensible to practitioners of either TM or centering prayer, he's not that far afield of the claims (implicit and explicit) of some contemplatives and mystics that contemplation constitutes a kind of meta-religion that can unite us all, that union with the godhead is the hidden goal of all religion. Silva agrees, after a fashion, but thinks it's of the devil. I disagree with both camps.
I'd like to suggest that knowing God, and being "partakers of the divine nature," are actually much more straightforward than herculean pursuits of the beatific vision. For, if the nature of God is the self-emptying act of creation (tzimtzum) and revealed in the self-emptying nature of Christ crucified, then we are partakers of that nature to the extent that live into that self-emptying love. I have no doubt that the contemplative arts can help us, or help those of us inclined toward them, in this process, but I am resistant to the idea that contemplation accomplishes this.
If I might be permitted a bit of indulgent prooftexting, John has Jesus telling us that eternal life is to know God (John 17:3), and Jeremiah has God saying, of one of the good kings, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy...is that not what it means to know me?" (Jer 22:16). Prooftexting notwithstanding, here's the general principle I'd like to offer: knowing God means being about the things that God is about, and if we take the teaching of Jesus seriously, as well as the prophetic tradition in which he seems to have situated himself (or in which his biographers situated him), this would seem to mean championing the poor, the widow, the alien, and the fatherless -- the "looking after widows and orphans in their distress" that James calls true religion.
Now, if that's the "Global Religion" Silva is afraid of, then I say bring on the Antichrist.