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William Harmless
Oxford University Press, 2007
368 pp., 25.95

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Reviewed by Nathaniel Peters

Raids on the Ineffable

A lucid account of eight mystics refutes the notion that "all religions are the same at the top."

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Later in life, Merton became more interested in writing on themes of social justice and Eastern spirituality. He even traveled to the East, an extreme rarity for a Trappist, where he had an intense mystical experience while praying before the statue of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa. In the eyes of this reviewer, this marks a distinct departure from the intense, orthodox Catholicism of his early years. There appears to be a difference between the earlier and the later Merton, but Harmless makes no distinction between the two. He concludes with a passage from Merton's The Sign of Jonas, in which Merton writes of watching for fires on the monastery property one summer evening. The experience, says Harmless, captures Merton as a fire-watcher standing outside modern culture, testifying to the broken nature of the human heart and pointing the way for broken men to be made whole.

Harmless then introduces the reader to Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian abbot—and celebrity—of the 12th century. Bernard traveled throughout Europe founding monasteries, preaching two crusades, engaging in academic and ecclesiastical controversies, and advising popes. But his greatest legacy can be found in his writings. In On Loving God, Bernard shows how the human desire to love God comes as a response to the love of God.

In his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard explores the love of God further. Harmless writes, "Bernard was convinced that the Song of Songs' central theme—the passions and love play of the wedding night—provides the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. The claim is breathtaking. We today use the term 'mystical marriage' without thinking how astonishing it is to claim that God and a human being can so unite as to be married." While reading Bernard, one is not only moved by the power of his message but also struck by the fact his prose is full of references to sacred Scripture. It is obvious that Bernard was a man who studied and soaked in the words of the Bible and the fathers of the Church, and that one cannot peel away their influence from the core of his writing.

A century after Bernard, a German Dominican named Meister Eckhart was preaching on the nature of God. Eckhart was famous, and controversial, for using strong language to jolt his listeners out of their human conceptions of God. He attacked traditional religious language and names for God, and also diminished the distinction between man's being and God. For such preaching, Eckhart was accused of heresy during his own lifetime and after death. It is probably Harmless' greatest work of pedagogy that he makes Eckhart's writing understandable, and that he shows how Eckhart's radical theology was not heretical as many took it to be.

Eckhart conceived of God's inner life as "a 'boiling,' a giving birth to itself—glowing in itself, and melting and boiling in and into itself, light that totally forces its whole being in light and into light and that is everywhere turned back and reflected upon itself." In other words, "God is an inner bursting creativity that spills over as joy, as exuberance, as beauty: 'God delights in himself. In the delight in which God delights in himself, he delights also in all creatures.' " From this lively emanation present in the Trinity emanates creation itself, and therefore all creation ultimately has at its core the same being, that of God. By saying this Eckhart is not embracing monism, but rather reminding the hearer of the full implications of the words "in him we live, and move, and have our being."

Dogen was a similarly controversial figure in 13th-century Buddhism, the founder of the Soto sect. His primary teaching was the practice of zazen as a means "to drop off body-mind." One would sit without thinking, but also without not-thinking. Instead, one would practice nonthinking. Once again, Harmless is adept in deciphering what this might mean: "Nonthinking, it seems, lies beyond both thinking and not-thinking; it 'neither affirms nor denies, accepts nor rejects, believes nor disbelieves'; it is presencing, a realizing of the 'pure presence of things as they are.' " This kind of mystical practice, Dogen teaches, would reveal true human nature and give its practitioner an experience of what Harmless calls "ultimate reality." So far Dogen's teaching aligns with traditional Buddhist doctrines, but he departs from them in his definition of what has sacred dignity—what is known in Buddhism as "Buddha-nature." Christians limit sacred dignity to human beings, and traditional Buddhists limit Buddha-nature to sentient beings, but Dogen extends it to all things. In other words, everything has an innate holiness. Traditional Buddhism also teaches that one should flee the impermanence of the world and seek the purity of Buddha-nature, which does not change. Dogen, however, teaches the exact opposite: the world in its impermanence is Buddha-nature.

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