Introduction to The Mystics

The glimpses of Christian mystics highlighted here are not all quoted in the book, My Dear Far-Nearness, but they do provide the reader with a rich historical, theological and spiritual background for the vision of the experiential Holy Trinity presented in the book.

We begin with Jesus of Nazareth who was a faithful Jew who trusted and lived in accordance with his sacred Hebrew tradition. His teachings are based on a fundamental assertion found in the first book of the Bible: human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (imago Dei) (Genesis 1:26). We assume that Jesus realized his identity as the image and likeness of the Divine, and that, as the Nicene Creed affirmed, Jesus Christ was both a human being (like all other humans), and fully divine, a location of divinity in a mortal person in linear time. My Dear Far-Nearness follows the arc of this ancient doctrine, making a case that Jesus’ consciousness was fully human and fully divine.

We have no direct access to Jesus’ human-divine awareness. But with diligent study of Jesus’ words and actions in scripture, we can begin to sketch the outlines of what St. Paul called “the mind of Christ” (1Cor. 2:16). My Dear Far-Nearness explores what might be meant by “Christ consciousness.” As we listen to Jesus’ behavior and his words in the Gospel we notice that his awareness was not enclosed within his ego identity. His personal awareness in linear, mortal time was open to the infinite and timeless Presence and Mystery of the Creator, and he could speak to Creator in an interpersonal way. He called his Creator by the endearing names of Father or Abba as when he prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they (Jesus’ friends and followers) also be in us” (John 17:21 ). Jesus displays a vast and inclusive understanding of our human situation. For Jesus, the Creator was somehow active in the world, within him, and also within his friends and followers. We might say that for Jesus, the Creator had no location. He experienced the Creator as a Presence that was both within him and others, and simultaneously transcending the cosmos. One can imagine that this vision of an infinite oneness in relationship is precisely, Paul’s “mind of Christ.” We trust that we have this mind, but we can’t simply believe this. Realizing the mind of Christ requires that we take up certain daily and moment-to-moment spiritual practices.

Jesus’ life and his remarkable way of living has inspired millions of people to join the Jesus movement known as Christianity. This movement began in the midst of much community agony and conflict which led to Jesus’ execution in his early 30’s. After Jesus was executed, his followers struggled with their religious identity. Would they continue in the Hebrew tradition, or, through their relationship with Jesus, were they experiencing something really new? In the 4th and 5th centuries Christian leaders gathered in several councils to seek agreement on God’s identity, Jesus’ identity, and what followers of Jesus believe. Their conclusion was that ultimate reality, the sacred Source of the cosmos, is a dance of unconditional Love (Greek: perichoresis) among three simultaneous centers of subjectivity: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. They called these three centers “Persons” (Greek: hypostases or prosōpons), each one distinct from the others, but also identical with them (Greek: homoousios, “of one substance”). The conclusions of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and councils about the nature of God have significant implications for the nature of human identity and consciousness: for Christians, to be made in the image and likeness of God means that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity as three subjective centers of our awareness. The Trinity is not a thing, and not outside of us as an object of our awareness. Therefore, the words “image” and “likeness” must be something subtle, something elusive and invisible within us.

Christian mystics are followers of Jesus who have hungered for a direct experience of God’s three divine portals of Presence. Mystics are ordinary people who have looked deeply into their lives and awareness, and discovered a Trinitarian dimension – that is, they experience God as a sacred dance, a perichoresis (a dance-around of Love) in which each “Person” of the Holy Trinity is a microcosm or fractal of the whole, the whole of their spiritual awareness. Mystics experience themselves as living within this dance, and the dance as living within them. The presence of this trinitarian God transcends us, but is also within our very consciousness. Through study of the Gospels, meditation, contemplation, prayer, and community participation, these holy women and men experienced a reformation and transformation of their awareness, one that mirrors Jesus’ personal consciousness. Our faith is that Jesus’ human-divine awareness is always circulating through the “Persons” of the Trinity who are within us and outside of us.

My Dear Far-Nearness explores each Person of the Holy Trinity (traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or First, Second, and Third Persons) as aspects of our awareness. In this section of the website, we offer glimpses of several mystics who, in their writings, tended to highlight the First, Second, or Third Persons. They could perceive the Holy Trinity that transcends them because they had inwardly rooted themselves in each aspect of awareness that corresponds to one of the Persons. This view of Christian life follows from the teachings of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Raimundo Panikkar who each surmised that what and who we see is what and who we are, and what and who we are is what and who we see. My Dear Far-Nearness explores these understandings by suggesting that we can only understand or glimpse the Holy Trinity from within our own trinitarian awareness. We can only glimpse the ineffable Mystery of God from within our own mystery; we can only experience the reality of Christ from the viewpoint of Christ within us (as in Paul’s exclamation, “Now, not I but Christ in me”; (Gal. 2:20); and we can only truly experience the Holy Spirit from the place of the Spirit within and among us. As the Dominican friar, Meister Eckhart once wrote, “The eyes through which I see God are the same eyes through which God sees me.” In a sense, God is relating to God within each of us. No separation–only the mystery of relationships that honor the other in trinitarian fashion.

The First Person is Creator, a Mystery beyond words and images who is both within and beyond us. Scientists glimpse this Mystery when they note that we live in a cosmos composed of at least two trillion galaxies in the known universe, that each galaxy includes several billion suns, and that 99.9% of the cosmos is interstellar dust, “dark” matter, and “dark” energy — none of which can be directly observed. Science will never achieve a final understanding of our ultimate cosmic situation. But First Person awareness can help us to discern and to live what is ultimately true by perceiving ourselves, others, and everything from the place of Mystery within us. We can only understand ourselves as mystery if we detach from our everyday personalities, our linear ego-selves. Our doorway to mystery is wide-open in every moment, as a form of “unknowing.” In each moment of shopping, talking, listening, hiking, swimming, making love and dying, we can be open to the possibility that we are becoming new in every Now. The Second Person is Jesus Christ, who embodies the Presence of Creator and is our ultimate I-Thou relationship. This relational/interpersonal dimension in our awareness lives within the divine-human experience is known as the love of Christ. The Third Person is the Spirit, who moves among us, inspiring us to co-create just, safe, and beloved communities. When we live from within the dynamism of these “Persons,” we become free, whole persons — no longer merely poor or rich, consumers, owners, sellers, soldiers, civilians, or whatever social roles we play. When we live the mind of Christ we are always navigating through the boundaries of awareness from mystery, to I-Thou love, and to Spirit-inspired actions for justice, truth, and goodness in all beings. It’s a never-ending, dynamic, circular flow of awareness.

The mystics we glimpse here (all whom have passed away) are those who have shared a desire to experience God directly, in silence, solitude, and community. They understood that God as a Holy Trinity is not only “out there,” somewhere beyond us, and not merely a doctrine to be believed, but also right here with us and within us. These mystics and others have inspired My Dear Far-Nearness.

First Person Mystics: Introduction

First Person mystics bow to ultimate reality, Creator, as a total mystery, a knowing called “unknowing.” Both Hebrew and Christian scripture tell us that the First Person experience can’t be nailed down with words, theories, theologies, stories, or images. The Creator is beyond sensual experience, and yet when mystics experience Creator, they will all use analogies and metaphors from the physical world for their experience. Most mystics will say that the only portal to the Creator is the time-portal of Now. We can’t remember, describe, or imagine Creator. Rather, it’s a direct experience of a sacred Nothing which can give one goosebumps, and glimpses of music and beauty. One receives a glimpse of holy majesty that transcends all physical reality.

This experience can only be experienced Now, always Now. Now is the portal to what the Gospels call “eternal life.” Every moment Now is a window into eternity. When, as a twenty-something, I converted from Lutheran to Roman Catholic, I learned to make the sign of the cross over my body. Now I understand this cross-making as one way to remind myself that I live at the crossroad of eternity and time, just as Jesus did. In the vertical dimension, we live in eternity, and in the horizontal dimension we live in linear time. The two dimensions of time cross in our hearts.

We see at least four considerations about how to interpret the words of Christian mystics, and what they can teach us today. Four caveats are necessary:

1) Here in 21st century, our culture is saturated with meanings and wisdom from the scientific, psychological and psychoanalytic traditions. Most contemplative or mystic Christians lived before the Enlightenment, before the modern scientific era, and before Freud. This is a challenge for us because we now know that in contrast with the teachings of pre-modern mystics, our experiences of God are understood to be interlaced with personal and relational experiences among family, friends, and colleagues. Today, in our post-psychological, technological and secular cultures, we have become increasingly skeptical of premodern mystics. For us, only actual embodied people and relationships with them are considered real interpersonal experiences. For most secular westerners, there are no gods and angels with whom we can communicate. Many of us think that the gods and angels of the past are actually, and only, intra-psychic experiences. Therefore, reading pre-modern mystics must include this historical, hermeneutic discipline of discernment.

2) Few of the “First Person” mystics we explore here share biographical facts about their lives. For many, we cannot know for sure how they actually lived their spiritual and religious lives.

3) Most of these mystics led pre-modern lives, usually in rural areas–without all the avenues of instantaneous digitized communication (social media, emails, Messages, and TV) that march across our screens every day. In our highly mobile Western culture boundary-crossings happen every day as we receive communications from other nations, cultures and religions. Our ease of quick communication and travel presents most American spiritual seekers with a diverse range of spiritual traditions and practices. The boundaries between religious faiths (and science) are often dissolving. Therefore, today it is not uncommon to meet “HinJews,” “BuJews,” Buddhist-Christians, Christian astrologers and astronomers, and Sufi-Christians. Like it or not, those of us who are drawn to the Christian contemplative tradition and read the mystics must always practice hermeneutics, “the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, as well as philosophical texts.” For example, if we are psychologically inclined, we need to interpret the words of mystics by imagining the psychological, cognitive, and affective sorts of experiences that the mystics experienced in their particular time-frame and culture. If we have experience in Buddhist practices such as mindfulness, we might find texts by mystics that could be interpreted as essentially Buddhist. But are they? For example, in My Dear Far-Nearness, Dr. Jonas tells us that his experience of Zen shunyata (Sanskrit: emptiness) opened his mind and heart to a contemplative meaning of Christ’s kénōsis (Greek: self-emptying), but he also asserts that these “emptying” experiences resonate, but are not exactly the same. In other words, when we read the mystics, we must realize that we are interpreting their words, from the time-platform of the 21st century.

4) One final note on hermeneutics: We inherit many centuries of philosophical, spiritual, sociological and psychological debate about whether or not all humans basically experience the world and reality in the same way. Those who say no–there is no common ground of knowing and awareness across cultures, religions and time-and-space–are identified as relativists. Those who say yes, there is a common ground of human experience are often called universalists. Relativists would say that Zen shunyata and Christian kenosis are completely different experiences, and universalists would say that they are essentially identical, as experienced by Japanese monks and Christian mystics. In My Dear Far-Nearness, Dr. Jonas argues the middle way, that experiences of shunyata and kenosis exhibit slightly different flavors or qualities of ultimate Mystery, but still share the common ground of “unknowing” in human consciousness, a ground that is always open Now. Dr. Jonas argues that the deepest experience of this present moment Now (as in the First “Person”) can reveal truths in our lives that span past, present, and future.

Many Christian mystics prior to the 21st century were particularly drawn to the First Person, traditionally called the Creator–the dimension of God that transcends the material world, our five senses, and our capacity for cognition and image-making. The First Person of the Holy Trinity is called by many names–the Father/Mother, Ultimate Source, My Dear Far-Nearness, the unfettered Mystery of God, Dear One, Beloved Other, etc. The names of God are considered sacred, but they themselves are not God. In the Hebrew tradition there are almost one hundred names for God. Each one brings to mind a certain quality of experience. For example, the name Ein Sof, suggests an ambience of limitless time and space. Many Christians are familiar with the English name, “Creator” as a place-holder for the Holy Mystery and Source of the cosmos. This Source “existed” before time-and-space and is eternal, everywhere, both beyond and within us, and can only be experienced directly in each present Now, without words. Jesus felt the Presence of Creator, so dearly and vividly, almost like an ultimate interpersonal relationship, and therefore named Creator his Abba (Aramaic: Daddy, Papa). As mentioned, the German theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984), was convinced that Jesus entertained no particular image of Abba. When we go spelunking into our depths as persons, we can detach from our limited, self-referencing identities and discover that we are a boundless mystery, one that resonates with the limitless Mystery of God, the First Person.

Some of the well-known Christian mystics who focused on the First Person include Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500 CE), Maximus the Confessor (580-662), St. Gregory the Great (540-604), St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), Marguerite Porete (d. 1310), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327/8), the author of The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century), St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), and Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

Let’s take a closer look at some of these First Person Mystics:

Gregory of Nyssa (330-395)

Each "Person" of the Trinity is a microcosm of all three, so it is possible to learn something of the whole by lingering in any one of the Persons. Dwelling in the First Person consciousness of Presence and Mystery brings deep insight into all experiences in Second and Third awareness. Still, even though Christians say...

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Evagrius Ponticus (345-399)

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, explored First Person mysteries when he researched the Patristic writers call “Desert Fathers” and people such as Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.) Evagrius a Christian monk had developed the apophatic (without images) theme in his focus on the practice of prayer. He was familiar with Gregory of Nyssa’s writings,...

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine shares his experience of the First Person of the Trinity as being beyond all human categories, and yet he unselfconsciously prays to his God as if the Uncreated, Unknown were his Divine Lover. He prays to God, “everywhere You are present in your entirety, and no single thing can contain...

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Pseudo-Dionysius (500 C.E.)

Pseudo-Dionysius is one of the most important ancient teachers of contemplation and is often honored in the Orthodox tradition. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote two groundbreaking books about the unknowable Creator: The Divine Names and The Celestial Hierarchy. Pseudo-Dionysius understood scripture to be a gateway into a deeper kind of knowledge that he called a holy “dazzling darkness.”...

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Maximus the Confessor (580-662)

Another mystical theologian of the First Person Unknowing path was Maximus the Confessor who is known as the father of Byzantine theology. Maximus had studied the Cappadocians, Evagrius, Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius. He spoke of the danger of “passions” by which he meant any inordinate attachment or aversion to things, thoughts or experiences. Again, close attention...

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St. Bonaventure (1217-1274)

St. Bonaventure was an Italian priest who was declared a saint and a doctor of the church. Bonaventure’s apophatic vision was heavily influenced by Plotinus, St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. The goal of the spiritual life is to surrender into the One, the primary being, first, eternal, utterly simple, most actual and most perfect. For Bonaventure,...

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Eckhart (1260-1327/8, A.D.)

Meister (teacher) Eckhart is probably the most famous of medieval contemplatives. He was a Dominican friar, preacher, spiritual director and a daring, colorful writer who played with the paradoxes of the spiritual journey. He is best known for his sermons in Latin and German, all of which seem to break new ground, even though Eckhart...

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Marguerite Porete (d. 1310 A.D.)

The Creator (First Person) cannot be experienced or known by words that are fixed to the material world. The Creator can be known only by our intuitive and heart-centered ways of knowing, a mystical path often called the way of unknowing. One of the first women to write of this spiritual journey was Marguerite Porete,...

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The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.)

The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous English author, is a classic text of contemplative prayer. The author presents a way of contemplation that draws us to the First Person of the Trinity, who transcends thought, rituals, memories, images, stories, and reason. The author of The Cloud, probably a cloistered monk, is clear that...

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St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

St. John of the Cross was a spiritual genius, an exacting theologian, a compassionate and wise spiritual director and a superb poet. His best known works include The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. They are all commentaries on his 3 greatest poems:...

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

In the practices of the First Person, Creator, Merton saw profound parallels with the Zen Buddhist meditation. In the 1950s Merton corresponded with the Japanese Zen scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who introduced Zen Buddhism to the West. In several of Merton’s books, including Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Contemplative Prayer, Mystics and Zen...

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Second Person Mystics: Introduction

Christian mystics trust in a personal Divinity who manifests in all interpersonal relationships. These mystics experience the divine as a reality that features subjectivity, consciousness, and intentionality. For them, the divine Unknown and Uncaused Source of everything became embodied in Jesus Christ. Trusting in Christ's eternal Presence, contemplative Christians enter an active I-Thou relationship with the transcendent and personal reality we call God. We come to feel deeply known and understood and we learn to surrender our self-centered ego preoccupations. Mystics report that as this surrender deepens, we become illumined with the eternal and universal qualities of Christ. In Jesus Christ, the First Person becomes accessible in our interpersonal relationships because there is an inter-Personal dimension in God.

Some of the well-known Christian mystics who focused on the Second Person include St. Augustine (354-430), St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), and Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Let’s take a closer look at some of these Second Person Mystics:

St. Augustine (354-429)

The Nicean and Chalcedon Counsels (4th and 5th centuries) established the view and faith that Jesus of Nazareth is a fully human person, but he is also the embodiment of the eternal Word (Greek: Logos) in history and on earth. As a person, Jesus is subject to all the time and space limitations of existence,...

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Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167)

Aelred was a Cistercian monk who lived in Yorkshire, England, traveled to Rome, studied with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and wrote a lovely book called Spiritual Friendship. Aelred highlights the Gospel's fundamental message, that God is Love (capitalized to indicate that this limitless Love of God is the ultimate source of all instances of love)....

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St. Francis of Assisi (1430–1516)

St. Francis, often called the patron saint of ecology, founded the creation-centered Franciscan Order. He is known for having received the stigmata near the end of his life – literal wounds in the palms of his hands that symbolize and commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. St. Francis focused on the historical, embodied Second Person of...

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Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun and a brilliant spiritual director, writer and reformer who lived in Spain in the 16th century. St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross founded the Discalced Carmelites, an order that sought to reform the Carmelites by deepening their contemplative practice. Her autobiography and her book, Interior Castle,...

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Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest from Holland whose bishop assigned him the parish of the whole world. While living in the U.S. and Canada for most of his adult life, Henri served as a pastoral counselor, a spiritual director, a university professor, and a chaplain to communities for the handicapped. A sought-after preacher...

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Third Person Mystics: Introduction

The Third Person of the Holy Trinity – the Holy Spirit – is named Ruach in the Hebrew tradition and Hagios Pneuma by Orthodox Greek Christians. For Christian mystics, the Spirit is the ever fresh, living presence of God who stirs within us and who gathers us into community. The Holy Spirit’s presence within and among us is recognized by what St. Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In Christian scripture, the paradigmatic appearance of the Holy Spirit occurs in the Book of Acts (2:1-13).

Some of the well-known Christian mystics who focused on the Third Person include the Cappadocians (4th century), John Scotus Eriugena (810-877), Symeon the Theologian (949-1022), William of St. Thierry (1085-1148), Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), John Ruusbroec (1293-1381), Julian of Norwich (1342-1423), and Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

Let’s take a closer look at some of these Third Person Mystics:

The Cappadocians (4th century)

The Cappadocian Fathers were three influential 4th century preachers and writers who helped to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity and who were particularly influential in contributing to our understanding of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus lived in what is now...

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John Scottus Eriugena (810-877 CE)

Four hundred years after Pseudo Dionysius the role of the Holy Spirit was explored from yet other interesting dimensions by the Irish scholar and mystic John Scottus Eriugena. Eriugena studied the works of the Cappadocians, Pseudo-Dionysius and his own Irish forebears such as St. Patrick (390-460) and St. Columbanus (543-615; founder of Iona). Eriugena felt...

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Two Orthodox Masters: Symeon the Theologian (C.E. 949-1022, CE), Gregory Palamas (1296-1359, CE)

Two mystical theologians who are honored by both the Latin and Orthodox churches are the Greek abbot Symeon the Theologian (C.E. 949-1022), and Gregory Palamas (C.E. 1296-1359). Both writers fall within the Eastern tradition that emphasizes the possibility of deification, divinization, and a complete communion with God. The well-known formula to which both Symeon and...

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William of St. Thierry (1085-1148, CE)

William of St. Thierry, once abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Thierry in France, was a student and friend of the great Cistercian St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). William meditated deeply on the writings of St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Scottus Eriugena. Following the latter’s work William sculpted...

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John Ruusbroec (1293-1381)

John Ruusbroec was a Flemish priest and mystic. His great work, The Spiritual Espousals, is divided into three books that integrate the contemplative and active aspects of our lives. Living in a monastic environment, Ruusbroec loved solitude, and would often walk slowly onto the grounds of the cloister and into the surrounding forest, meditating and...

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Julian of Norwich (1342-1423)

Julian of Norwich was an English visionary, an extraordinarily brave and creative woman, a spiritual counselor, and author who lived mostly in solitude. She was an anchoress, a holy woman associated with and supported by a parsonage. Julian lived alone in a small room in Conisford near the church of St. Julian and St. Edward,...

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Finally, we consider Thomas Merton’s view of the Holy Spirit and his unique integration of Christian and Zen language for the Third Person of the Trinity. Merton was a Trappist monk who lived at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. He wrote and published his best-selling autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain in 1948--the mountain being the Mountain of...

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