In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die. [i]

At best we can dispose ourselves for the reception of this great gift [of contemplation given by God] by resting in the heart of our own poverty, keeping our soul as far as possible empty of desires for all the things that please and preoccupy our nature, no matter how pure or sublime they may be in themselves. [ii]

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968), a contemplative and writer on Christian spirituality, wanted his readers to experience the poverty of selflessness so that they could experience the presence of Christ found in mystical union. There is I think a point of intersection here with liminal theology. To show this, in this post, quoting from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I will bring Merton’s thought into conversation with liminal theology.

Photograph by Sibylle Akers / Merton Legacy Trust / Thomas Merton Center

Liminal theology values the “spaces” where I think the selflessness envisioned by Merton occurs. Merton will say that “space” as a metaphor, along with other metaphors used to signify mystical experience, will eventually become “hopeless.” “Everything you say is misleading…” [iii]. These spaces of selflessness are between boundaries and markers that are produced by the interaction of egoistic selves with social structure. Merton writes,

It is a great mistake to confuse the person (the spiritual and hidden self, united with God) and the ego, the exterior, empirical self, the psychological individuality who forms a kind of mask for the inner and hidden self. This outer self is nothing but an evanescent shadow. Its biography and its existence both end together at death. Of the inmost self, there is neither biography nor end. The outward self can ‘have’ much, ‘enjoy’ much, ‘accomplish’ much, but in the end all its possessions, joys and accomplishments are nothing, and the outer self is, itself, nothing: a shadow, a garment that is cast off and consumed by decay. [iv]

Yet we must not deal in too negative a fashion even with the ‘external self.’ This self is not by nature evil, and the fact that it is unsubstantial is not to be imputed to it as some kind of crime. It is afflicted with metaphysical poverty; but all that is poor deserves mercy. So too our outward self: as long as it does not isolate itself in a lie, it is blessed by the mercy and the love of Christ. Appearances are to be accepted for what they are. The accidents of a poor and transient existence have, nevertheless, an ineffable value. They can be transparent media in which we apprehend the presence of God in the world. It is possible to speak of the exterior self as a mask: to do so is not necessarily to reprove it. The mask that each man wears may well be a disguise not only for that man’s inner self but for God, wandering as a pilgrim and exile in His own creation. [v]

What liminal theology hopes to find (and create and recreate if necessary) in the in-between spaces is a way of being between that points to the presence of the Wisdom of God. Furthermore, there is a relationship between what one believes about the world, what one desires and loves, and what one hopes for. This in turn affects action, which is significant for liminal theology. Liminal theology seeks to bring about the liberating hope and the hope for liberation that one has when she or he sees and believes that true selfhood is not a fixed visible reality but is rather hidden in Christ. The external self should be seen as a creative and open-ended process shaped by our interaction with others, “in which we apprehend the presence of God in the world” [vi]. But for true contemplation, which unites love for and knowledge of God, the self must “vanish” into God such that “God alone is left.” God is the “’I’ who acts there. He is the one Who loves and knows and rejoices” [vii].

And now a few final thoughts on Merton and liminal theology. It is important to consider these words from Merton in which he alternates in his use of light and dark imagery:

This is the gift of understanding: we pass out of ourselves into the joy of emptiness, of nothingness, in which there are no longer any particular objects of knowledge but only God’s truth without limit, without defect, without stain. This clean light, which tastes of Paradise, is beyond all pride, beyond comment, beyond proprietorship, beyond solitude. It is in all, and for all. It is the true light that shines in everyone, in ‘every man coming into this world.’ It is the light of Christ, ‘Who stands in the midst of us and we know Him not.’ [viii]

This clear darkness of God is the purity of heart Christ spoke of in the sixth Beatitude. . . . And this purity of heart brings at least a momentary deliverance from images and concepts, from forms and shadows of all the things men desire with their human appetites. It brings deliverance even from the feeble and delusive analogies we ordinarily use to arrive at God—not that it denies them, for they are true as far as they go, but it makes them temporarily useless by fulfilling them all in the sure grasp of a deep and penetrating experience. [ix]

To the extent that such an experience depicted in the two excerpts above continues between the application of social categories, which comprise our egoistic identities, liminal theology must in a creaturely way hold the cataphatic and apophatic in tension, hoping to depict with humility an experience of transcendence and fulfillment, or possibly defeat [x]. On the one hand, it is important for liminal theology to name and interpret and affirm experiences and phenomena that are encountered in the between spaces.

[God] let man decide for himself how created things were to be interpreted, understood and used: for Adam gave the animals their names (God gave them no names at all) and what names Adam gave them, that they were. . . . While the love of God, looking upon things, brought them into being, the love of man, looking upon things, reproduced the divine idea, the divine truth, in man’s own spirit. As God creates things by seeing them in His own Logos, man brings truth to life in his mind by the marriage of the divine light, in the being of the object, with the divine light in his own reason. The meeting of these two lights in one mind is truth. [xi]

On the other hand, in an apophatic turn liminal theology has to be attentive to the moment when words and concepts must be set aside for the sake of contemplation in the presence of divine simplicity.

But there is a higher light still, not the light by which man ‘gives names’ and forms concepts, with the aid of the active intelligence, but the dark light in which no names are given, in which God confronts man not through the medium of things, but in His own simplicity. The union of the simple light of God with the simple light of man’s spirit, in love, is contemplation. The two simplicities are one. They form, as it were, an emptiness in which there is no addition but rather the taking away of names, of forms, of content, of subject matter, of identities. In this meeting there is not so much a fusion of identities as a disappearance of identities. [xii]

In this post, I have tried to suggest how fruitful the union is between Merton’s understanding of selflessness and liminal theology’s understanding of spaces in between. Ultimately, for Merton and perhaps for liminal theology, the belief is that “[i]t is our emptiness in the presence of the abyss of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him” [xiii].


[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), 47.

[ii] Merton, 230.

[iii] Merton, 284.

[iv] Merton, 279-80.

[v] Merton, 295-96.

[vi] Merton, 296.

[vii] Merton, 286-87.

[viii] Merton, 232.

[ix] Merton, 231.

[x] Merton, 236.

[xi] Merton, 291.

[xii] Merton, 291-92.

[xiii] Merton, 231.

Featured Photo by Martin on Unsplash

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