Merton speaks out on the importance of the “act of Being.” In 1968, shortly before he died, he wrote:

Excerpt from the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in an incunabulum decorated with hand-painted miniatures: Aquinas converses with philosophers on a balcony. 1483, Wikimedia Commons

Afflicted as I am with an incurable case of metaphysics, I cannot see where the idea of Godhead as process is more dynamic than that of godhead as pure act. To one who has been exposed to scholastic ontology and has not recovered, it remains evident that the activity of becoming is considerably less alive and dynamic than the act of Being.

Metaphysics has been so disclaimed by modern philosophy that most people have forgotten the term altogether. But Merton claims to possess an “incurable” case of it.

What is metaphysics? It is a study of being. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his fine book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, calls upon both Western and Eastern Wisdom traditions to recover the experience of being. He criticizes much of contemporary religion for forgetting a God of being and settling for superficial projections.

Eckhart surely underwent what Merton calls the “immediate experience of Being” that is behind all being. He spoke of how “isness is God” and God is the “ground of all being,” and when we make contact with Divinity “our ground and God’s ground are the same.”

“Secret Of the Living Source.” Visionary image by Franzisko Hauser on Flickr.

Thomas Aquinas spoke of God as the “Source without a source” and as “Being itself”, and he beckoned us toward this realm of the being behind being where all holiness, energy and being resides.

The results of such a God awareness spill over into our action, as Merton noted:

This form of consciousness assumes a totally different kind of self-awareness from that of the Cartesian thinking-self which is its own justification and its own center. Here the individual is aware of himself as a self-to-be-dissolved in self-giving, in love, in ‘letting-go,’ in ecstasy, in God — there are many ways of phrasing it.

“Expulsion from Eden.” Bas relief tableau, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Orvieto. Image by Slices of Light on Flickr.

Merton described the religion that buttressed imperial consciousness in the time of Constantine, Augustine and Charlemagne as preaching a

…world radically evil and doomed to hell [and] ransomed from the devil by the Cross of Christ and is now simply marking time . . . until the judgment.

Does this sound familiar to preaching by today’s fundamentalists 1600 years later?

Merton recognized another tradition found

Like the sky through treetops: the vaulted ceiling of the 12th-century Chartres Cathedral. Photo by David Joyce on Flickr. the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Dante, a basically world-affirming and optimist view of man, of his world and his work, in the perspective of the Christian redemption.

[In the] flourishing years of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we see a harmonious synthesis of nature and grace, in which the created world itself is an epiphany of divine wisdom and love, and, redeemed in and by Christ, will return to God with all its beauty restored by the transforming power of grace, which reaches down to material creation through man and his work. Already in St. Thomas we find the groundwork for an optimistic Christian affirmation of natural and world values in the perspective of an eschatological love.  

Thus, creation spirituality.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp.238f., 247f.

Banner Image: “Ataraxia: a state of serene calmness.” Image by Patrick Verstappen on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you recognize the tension between a religion preaching a world “radically evil and doomed to hell” and one with a “world-affirming and optimist view of” humanity?  In contrasting these world views Merton is explicitly speaking of the distinction between the Fall/redemption and pessimistic tradition of Augustine (and others) in contrast to the “original blessing” of creation spirituality.  What follows from internalizing the two world views?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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4 thoughts on “Thomas Merton and the “Act of Being””

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    What follows from internalizing the two is tension, confusion and dualism. However, having experienced this, one learns to dig deep to seek something more than this. I must admit at times I felt like I was walking through a mine field… but thanks to some of the mystics and their prophetic voices that would not be silenced I began to find my way to eternal truths that man made religion tried to oppress and suppress. I am grateful to those brave souls whom trusted their own experience with the Divine presence and essence of wisdom and the eternal truths of the Divine love, compassion, mercy and grace of the goodness of God… all those souls whom dared to dig deeper knowing often that they were putting everything, even their lives on the line. I am also learning how linked love, compassion, and mercy is with nonviolent justice. It seems to me that no matter how dark the darkness getd, there remains a crack where the light gets in.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, I too am thankful for “the mystics and their prophetic voices that would not be silenced.” I am also thankful for “those brave souls who trusted their own experience with the Divine presence and essence of wisdom…” and “all those souls who dared to dig deeper,” knowing that they were putting everything on the line! And most blessed is learning how love, compassion, and mercy are liked with justice. Thank you for your comment, Jeanette!

  2. Avatar
    Albert Gentleman

    The challenge I have with being ‘One’ with the Ground of Being and/or ‘One’ with nature in particular, is that nature such as venomous snakes, spiders and even certain animals can kill me while I sit and meditate in our tropical rain forest somewhere.
    This is where I wonder how far this “One with Nature” can go.
    Any comments would be helpful.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Ah Albert… what you are asking is something that philosophers and spiritual teachers the world over have been dealing with since the beginning. It is called, “The Problem of Evil.” Here I write my own simplified version of Epicurus’s (341-270 BCE) original argument: If God is all-power, then God should be able to prevent us from suffering. And if God is all-loving, you would think God would not want us to suffer, and yet we all suffer to more or lesser degrees. This is the atheist’s greatest argument against the existence of God. And yet for the believer it is the ambiguity that we must live with–living with “the mystery of iniquity”… and may we perhaps be willing to say with Job, “Though he slave me, yet I will trust him.”

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