Inner Experience of Being Christ/Jesus/God in the World

This longer-than-normal blog has been under construction for several weeks as I dance with opening to mystical awakening being graced upon me. My journey parallels that of Luke Healy that he has been sharing in his weekly blogs, especially now his series of ICN articles, begun 7/8/23 titled, Whole-Body Mystical Presencing (e.g., 7/15/23 – Is It Possible to Pray Continuously?). My experiences, however, have come slowly and later in life than those of Luke and others due to my apparent deep need first gradually to deconstruct rigid belief systems I grew up with, then to wander in the desert of unknowing and exploring for a decade or so, and finally to begin slowly reconstructing my relationships with God, Jesus, self, and others. My journey is ongoing, even accelerating, with many twists, retreats, and cul-de-sacs, but also with many small and not so small awakenings along the way. So let me begin this blog in which I describe some of the factors guiding my journey…

1) Thomas Merton on Contemplation

In listening to James Finley’s audio recording of Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere I was moved to explore the writings of Merton on the life that is dedicated to contemplation. I started with The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, a book first published in 2003, 35 years after Merton died. The book, edited by William H. Shannon and including Shannon’s helpful historical introduction, is based upon a work of Merton’s that he had almost but not quite completed. Shannon worked carefully with a late draft of Merton’s book that had Merton’s handwritten notes penned in. This draft with handwritten notes was given to Merton’s dear friend and mentor Daniel Walsh in the summer of 1968 just before Merton left for what would be his last trip to Asia. Merton died in an “accident” in Thailand on December 10, 1968 at age 53.

What is contemplation? This question engaged Merton for most of his adult years. He wrote 14 books on contemplation and meditation, including four late works on Eastern thought on the subject that he saw as important in integrating Western and Eastern experiences of awakening. Merton’s first book on contemplation was Seeds of Contemplation published in 1949 at age of 34. There was little new in this first volume that could not be found elsewhere. Over the next 13 years Merton completely rewrote this book as he grew in his own understanding and experience, and at 47 (1962) he published the now popular New Seeds of Contemplation.

In his last book, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, Chapter 5, Kinds of Contemplation, Merton writes, “Strictly speaking, contemplation is an immediate and, in some sense, passive intuition [1] of the inmost reality, [2] of our spiritual self and [3] of God present within us.” This resonates with my limited but growing experience of awakening and seems aligned with ICN’s writings and weekly blogs.

My three reflections that follow are influenced by my 40 years of strongly conservative Lutheran roots that had to be examined and carefully deconstructed before I would be open to the subject of mystical awakening or direct experience of God. Now I can integrate my conservative Lutheran roots with my more mystical longing in the spirit of Wilber’s “transcend and include” stages of consciousness. What follows is a bit tedious, maybe a bit too tedious for most, but I share these reflections for those who, like me, may have had to work their way through early more conservative Christian foundations while also integrating these early restrictive teachings with more freeing mystical experiences of God and Self.

In the following two reflections on Merton’s writing from The Inner Experience I explore what Merton describes what being Christs in the world means to us moved to follow such a mystical path while appreciating, rather than rebelling against, our years of more conservative religious upbringing.

2) Thomas Merton and the Hypostatic Union: Being Christs in the World

Thomas Merton speaks of our being Christs in the world  in The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation Chapter 4 Christian Contemplation. (Note: I encourage the reader to consider spending time in this entire book rather than reading only my brief quotes.) In this chapter I find Merton’s writing to be a good explanation for the importance of the theology of the hypostatic union, which relates to the mystery of Jesus being true man AND true God in essence during his short incarnation (and, by implication I find, Christ Jesus being true God before and after his incarnation, AND I opine further that perhaps also Christ Jesus has been truly human – the human face of God – in visitations and appearances before and after his 35 years of life on Earth described to the Gospels – for example after his resurrection and up through today).

In these words about the hypostatic union, Merton is in full support of a view held firmly by Athanasius as against Arianism, the latter of which held that Christ (Son of God) was in some sense “begotten” before “time” but “after” God the Father, hence Christ (Son of God) was said to be “less than” God in some critical way. The Roman church concluded that Athanasius was orthodox – that Christ (Son of God) was true God and as such existed eternally, being  coeternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (these three “persons” being the basis of the Trinity). In that decision, Arianism became heresy. This orthodox Trinitarian dogma is expressed in the complex Athanasian Creed (a creed not technically written by Athanasius, according to scholars on the subject though ascribed to him).

Orthodox Lutheran teaching as expressed in the Book of Concord includes the Athanasian Creed and therefore includes the hypostatic union.  This Lutheran dogma implies that the hypostatic union applies UNIQUELY to Jesus Christ (Son of God) and no other human. This is the theology I grew up with in my first 50 years of life – beginning in a Lutheran elementary school, in confirmation class, and then in teaching roles in my conservative Lutheran Church for the next thirty years. While I did not understand what hypostatic union implied and why it was considered important, I accepted it as important because during those days I was taught and therefore held that Lutheran orthodoxy per se was THE truth, and hence the hypostatic union, an integral part of this orthodoxy, was important whether or not I understood it.

However, Merton also seems to lay a groundwork for two blogs I wrote on the hypostatic union nine years ago, midway in the 23 years I have been deeply engaged in Pathwork, a teaching which posits that we are God at our core. In these two blogs I opined that the hypostatic union applies to humans broadly, not uniquely to Jesus Christ. The first blog on this I wrote in 2014 I titled Hypostatic Union and  the second one I wrote in 2015 and titled Hypostatic Union for All Revisited. So finally, in 2014 at 72, I was daring to be a heretic in the eyes of my orthodox Lutheran heritage.

But I realize all this is getting way too “heady” for many readers, and so I now ask myself, “What on earth does this theological jargon mean in practical terms to us in our incarnated lives on planet earth?” For me its relevance ties into the challenge of truly being Christs in the world (identical to Merton’s thinking), and if Christ is God (hypostatic union), then the challenge of being Christs is the challenge of being God in our own incarnation. That means MY true identity, MY reality, who I consider to be MY real Self, is both God and human in essence during my incarnation on earth in the same sense that Jesus Christ was both God and human in essence, most notably during his short 35-year incarnation on earth.

This felt-sense that my deepest identity as an aspect of the face of God is in contrast to my Lutheran “identity” of being in my essence a “poor miserable sinner” needing to have faith (i.e., salvation – going to heaven when I die –  by faith alone – “claiming to believe firmly”) that Jesus died on the cross for the atonement of my sins so I could go to heaven when I died. In this Lutheran frame, our lives were to follow Jesus’ example of loving God and others in appreciation for his sacrifice (being nailed to the cross), but knowing that, not by these “good works” but by “right belief alone,” “grace alone,” we would go to heaven when we died. It took me seventy years to see and understand the limitations of living life on this framework of Lutheran beliefs.

My current sense of identity as being a Christ or face of God in the world leads me to a life whose purpose is purification, transformation, and bringing the love of God into all areas of my life. The purification and transformation come by seeing, facing, and overcoming the distortions and pain that my separating pride, self-will, and fear have brought upon me and upon others. Pathwork has been my primary path for this personal development and transformation.

3) Merton on the Awakening the Inner Self in Zen Buddhism and in Christianity

Back to The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. Merton, in Chapter 3 The Awakening of the Inner Self, speaks of the inner experience of the awakening of a Zen Buddhist (Satori), the result of a practice in which there is much preparation but no concept of the supernatural, or God, let alone the complexity of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and other Christian dogmatic overlays.

Merton offers that in awakening “the [Zen Buddhist] monk experiences a kind of inner explosion that blasts his false exterior self to pieces and leaves nothing but ‘his original face,’ his ‘original self before you were born,’ (or, more technically, his “Buddha nature.” Whatever you want to call this real self.)”

I find Merton’s words helpful in this exploration of a Christian’s experience of awakening. In Christianity, for us humans, as God, as Christs and  God-incarnated Jesuses in the world, one can perhaps apply these words of Merton describing a Zen Buddhist awakening to the awakening of us Christians thusly, “the [human Christian] monk experiences a kind of inner explosion that blasts his false exterior self to pieces and leaves nothing but ‘one’s original face,’ one’s ‘original self [or one’s REAL SELF i.e., one’s God-Self’] before one was incarnated.” I find that notion inspiring and helpful in linking Christian Mysticism to Eastern Mysticism.

Later in this chapter Merton writes, “There is always a possibility that what an Eastern mystic describes as Self is what the Western mystic will describe as God, because … the mystical union between the soul and God renders them in some sense ‘undivided’ (though metaphysically distinct) in spiritual experience. And the fact that the Eastern mystic, not conditioned by centuries of theological debate, may not be inclined to reflect on the fine points of metaphysical distinction does not necessarily mean that he has not experienced the presence of God when he speaks of knowing the Inmost Self.”

To this comment by Merton, I connect back to his statement about Jesus Christ being fully God and Fully human as described in the doctrine of the hypostatic union. I opined above that the hypostatic union applies to all humans at the level of our essence. If true, this suggests that what the Eastern mystic experiences in awakening and names Self and what the Western mystic experiences in awakening and names God, under the hypostatic union become one and the same name for this experience, namely the experience of one’s God-Self. This experience of one’s God-Self would be an experience of a unique face of Source (Eastern mystic) or a unique face of God (Western mystic).  Perhaps Jesus Christ is a unique face of God for us who are followers of Jesus. Perhaps we Christian mystics are also unique faces of God. And somehow, in each of us being a unique face of God, like Jesus Christ we are also fully God. This is truly Mystery that is beyond our current capacity to “understand,” but perhaps the hologram offers us a model (but beyond the scope of these reflections).

4) How to be Christ JESUS in the world – A fresh look at Philippians Chapter 2

Recovering from my 50 years of Lutheran identity as “a poor miserable sinner,” while now also embracing the notion of being Christ in the world, I need to look at the other side of the hypostatic union – having a face of being truly HUMAN as well as my face of being truly God. In this consideration I was drawn to remember Philippians Chapter 2 which speaks to Christ Jesus and his incarnational life on earth. Here is Philippians 2:5-8 (NASV 1995):

 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God [i.e. Christ, as do we, existed in the form of God before his/our incarnations], did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

 7 but emptied Himself [i.e., since we are asked to be like Christ, we too are asked to have an attitude of humility, emptying ourselves of significant aspects of our God-self during our incarnational journeys], taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men [Christ Jesus and we ourselves truly being made ALSO the fully HUMAN face of God].

 8 Being found in appearance as a man [i.e., as Christ (face of God beyond us) appeared as Jesus (still fully God while simultaneously wearing a fully human face – hypostatic union), so we, as divine beings (our God beyond face), too are to appear in our limited incarnated humanity (our “God near,” or human face of God), while we are still also God in our essence during our incarnation on planet earth], He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross [i.e., as Christ was obedient in being incarnated as a fully human being to the point of experiencing death, even the suffering death on the cross, so should we, while still God in our essence, be OBEDIENT to experience our incarnation as EMPTIED of aspects of our God-self but fully-HUMAN in our beingness,  including experiencing death and even severe suffering – hypostatic union for all].

This is a lot to contemplate, and I pause to let this settle in… If I am reading this correctly, having this attitude of Christ Jesus in myself which was also in Christ Jesus, then this passage says that while we are God in our essence, with the full Unitive Consciousness that that implies, yet, like Christ Jesus during his incarnation, we are to empty ourselves of aspects of our Unitive Consciousness and live incarnated on earth, like Christ did in Jesus, with a limited consciousness, again as Jesus did – which for humans (including Jesus) is a dualistic consciousness – a consciousness constrained by the “illusion” of space, time and movement.

Living our lives in a dualistic consciousness, of course, leads to all our problems in our human experience – problems caused not only by our own dualistic consciousness but also living with the dualistic consciousness of 8 billion others on the planet. But a dualistic consciousness seems necessary for us to discover the illusion of “cause and effect.” When we feel the pain of ourselves and others we become motivated to grow and develop and heal our pride, self-will, and fear. Pride, self-will, and fear are elements of “the Fall,” (whatever the “Fall” means metaphorically) that separate us from each other and from God, including separating us from the God within that we are in our essence.

How to live and grow in a world made painful by most of us living in a state of dualistic consciousness is the challenge of our path of spiritual and personal development in our incarnational journey. To grow, develop, and transform is perhaps why we are incarnated in a dualistic consciousness while we also radiate this love of God from our essence. It also means we endure pain, suffering and death, the result of centuries of dualistic existence of us humans. Our goal, as modeled by Christ Jesus, is to empty ourselves of (many aspects of) our divinity as we live our incarnational lives. While we long for mystical experiences AND at times even experience a non-dual Unitive state of conscious where we taste the experience of the Ultimate Reality of No-Self, these tastes of Unitive consciousness do NOT define our life’s purpose. Rather, we are called to be humble, face our pride, self-will, and fear, and minister to others in the humility inherent in our being both truly God and truly human – the face of God near others, as Jesus was during his ministry and still is now.

5) Concluding Remarks

I appreciate Merton’s strong support for the doctrine of the hypostatic union for Jesus Christ being truly human while all the time also being true God during his short incarnation on Earth. Further I appreciate Merton declaring that we are to be Christs while here in our human incarnations. I feel confirmed in my “heretical” position that in some sense the hypostatic union applies to us during our short incarnations on Earth.  It’s helpful to consider that we are our God-selves, which is our true identity, both before, during (though partly “emptied out”), and after our incarnations. Exploring these possibilities brings clarity to some aspect of the Mystery that life is, and I feel inspired by such possible descriptions of what may be behind the veil. It is a way to transcend and include my early Lutheran roots.

However, I wonder how I shall look at all my writing here a year from now or better yet five or ten years from now. Perhaps ten years from now I shall look at such writing and simply smile, or even laugh aloud in loving delight, at this earlier version of myself who was so motivated by and dedicated to exploring all these ideas. I’ve got to love that guy!

Recognizing and facing the reality of this exponentially expanding “knowing while growing” I pause to ask, “How then should we live?” My answer and prayer for now is, “May I always be open to Truth, Beauty, Mystery & Love. May I be ever faithful to the River of Life that flows through us and of which we are a part.” Amen.

An invitation – if you have energy regarding any aspect of what I have written here, let’s engage via Zoom. Thank you.