|Fr. Thomas Merton, O.S.C.O.
Two of my favorite contemplatives. Merton is a must-read for Christians (and anyone interested in mysticism and prayer)-- his Seven Storey Mountain is a classic and one of the best stories of coming to Christ.
St. John of the Cross is of course one of the most influential mystics. His Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul are essential works for Christian mysticism.
Merton comments on the dark night of the soul, encountered on the journey to God:
This total self-denial, which St. John of the Cross pursues into the inmost depths of the human spirit, reduces our interior landscape to a wasteland without special features of any kind whatever. We do not even have the consolation of beholding a personal disaster. A cataclysm of the spirit, if terrible, is also interesting. But the soul of the contemplative is happy to be reduced to a state of complete loneliness and dereliction in which the most significant renouncement is that of self-complacency. Many men are attracted to a solitude in which they believe they will have the leisure and the opportunity to contemplate themselves. Not so St. John of the Cross:
(St. John) These times of aridity cause the soul to journey in all purity in the love of God, since it is no longer influenced in its actions by the pleasure and sweetness of the actions themselves, . . . but only by a desire to please God. It becomes neither presumptuous nor self-satisfied, as perchance it was wont to become in the time of its prosperity, but fearful and timid with regard to itself, find ing in itself no satisfaction whatsoever; and herein consists that holy fear which preserves and increases the virtues. . . . Save for the pleasure indeed which at certain times God infuses into it, it is a wonder if it find pleasure and consolation of sense, through its own diligence, in any spiritual exercise or action. . . . There grows within souls that experience this arid night (of the senses) care for God and yearnings to serve him, for in proportion as the breasts of sensuality, wherewith it sustained and nourished the desires that it pursued, are drying up, there remains nothing in that aridity and detachment save the yearning to serve God, which is a thing very pleasing to God. (The Dark Night of the Soul, i, 13. Peers, op. cit., vol. I, p. 393.)
The joy of this emptiness, this weird neutrality of spirit which leaves the soul detached from the things of the earth and not yet in possession of those of heaven, suddenly blossoms out into a pure paradise of liberty, of which the saint sings in his Spiritual Canticle: it is a solitude full of wild birds and strange trees, rocks, rivers, and desert islands, lions, and leaping does. These creatures are images of the joys of the spirit, aspects of interior solitude, fires that flash in the abyss of the pure heart whose loneliness becomes alive with the deep lightnings of God.
I have not travelled far enough in my prayer life to encounter such beauty. I had a discussion with one of our parish priests a while back about such mystical experience. He is a gentle and preternaturally happy man, always full of joy-- I suspected that he was a man of deep Christian mysticism-- and I asked him about mystical experiences.
He commented, as if he knew intimately, that even a momentary direct experience of God-- the quest of all mystics-- transforms you forever.