The Ascent to Truth

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The Ascent to Truth

Thomas Merton

1951, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani



Below are excerpts from Thomas Merton’s book The Ascent to Truth. This book sets out to define Christian mysticism, primarily through the lens of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Thomas. This book is a guide into the contemplative experience of faith. The excerpts taken below are from my first reading of the book, I make little pencil marks in the margin when I read passages that feel crystalized. Now that I’ve read the book I am going back and typing up these sections as a personal exercise to embed these formulas into my awareness.

The selections do not attempt to articulate the larger arguments of the book, I recommend the full book to anyone interested in Saint John of the Cross, contemplation, the cloud of unknowing, and Christian mysticism.




“Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man’s guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire.” (p.24)

“Saint Augustine long ago made it quite plain that one of the main reasons why the will refuses to go into action and embrace the faith is that it fears to pay the price of faith. Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17 ff.). The works by which faith demands expression, and by which it lives, demand the sacrifice of things to which the will is attached. Anyone who is sincerely drawn to belief is, by its very nature, associated with the love of God, with submission to His will, with the desire to please Him. The same activity of grace which attracts him to faith warns him that his acceptance of faith will demand a transformation of his whole spiritual life. He will have to “die” and be “reborn” as a new person.” (p.45)

“Now, this voyage in darkness is not accomplished without anguish. Our spirits were made for light, not for darkness. But the fall of Adam has turned us inside out, and the light we now love is darkness. The only way to true life is a kind of death. The man who feels the attraction of the Divine Truth and who realizes that he is being drawn out of this visible world into an unknown realm of cloud and darkness, stands like one whose head spins at the edge of a precipice. This intellectual dizziness, spiritus vertiginis, is the concrete experience of man’s interior division against himself by virtue of the fact that his mind, made for the invisible God, is nevertheless dependent for all its clear knowledge on the appearances of exterior things. And this vertigo, which reminds us of the dark fear that pervades the pages of the Danish mystic Sören Kierkegaard, is also one of the aspects of that theoria physica of which we have spoken. It is the metaphysical anguish that seizes a soul for whom the “nothingnesss” of visible things is no longer merely a matter of discourse but of experience!” (p.51)

“Desire, considered a passion, is necessarily directed to a finite object. Therefore all desire imposes a limit to our knowledge, possession, existence. Now, in order to escape from every limitation, we must cast off that which ties us down.” (p. 54)

“By nature we seek truth. God’s grace can give us an intimate experience of Him Who is infinite Truth. False mysticism turns us aside from the true path to that end. It leads us away after a mirage and leaves us to die in the desert, locked in the embrace of an illusion.” (p. 65)

“Here are the words in which Saint Thomas describes the end of this asent to God. “The final attainment of man’s knowledge of God consists in knowing that we do not know Him, in so far as we realize that He transcends everything that we understand concerning Him…Having arrived at the term of our knowledge we know God as unknown.” (p. 100)

“Now the first elementary truth that must be grasped by anyone who attempts to understand a scientific demonstration for the existence of God is that this demonstration, although it ends in absolute certitude, cannot put our minds in possession of an object which they can determine, master, possess, or command.” (p. 104)

“Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears in the hour of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable. It is a vision in which Love, mounting into the darkness which no reasoning can penetrate, unites in one bond all the loose strands that intelligence alone cannot connect together, and with this cord draws the whole being of man into Divine Union, the effects of which will someday overflow into the world outside him.” (p.107)

“This explains the double crisis of dark knowledge. First the philosopher, ascending to the limits of his science, knows that God is beyond the grasp of every concept we can have of Him. And yet our concepts about him are true. They are most true when they are taken with this negative qualification: when they say “God is everything that we can signify, and yet He is not what we signify because He is infinitely more.” (p.115)

“Saint John of the Cross begins all his longer treatises by pointing to the last end of man: “union with God through clear and essential vision.” Saint Thomas teaches us in the Summa that God is the last end not only of men but of all things, for all creation somehow finds fulfillment in a participation of the perfections of God.” (p.133)

“Our happiness must come, metaphysically speaking, from outside ourselves. That does not mean that perfect happiness consists in a psychological exteriorization of ourselves in created things. Far from it! But even when our happiness comes from being other than our own spirit, beatitude cannot objectively be considered as the perfection which we receive from that Being, even though He be God. To be happy, we must be taken out of ourselves and raised above ourselves, not only to a higher level of creation but to the uncreated essence of God. God, and God alone, is our beatitude.” (p.134)

“This is another illuminating chapter of The Dark Night of the Soul – one in which Saint John describes a certain self-willed gluttony for exterior penance which he calls an imperfection of “beginners.” He goes on to say that this kind of asceticism is “no better than the penance of beasts”. (p.173)

“But Saint John of the Cross tells him that every one of these impulsions must be slaughtered with the blade of reason and that the way to God is a way of emptiness, without refreshment and without pleasure, in which we seek no light but faith and hear no voice but that of faith — so that, in the end, we must always walk in darkness. We must travel in silence. We must fly by night.” ( p.178)

“The voice of God is certitude. If He moves us to action, we go forward with peaceful strength. More often than not His inspirations teach us to sit still. They show us the emptiness and confusion of projects we thought we had undertaken for His glory. He saves us from the impulses that would throw us into wild competition with other men. He delivers us from ambition. The Holy Spirit is most easily recognized where He inspires obedience and humility. No one really knows Him who has not tasted the tranquillity that comes with the renunciation of our own will, our own pleasure, our own interests, without glory, without notice, without approval, for the interests of some other person. The inspirations of the Spirit of God are not grandiose. They are simple. They move us to seek God in works that are difficult without being spectacular. They leas us in paths that are happy because they are obscure. That is why they always bring with them a sense of liberation. “He is the spirit of Truth (John 14:17) and “the Truth shall make you free.” His inspirations make us clean. They deliver us from coarseness and from limitation.” (p. 186)

“The highest sanctity demands that even the roots of bad habits be dug away and cleared from the garden of the soul. This work cannot be performed by reason alone. It requires the direct intervention of God in passive or mystical purifications of the soul. Nor is the so-called Night of Sense sufficient for this. Perfect sanctity is not in fact to be achieved without the radical cleansing of the spirit in fires of infused love equivalent, in all their spiritual effects, to the flames of purgatory itself. This is the real Dark Night — the Night of the Soul.” (p.188)

“The Night of Sense is a period of trial in which the faculties of the soul begin to be moves passively by God without losing their own power to move themselves. It is called a Night, not because the reason and will are themselves “darkened” or deprived of their own natural light and strength, but because they are hampered in their ordinary mode of activity. The intelligence cannot naturally know anything without acting upon the material in order to act on the natural plane. In the Night of Sense, the infused action of God upon the mind causes it to become weary of reasoning. The same hidden action makes the will grow tired of desire. Instead of reasoning, the intellect is drawn to rest in a simple intuition of the truths of faith. Instead of pouring itself out in the quest of particular ends, the will withdraws itself into the unified and simple love of God, the One End of all our striving.” (pg.189)

Now, as Aristotle somewhere says, when a man is learning to play a harp he has to think of every movement he makes. He is conscious of the distinct effort to find each proper note and to strike the right string. But when he is a proficient player, he no longer is aware of what he is doing with his fingers. His mind is not concerned with each separate movement to be made. His hand move easily over the strings as though by instinct, and the mind of the musician is no longer concentrated on technical details but loses itself in the enjoyment of the music he is drawing from the instrument. In the same way, when we have learned how to meditate, the truths of God present themselves spontaneously to our minds. We do not always have to work them out by discourse: we need only to enjoy them in the deep and satisfying gaze of intuition.” (pg. 208)

“Attention is a precise activity of the mind. It implies also activity of the will. Knowledge is an act of the intelligence. The difference is not between activity and inactivity but between two kinds of action — between reasoning and intuition. The soul gazes with the desire of love into the darkness where God is hidden and gradually loses sight of every other object.” (pg.234)

“In a beautiful sentence, the saint described how the soul responds to the delicate inspirations “of the Spirit of Divine Wisdom, the loving, tranquil, lonely, peaceful, sweet ravisher of the spirit.

At times the soul will feel itself to be tenderly and serenely ravished and wounded, knowing not by whom, nor whence, nor how, since the Spirit communicates Himself without any act on the part of the soul.”

This contemplation is a paradise of peace, interior liberty, spiritual growth. The soul is at last clean not only in its substance, which is suffused with the light of sanctifying grace, but also in its faculties, which are now delivered from base absorption in all that is accidental and transient. It rediscovers its own essential dignity, and rises above its former slavery to desire. But what is much more than this, the soul is beginning to move in a new world, a “new creation”, something that transcends the level of its own nature, the hanging gardens of contemplation, suspended halfway between earth and heaven.” (pg. 236)

“The third road, the true one, is the way of nada, “nothingness,” the rejection of all subjectivism, in order to take things objectively. Now, for a theologian, the objective reality of things is what they are in relation to God, considered both in Himself and as our last end.” (pg.246)

“But truth reveals itself to the light of reason in a way that can b shared in the same way by all who use that light. One who understands a truth can convey his understanding to another by evidence and demonstration. The truth that is thus transmitted from one mind to another produces the same objective certainty in both, even though it may at the same time have quite different subjective repercussions in different spirits.” (pg.247)

“Therefore, as Saint John points out at the very beginning of The Ascent, pure faith is “as dark as night to the understanding”. It is in fact, the darkest of the “three nights,” and in this night takes place “the communication of God in the spirit, which is ordinarily wrought in great darkness of the soul.”” (pg. 257)

“All love tends to ecstasy, in the sense that it takes us out of ourselves and makes us live in the object of our love.” (pg. 280)

“It must be quite evident that love is the end and perfection of all contemplation, since contemplation is not an end in itself.” (pg. 281)

“However, in actual practice the intelligence is not always superior to the will. This is because the will may often attain to a higher and more perfect object than the intelligence is capable of reaching. Saint Thomas is not here speaking of mere velleities, desires for things of which we have no certain knowledge. As Saint John of the Cross has just pointed out, following this doctrine of Saint Thomas, the intelligence acts upon what it has received into itself, but the will goes out of itself into another. As Aristotle says: truth and falsity, th objects of understanding, have only an abstract existence in the mind. But the will reaches out to good and evil in their actual, concrete reality, in existing things.” (pg. 284)

“This loving knowledge of God is the closest approach to pure happiness that is granted to men in this mortal life. That is why those who are truly wise with the wisdom of the saints leave all things to follow Christ and seek to give themselves entirely, with all they have and all they are, to God. They consecrate their lives to Him alone and engage themselves in a ceaseless ascetic effort to attain perfection in the purity of their love for Him. The Spirit of God soon teaches them that contemplation is not something we get but something that is given to us. Therefore we must not try to acquire it by a vain effort of intelligence, but we must use our reason, in the service of faith, in order to direct every action and every desire of our body and soul to God and to His glory. This light that is in us has been given us for the service of love. That is not to say that the intelligence is inferior to the will, but only that the purest thing that is in us, the mind, is what enables us to make a total gift of ourselves to God. If we did not have intelligence, we would not be free, and if we were not free our love could not be disinterested; and if our love were not disinterested it would not be pure. And without pure love we cannot see God. Since it is written: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God!” (pg. 286)

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