You realize that prayer takes us beyond the law. When you are praying you are, in a certain sense, an outlaw. There is no law between the heart and God. (Thomas Merton)
I have been mulling over this quote I discovered a several days ago. It bothers me. It is from a writer and spiritual sojourner that has illuminated some of the landscape for me. It bothers me not in a potential deep paradigm shift kind of bothering, but as a “why did he say it that way” kind of bothering. Bothering can be good. It is a form of grace that helps open us up to see things in a new way if we let it.
The problem stems from the use of the word law. It is loaded with varied connotations within Christianity.
If Merton meant “the law” as a bunch of rules, rituals, and regulations that formed a system for morality, then his quote makes sense. God and prayer and love itself are above a bunch of rules. Following a set of rules in hope of getting into heaven and avoiding hell is not love. Religion and faith is not about following rules; it is about love, about conforming oneself to be like Jesus. My suspicion is this is what Merton was implying.
BUT, if Merton meant “the law” as in the Torah, then this contradicts Scripture and good Christology. The Torah, the Law, is not simply a set of rules (i.e. 10 Commandments, etc.) to live your life. In Judaism, the law is a gift from God to the Jewish people. It is their connection, their way to God. The law is part of God.
Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of the law. In other words, he implied that he was the embodiment (incarnation) of the law—He is the Torah. This is an ontological statement about the nature of Jesus. (This is also one of the primary reasons why many Jews rejected Jesus. It was not so much that he was breaking some of the rules; they could not accept him being the law.)
Christians believe that the only way to God is Jesus, and thus prayer (and everything) is “through Him, with Him and in Him”. And thus the contradiction in Merton’s quote: If prayer is through Jesus and the law (the Torah) is part of what/who Jesus is, then prayer cannot be beyond the law. To be an outlaw would be outside of Jesus and thus outside the way to God. (This of course is also an impossibility because nothing can be outside of God.)
Merton knew that the word law was loaded with connotations. Why did he use it? Did he use it for the effect of cultural coolness of being an outlaw? Maybe. Did he use it as a shorthand way to describe rules, rituals, or methods and such that may be used with prayer? Maybe. Or did he mean it as a comment on the rules used within morality and religion? Maybe. I don’t know. I am going to have to look up the source of the quote in Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals, and Letters. Quotes out of context can be misinterpreted.
As I said above, I suspect that Merton meant it in the first case, but I am not certain. The longer I look at it, the quote looks more like the second case. This seems incongruent with what I know of Merton. He could have misspoke. He was, after all, human and quite capable of error too. Regardless of why he used the word law, it is not a very good quote. It sounds like a sound bite or a flashy slogan designed to catch attention instead of pointing to truth.
Either way, ignoring the words law and outlaw, Merton is correct. There is no thing between the heart and God.