Merton & Eckhart: The Spark amidst Suffering & Nothingness

The experience of Nothingness can happen alongside the experience of the divine spark.  The Via Positiva and Negativa often dance side by side.  

A replica of ancient Greek masks for tragedy and comedy. Photo by Phil Shirley on Flickr

The darkness of the Via Negativa includes the darkness of grief and suffering, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the dark night.

Thomas Merton recognized this truth when he wrote from a hospital bed of “a flat impersonal song” and of “bleeding in a numbered bed/…all my veins run/with Christ and with the stars’ plasm.” 

I have no more sweet home
I doubt the bed here and the road there
And WKLO I most abhor
My head is rotten with the town’s song.

He experiences within himself “man’s enormous want”—

“Jet stream.” Photo by Miguel Alcântara on Unsplash
Until the want itself is gone
Nameless bloodless and alone
The Cross comes and Eckhart’s scandal
The Holy Supper and the precise wrong.
And the accurate little spark
In emptiness in the jet stream
A lost spark in Eckhart’s Castle….
Only the spark is now true
Dancing in the empty room
All around overhead
While the frail body of Christ
Sweats in a technical bed
I am Christ’s lost cell
His childhood and desert age
His descent into hell…

And the spark without identity
Circles the empty ceiling. 

Merton invokes Eckhart’s image of the “spark of the soul” where the Christ is born in all of us and where the Holy Spirit’s fire never goes out, to name what was left of him when he was stripped of so much in his hospital sojourn. 

His good friend, Sister Lentfoehr, calls this poem Merton’s “most poignant and anguished poem.”  A return to nothingness where only the spark remains. 

Eltz Castle, Wierschem, Germany. Photo by Tim Rebkavets on Unsplash.

Merton addresses “Eckhart’s castle” in this poem.  Eckhart talks about the soul as a “castle” as in the Biblical phrase, “the kingdom of God.”  Kingdoms in Eckhart’s day boasted castles and Eckhart invokes the castle as an archetype for the soul and as the deepest part of the soul where our divinization occurs. “God glows and burns with all his wealth and all his bliss” in this castle.   

Jesus enters into this castle “in his being rather than in his acting, giving graciously to the mind the divine and deiform being.  This regards the essence of being according to the words: ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’”

This castle, “free of all names and bare of all forms,” is the “place” that “the Father begets his only begotten Son as truly as in himself.”  Here “with this part of itself the soul is equal to God and nothing else.” The castle for Eckhart is the place/space where the Divine marries the human.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 74f.  

And Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, pp. 279f., 289.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Flame in dark room. Photo by Ankit Singh on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you see the Via Positiva and spark of the soul operating side by side at times with the Via Negativa?  Do you see that going on in the current attacks on democracy at home and abroad?  Do you feel God glowing with all her wealth and bliss in the depths of your soul still?

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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10 thoughts on “Merton & Eckhart: The Spark amidst Suffering & Nothingness”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today we are going to write about our Queries for Contemplation, which are: “Do you see the Via Positiva and spark of the soul operating side by side at times with the Via Negativa?” Yes, because I see certain positive elements in the Via Negativa. The Via Negativa is not just about pain and suffering, it is also about silence, solitude and darkness–the night of the soul, but not the “Dark Night of the Soul.” In these ways these elements could almost be positiva. Though the negative elements like pain, suffering, grief, or being abandoned, ignored, forgotten, or maligned. All of these negative experiences can be given a little positiva as well by looking up at the sky and seeing either the clouds or the stars and remind ourselves that we are a part of the cosmos. Viktor Frankl recalls the following incident riding on a boxcar crammed full of Jews on their way to Auschwitz. One would only think that the worst was ahead. And yet he says that when he looked out the slats on the boxcar he realized that the world out there was still good and beautiful.
    “Do you see that going on in the current attacks on democracy at home and abroad?” Yes, it does seem like the Via Positiva and spark of the soul are operating side by side with the Via Negativa. To me it seems as if politically we are so polarized that each side believes the other is evil while their side is good–and so we always end up turning a positive world into a negative one–and it is always for the sake of the rich and powerful.
    “Do you feel God glowing with all her wealth and bliss in the depths of your soul still?” Yes, She still blesses me in the depths of my soul–and it is She who ignites the spark that Eckhart speaks of.

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    Perhaps this divine spark which at its inception is “free of all names and bare of all forms,” one that energizes and animates all things, is in its pure form not only good, but NEUTRAL, as is any energy or power, like electrical energy, nuclear power, or fire itself. That is, though this spark is in itself good (an original blessing) by its Creator to be implemented toward the good for the purpose of enhancing life (Via Positiva), it can likewise be used to diminish life (Via Negativa) — same source and power, different aim and purpose. The same spark that ignites a campfire for warmth and cooking, can without care, also ignite a conflagration that destroys countless forested acres, destroying homes and creating homelessness in its wake. Though this pristine energy initially has no name or form, it is later given names (good or evil) according to its utilization among creatures who embody it, depending on the direction (good, ill, both or neither) they are inclined discharge or employ it. The same rifle bullet used to kill a marauding lion who feasts on a village population and its livestock, can also be discharged to massacre hundreds. Ditto political power, or ANY power, like sexual energy, for example, neutral as an entity, later defined and characterized by what ultimate aims and purposes it serves. Perhaps what are biblically named as persons, Christ and Satan, are but twinned polar expressions of the same energy field whose substance and consistency in pure form are the SAME (like fire), but whose only difference lies in the direction of its use (positive or negative, good or evil, light or darkness), each resulting in radically different aims, ends, and consequences. If God is truly One, and ultimately inclusive of all things, then by definition shouldn’t s/he, in magnitude and scope, also include, encompass, allow for, and explain darkness in all its forms? And if so, might there be any other viable way to explain same other than the above? Thought for food.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Joe, You write today, “Perhaps what are biblically named as persons, Christ and Satan, are but twinned polar expressions of the same energy field whose substance and consistency in pure form are the SAME…” I am sure glad we have the creative freedom to think in imaginative ways when it comes to the person of Christ. However it would have not set well with those who formed the Apostle’s Creed and especially those who formulated the Nicaean Creed! Christ and Satan, as two sides of the same coin, would have worked better with the mystic, William Blake, author of THE MARRRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL or the theology of Thomas J. J. Altizer…

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        Richard, you must be pretty confident that the apostle’s were free and clear of dualistic thinking along these and other lines. (And yourself?). A quick perusal of Paul’s critiques and rebukes on them recorded in Scripture reveals otherwise. They were mostly clueless to kingdom paradoxes, ‘mere babes in Christ feeding on milk and pablum. These were fishermen, not mystics, “simple, unlearned and ignorant men” says Scripture. They performed their duties admirably, and as martyrs (save for John), but had yet to attain unitive consciousness — the ability to hold two apparent contraries together in a single thought, reconciled. They didn’t need that ability given their charge by Christ. Says here, they likely wouldn’t even have understood what dualistic (binary thought) meant. Think about it Richard, if u can, or dare. Greater things are expected of us in this “ministry of reconciliation.”Says here, there can’t be two sparks, or two fires, only One fire used for either good or evil, or for both or neither. It’s the same regarding any type of power or energy, as ultimately all of it is of God, and falls within the divine domain, “without him was not anything made that was made.” I can either give u a cup of cold water from my sparkling clear cistern, or drown u in it, and/or invite u to employ all usages of that water in between. In each instance it’s the same water. Twinned polar expressions of the same reality, the value of each based solely on the intent, will, and aim of how it is utilized.

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    Yes! Spark of our Soul~Spark of the Divine~Loving Diverse Oneness~co-Creative Evolution~Loving Wisdom Presence within/among Us~Beloved Cosmic Christ Consciousness….

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      Jeanette Metler


      I just wanted to thank you for the book reference you made several days ago titled “The Joshua Channelings for the New Era.” I’m very careful when it comes to reading channelled books, however, having said this, I see how what has been shared in this particular book, resonates with not only what Mathew teaches about, but what others of the Cosmic Christ consciousness are giving voice to, during these times.


  4. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Via Negativa and Via Positiva, darkness and light, human and divine, masculine and feminine, misery and mercy, longing and belonging, good and evil… all these things that we perceive as opposites… dualistically opposed to one another… in reality are a necessary part of the whole. Where they meet… in the heart… is where the spark ignites the soul. Without one or the other, there would be only static atrophy… no movement. Each one enhances the meaning, purpose and value of the other. Letting go of JUDGEMENT and embracing ACCEPTANCE, about the reality of what simply is… helps us to spiritual discern how to stand centered and balanced within the tension of the AND, rather than resisting with the EITHER OR, trying to live in one without the other… which leads only to imbalance.

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    martina nicholson

    Thanks for this fabulous reflection on the spark in all of us, and Merton’s description and poem. We have been in need of more positive images, more depth, in seeing our interdependence as well as our own inner holy place. This is a beautiful help to connect those billions of sparks into the great light! It helps us wait in joyful hope!

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    I love Merton’s powerful and affirming words.
    “Who am I? A son of God…. My true self is the self that is spoken by God.”
    We are spoken into being by God and God remains within us. Good to remember, especially when things do not go as we hoped or as we planned. And what are we to do with that? I think–sit with it, sink into it, into that spark deep within in us. If I can sink into that spark of God that is me, then I can allow things to be as they are, not as I know they should be (lol), and I can glow with all God’s wealth and bliss in the depths of my still soul.

  7. Avatar

    Thank you for referring to God in today’s meditation as “her.” It made a smile leap to my face! It seems like a small thing but I count it as a step towards re-framing our common consciousness away from the patriarchal view of God. I know this is something Matthew cares about too. Thanks again!

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