The union of the Word and the Mind produces that mystery which is called Life…
• Joseph Addison
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A few nights ago I sat reading a book by Thomas Merton. It was The Ascent to Truth to be exact. Suddenly, I came across a passage that made me weep. The reaction seemed strange for its immediacy and its pure sense of intimacy. I cried, not out of sadness, but out of satisfaction.
Merton had articulated a thought so perfectly that I felt in communion with him, with his words, with the Word from which it was born, with his God and mine and with all who had entered into the truth he expressed. It was a fellowship of sorts that I am sure you have felt from time to time. It was a fellowship arising between the pages of a book, making a quick passage through brain synapses and leading into the realm of the Spirit.
These brief moments make us feel taken up into something so much bigger than ourselves and paint a tiny picture, however incomplete, of the fellowship that God desires in bringing his kingdom here … of reuniting heaven with earth, sons and daughters with their Father and brothers and sisters with the whole family of God. He gives us these flashes of light in sunrises and sunsets, in paintings and poetry, in art and architecture, in birth moments and death moments, in suffering and rejoicing, in a look or a touch and in a million different ways.
Personally, I marvel at this. To me, it is a miracle that inanimate things like letters in words, words on pages or pages in books can enliven the most interior part of us. It especially mystifies me that it doesn’t seem to matter how long ago they were written or that the writer is no longer living. Words and paper and people and ink are among many means by which God communicates truth. Although I hunger for truth, I am grateful too that he expresses himself bit by bit. Were we to stand in the full light of his truth without the protections of our dulled human senses and perceptions, we would probably die … at least, I think I would. Yet, given as it is, gently, for our sakes, truth is a unifier and vessel in which we go together because it arises out of our eternal and infinite God. It isn’t just a facet of him or a character quality; it is his essence, not to be separated from his whole essence. When we enter into truth, we enter into him.
While I do not mean to put lesser human writings on the same plain as the inspired word of God, I do think that when someone, Merton for example, is expressing and expounding on Scriptural thought, there is a power that gets carried forth, not accidentally, but by divine purpose. Although we like to break things down and categorize them in all kinds of ways, labeling things spiritual or secular doesn’t matter if is really truth. We are spiritual beings, but we are also made with minds and bodies and can perceive truth in many ways. Dorothy Sayers, a writer, thinker and contemporary of Tolkien and Lewis, wrote in The Mind of the Maker about a similar idea … that God expresses truth in this world via his people, their uniqueness, their creativity and their intellect. When we cooperate with him as honorable image-bearers and vessels set apart for his use, God, his truth, his will and his ways get entrance into this world. All those who sense an inner vacuum and long to be filled by their missing God, welcome his truth.
A few years ago, I read Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. I have searched high and low for it in my bookshelves and can’t find it for the passage I want, so forgive me in advance for a memory that won’t do it justice. In it, the writer, Tracy Lee Simmons, makes the point that through the centuries, study of the Greek and Latin writers and philosophers have been the basis for Western education, and have also been the major unifying factor, until recently, in Western culture, law and politics. I realize that some people have an aversion to all things Western in general and will probably miss the point of my bringing it up because their raised hackles are distracting them so much. Nevertheless, the point is there is truth all around the world … in Western thought, in Eastern thought, in African thought, in secular thought and spiritual thought. Not everything of any expression will be true, for we are flawed and fallen and limited people. But if something is true, it comes from God whether it passes through cultures and writers we are familiar with and find acceptable or not. When truth overcomes the obstacles of culture, preconception, ignorance and stubbornness, it is received and finds a home. It is productive and effective in an infinite number of ways. When we perceive truth and fellowship in it, we find unity, in spite of diversity.
The words that go out from God’s mouth do not return empty, but accomplish what he desires and achieve his purpose. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10,11). Maybe God’s words, which are, no doubt, many more than we know of and have written down, are like the rockets we have watched lifted by the tremendous thrust of fuel firing them away from earth into space. Initial launch requires so much power, but once the ship is free of gravity, it can go to the moon and back, or Mars and back. Maybe words are like that too. Godpower sends them and they keep moving through his people, settling in one for a bit, taking root and bearing fruit. The wind of the Holy Spirit sends them out again, to go forth and achieve purpose after purpose, spreading wide and descending down into generations … often times by means of a book … or art … or work … or love.
Being a person who loves words, I like to think that God is all about words. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). All of this was even before he spoke … but then he did speak. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. Over and over, there was. He spoke and the world and all of creation came into existence from nothingness. God spoke words from burning bushes, carved them in stone tablets, whispered them in the quietness after earthquakes and whirlwinds and wrote them on the walls of a pagan king’s court. He sang in psalms through his poets, sent warnings and wisdom through his prophets and wrote letters to his churches through his apostles. His ultimate act of Wordness was the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It makes such perfect sense then that we can enter into fellowship with God and his people in the pages of a book.
This does not happen in every case. It seems to be a rare and wonderful thing when it does. It is the reason I sat up and took notice when I felt overwhelmed by my moment with Merton. I’m not exactly sure why or how this happens; I just know when it does. Watchman Nee wrote in The Ministry of God’s Word, “The proper medium between the spirit and the word is the mind. This is the reason that we have to carefully guard our mind before the Lord. The mind must be renewed daily. We must not allow our mind to habitually remain in a low place. … The Spirit may want to say something, but the mind is too dull to think of the right words.” This seems to speak of more than just intellect. It is a consecration of thought to God in every possible way … in spirit, in purity, and in total sacrifice. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light,” King David writes in Psalm 36:9. We must keep ourselves in the pure light of God in order to perceive all that he desires us to perceive, spiritually and in any other way.
Then there is the issue of impartation. Many times a true thought from God was formed in me, but I lacked the proper articulation. I failed in bringing it out. I have read at times what others have written and sensed the same. They might well be hovering at the edges of something profound, but they can’t quite form the words in a way to pierce the deepest places of their readers’ hearts. That is why I thanked God and cried when I read Merton. In addition to the beauty of his spirit, developed in deep meditation and long contemplation, he did the hard work of an inspired writer and fought through the dullness of human limitation and the noisiness of the world to express God’s light to his readers.
We live in a type of poverty when fewer will sacrifice minds, bodies, love, treasure or any God-given thing … not just as writers, but as artists and actors, as students and workers, as clergy and lay people, as fathers and mothers and as husbands and wives. If we are only performing tasks and not surrendering our talents to God for his people, the world will starve. Nee further writes, “The lowest kind of ministry of the word, is the kind which merely helps others to understand. The highest kind of ministry of the word is one which opens men’s eyes and causes them to fall on their face.” I realize Nee is referring to ministering God’s word here, but it is a principle that transfers to nearly everything we do. If as parents we perform the tasks of parenting in such a way that a child is physically well cared for, but hungers for love or lacks worth and moral sensitivity, there is poverty. If as a pastors or priests, we administer our congregations or parishes like talented CEOs, but leave our people shepherdless and spiritually starved, there is poverty. Isaiah 58 is a passage well known for advocating generosity to the poor and the oppressed. We normally take this in the literal, physical sense as well we should, but people hunger in all kinds of ways. We want and need to encounter those who, by what they do and the consecrated way in which they do it, make us fall on our faces because we have seen the Father. We want the fellowship that comes from being understood, filled up and ministered to in all our many poverties.
Merton did this for me in the language that makes my heart flutter … letters, words and books. He took me into fellowship. He also made me want to give myself to God in such a spent out way that the hunger of others is satisfied over and over until I die. I need it done for me as you need it done for you … and as you need also to do it for others. Someday, it will be a blessed thing to open our eyes and find us all flat on our faces before God, having got there in his multitude of mysterious ways … some by means of a book.