Meditations on Nothingness Experiences, continued

In recent DMs, we meditated on the rendering of nothingness that humans are capable of such as Hiroshima and climate change and the once Supreme Court. 

Worse than pre-Roe: The leaked Dobbs decision would both criminalize and undermine the health of women, particularly women of color, experts told Joy Reid in March 2022. MSNBC

There are many ways in which we taste Nothingness and we will consider some of them here: 

Metaphysical nothingness of non-being or of our pre-existence.

Psychological nothingness of feeling oneself to be a nobody or forgotten or utterly ignored.

Political nothingness of being subjected to less than human circumstances by decisions of the powerful decision makers.

Being a woman in a patriarchal world.

Being a person of color in a world where white supremacy reigns.

Being a gay or trans person in a world of homophobia and heterosexism.

David moved to Austin, Texas, to work in construction. With his ID lost on the bus, and his backpack, with everything he owned, stolen, he survives on the street by recycling and panhandling. Invisible People

Being poor or homeless when possessions are the test of a human being.

Sometimes “Nothingness” names the darkness of the Via Negativa as the darkness of loss, grief and suffering, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the dark night.

When Thomas Merton was sick in the hospital, he wrote from his 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”—

One spark. Detail of photo by Zoe Ra 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.

It is significant that he invokes one of Eckhart’s favorite images, that 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.  Sister Lentfoehr calls this poem Merton’s “most poignant and anguished poem.”  A return to nothingness where only the spark remains.*


*See Sister Therese Lentfoehr, Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton (NY: New Directions, 1979), pp. 68f.

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

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

Banner Image: Art installation inspired by Métis artist Jaime Black, at Seaforth Peace Park, Vancouver, 10/3/16, National Day for Vigils for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo by Edna Winti, #REDressProject. Wikimedia Commons.

Queries for Contemplation

Which of the instances of Nothingness have you encountered personally or in society?  How does Merton’s “most anguished poem” speak to you and your experience of the Via Negativa?


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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9 thoughts on “Meditations on Nothingness Experiences, continued”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, You say today that: “There are many ways in which we taste Nothingness,” and you give a number of examples, from: “Metaphysical nothingness of non-being or of our pre-existence,” to being poor or homeless. But then you say that “sometimes “Nothingness” names the darkness of the Via Negativa as the darkness of loss, grief and suffering, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the dark night.” For our Queries for Contemplation the first asks : “Which of the instances of Nothingness have you encountered personally or in society?” I have felt as if I were nothing on numerous occasions… Then you ask us: “How does Merton’s “most anguished poem” speak to you and your experience of the Via Negativa?” Being made to feel as if I am nothing as a child, and the words of Merton’s poem that you have shared with us paints a picture of how I felt in my nothingness: “I am Christ’s lost cell / His childhood and desert age / His descent into hell… / And the spark without identity /Circles the empty ceiling.”

    1. Avatar

      The degree, Richard, to which we experience our eternal identity, value, and everything-ness is in direct proportion to the cumulative indignities we suffer that make us feel our helpless worldly nothingness (irrelevancy). You’ve lived it. Recall, Merton’s low-point experience of anguishing irrelevancy (in hospital) was also the same place he experienced his ecstatic high-point, falling in love with the nurse who tended to him. Such indignities are designed mainly to bless and change (transition) us, not our circumstances. Not an easy lesson for social activists to embrace.

  2. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    ATTENTION: After a planning meeting today among the team that produce the Daily Meditations; including Matthew Fox, it was decided to limit comments to just “180 words.” The team feels that the comments have become more than comments, and many more like mini-essays. So, the new guidelines for the comments will be limited to just 180 words (your laptop or device can probably do a word count for you). If it exceeds 180 words it will be removed from the comment section. You will however be able to resubmit your comment after you pare it down. Also, your comments must be limited to responding to the “Queries for Contemplation” for the day. I hope this will not discourage you from writing in. We want your comments and feedback–just shorter and more focused on the questions for the day. Matthew will be making some changes himself, and we’re in the process of reassessing where we are after nearly three years. Remember the team works 365 days a year to bring this to you… Oh, and this is about the length your comments should be!

  3. Avatar

    The homeless man in Austin (David) who “lost his identity” on the bus, and Merton, who save for his awareness of the holy spark with him, experienced his earthly irrelevancy in a “numbered hospital bed,” encapsulate the whole inner meaning of our exile here on earth. Both “lost” their earthly identity in different ways, each while suffering one of life’s many indignities in exiled “tansit,” whose Latin root means to “cross over, pass over, or pass away.” Meaning, each experienced a death (loss) of sorts, one challenging them to reconcile the nothingness (irrelevancy) of their earth-bound existence with the holy spark of their eternal value (everything-ness). That self-same experience left David adrift in the sea of his earthbound nothingness, but found Merton reduced (returning) to his eternal identity, albeit kicking and screaming, where, in the end “only the spark remains.” In suffering life’s many indignities and irrelevancies while in transit in this transitory world of transitions, do you cross over into the only thing that in the end matters (holy spark identity), or wander adrift and homeless in earthbound despair?

  4. Avatar

    I’m presently reading Timothy Beal’s “When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene” (2022).
    Review: “Timothy Beal’s encouragement for us to accept our death as a species, through rereadings of biblical texts warped by modern capitalism, invites a deeper understanding of ecological interdependence and the instructive power of grief. This deeply spiritual text is much needed.” — Emily Raboteau

  5. Avatar

    I feel like my last comment was censored. It was just over 180 words and it had to do with the very serious ultimate Nothingness of the collapse of our global industrial civilization, our Mother Earth planet, and most of our human species. In case I don’t have a chance to pare it down further, I recommended a book I’m presently reading — “When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene” (2022) by Timothy Beal.
    Review: “Timothy Beal’s encouragement for us to accept our death as a species, through rereadings of biblical texts warped by modern capitalism, invites a deeper understanding of ecological interdependence and the instructive power of grief. This deeply spiritual text is much needed.”
    ?❤️?

    1. Avatar

      Sounds like the frustrated carpenter who blames his tools, Damian, and not himself. Everyone’s commentary tools are now 180 words. Use them all if you must, and no more. In winter, the snow in my yard starts melting at 33 degrees. Should I complain to the weatherman that, because I love snow, and prefer it melt instead starting at 38 in my yard, I highly doubt my petition would be heard. Even worse if I cried “unfair.”

  6. Avatar

    With Robert Frost (and many others), I am one acquainted with the night. As a visibly disabled girl and woman, I have experienced multiple forms of nothingness and been “othered” in numerous ways, as well as experiencing serious depression/dark nights of the soul. All of which have conspired to make me compassionate for all of us who are the “least of these” and to contribute in every possible way to helping.

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