In 2015, preeminent theologian and bestselling author Matthew Fox was invited by the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, KY, to give a lecture to honor the centennial year of the legendary Catholic monk and writer’s birth. In preparing for the talk, Fox re-immersed himself in Merton’s work and revisited the correspondence he had with him while he was alive. As Fox read through Merton’s journals, poetry and religious writings, he realized that his exploration was inspiring far more than just one talk.
The result is A Way to God:Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality, a powerful book about Merton’s pioneering work in deep ecumenism and interfaith; about his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action; and about how the vision of thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced both Merton and Creation Spirituality, which Fox has long espoused and written about.
We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book.
In his 1967 letter to me, Merton wrote about how our shared vocation is to provide “the way to God,” since that is what people are looking for. Those people included, of course, himself and myself. I think the two of us were on a parallel pathway and that both of us were somewhat surprised at how much work needed to be done, historically and theologically, to undo certain entrenched ecclesial habits and regulations as well as frozen theological dogmas to render a viable path for today. I think we both underestimated the amount of resistance we would encounter along the way, including in ecclesial circles and in our orders. But nevertheless I think we both found a viable way to God for our times, and I call it (with indebtedness to our common mentor, Pere Chenu) the Creation Spirituality path. It includes a Cosmic Christ awareness and an original blessing consciousness and the Four Paths of the Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa, and Via Transformativa.
Merton did not discover this path overnight. His journey was a gradual one. The church, too, has been evolving. In many respects I recognize Thomas Merton as doing what many artists do — he carried the burdens of our culture and even our species on his shoulders and wrestled with them his whole life long. Of course, a special dimension to that burden was the religious inheritance of our culture. His religious conversion, like that of St. Augustine in the fourth century, followed a rather promiscuous lifestyle as a ribald young man. Both fathered illegitimate children and more or less abandoned them. Both were immature and pretty much driven by their lusts, and with Merton alcohol and intense partying played a significant role as well.
The conversion experience for both was a black-and-white experience, and Merton chose a very severe and highly disciplined order in which to start his life over at the age of twenty-six. There he found, some might say, the “missing mother” of his childhood in Mother Church and the “missing father” in his father abbot. Unlike Augustine, Merton became an orphan as a child. He tells us all this in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In great part Merton picked up on Augustine’s theology of dualism and regret and introspection that marks Fall/redemption religion.
But there were holes in that view of the world and of faith that Merton gradually, in what he himself called a “circle,” moved far beyond. In doing so he was in some fashion carrying the church and even society with him. He rejected dualism; he rejected antiwomen bias; he rejected anti-body and anti-nature ideology; he questioned original sin and its Augustinian connection to our sexuality. He rejected original sin insofar as it implied anthropocentrism as well as patriarchal pessimism. And he strongly rejected the “Christian empire” ideology that reflected Augustine’s worldview and writings and with it much of Christian history right up to today.
Merton wrote, “At present the Church is outgrowing what one might call the Carolingian suggestion. This is a world view which was rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of imperial Rome, the world of Constantine and of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the west and of Byzantium in the east.” He described the religion that buttressed that imperial consciousness 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.” This religious viewpoint sounds very familiar to the preaching we still hear today from fundamentalists of all stripes.
Merton recognized what Chenu taught: that there is another tradition “we find in 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.” He recognized that 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.” In contrasting these two religious worldviews Merton is explicitly speaking of the distinction between the Fall/redemption and pessimistic tradition of Augustine (and others) in contrast to the “original blessing” worldview of Creation Spirituality.
Merton evolved from teaching about Eckhart as a dangerous heretic in the mid-fifties to adopting him as a spiritual master through the intercession of Dr. Suzuki after 1959. He rejected the exclusivity of salvation through the Catholic Church alone, instead reaching out to other faith traditions, both East and West.
Though Merton lived a much shorter life than Augustine, he grew far more, and in his maturity, he corrected the dualisms of his monastic youth and learned what human love is. Augustine never did. Merton celebrated that love was at the heart of the Desert Father’s resistance to the empire. Merton also had the courage to leave the story of his love experience unedited for future generations to ponder. He found many allies to assist him, and Meister Eckhart was ally number one—along with Eastern philosophers and practitioners, poets, scientists, artists, novelists, photographers and more.
Merton’s journey, therefore, was from Fall/redemption Catholicism to Creation Spirituality, which regrounds religious consciousness not primarily in sin but in blessing and praise and gratitude for existence itself, for life, for being (the Via Positiva). Merton saw the cosmos as sacramental and wrote that “the created world itself is an epiphany of divine wisdom and love.” One Merton scholar commented on this passage by saying that “in his rejection of a negative view towards the material world, Merton certainly could be considered an advocate of what has come to be called ‘creation spirituality.’?”
Merton honoured the Via Negativa mostly around the experiences of deep solitude and silence and the richness of the nothingness experience and of just doing nothing. In this way he was confronting the American spirit of “can-do” and excessive activism and learned to live, in Eckhart’s words, “without a Why.” In doing this he was also learning to calm the reptilian brain, since that brain is calmed by lying in the sun—doing nothing—just being. Here, too, he was speaking to a profound need of our time, to develop the mindfulness that can combat the excessive reptilian brain power trips that so dominate a patriarchal and imperial culture in its last days.
Merton wrestled constantly with the Via Creativa as his vocation, and no place more than in his tornness between solitude and community. Of course, he lived the Via Creativa generously through his prodigious birthing of books and articles and conferences as well as in his photography, his cultivation of friendships, his immense volume of correspondence, his calligraphy, his music, his teaching and more.
And of course he rediscovered the Via Transformativa—indeed, he offered us a definition of compassion in his final talk that we can all live with and start practicing anew. His sensitivity to injustice—whether racial or ecological or economic or gender or political—was fine-tuned, and it came from a place of passion, not a place of cerebral consciousness or academic privilege and rational intellectualisms. He came to a full awareness and indeed experience of the Cosmic Christ, not the empire’s Christ. For instance, he wrote: “The world was created without man, but the new creation which is the true Kingdom of God is to be the work of God in and through man. It is to be the great, mysterious, theandric work of the Mystical Christ, the New Adam, in whom all men as ‘one Person’ or one ‘Son of God’ will transfigure the cosmos and offer it resplendent to the Father.”
Thus he moved far beyond the Christology of the Nicene Creed, fashioned as it was by Emperor Constantine himself, who called and abetted the Council of Nicaea upon being converted to Christianity in the fourth century. That creed has almost nothing of the teachings of Jesus in it—it is all about elevating Jesus to the exclusive status of the Christ. It ignores Jesus’s teaching—that Eckhart knew so well and that Merton repeated on numerous occasions—that we are all “other Christs.”
As for sexuality, so burning a topic for the dominant culture, here Merton underwent a great circle of a journey. From misusing women as a young man, to practicing celibacy via considerable ascetic tactics as a young monk, to rediscovering the intrinsic sexual (and blessing-filled) nature of all of reality, to breaking his vows while learning of human love for the first time as a responsible adult, to then returning to his monastic vows of celibacy—Merton travelled a path that many people undergo in some fashion. Here, too, he separated from St. Augustine who, after all, is the father of the anti-birth control hysteria in modern Catholicism (since he taught that all lovemaking is sinful and must be justified by having children).
Merton also overcame his patriarchal consciousness, turning late in his life (though he was only fifty-one years old) to a young, thirty-one-year-old feminist theologian, Rosemary Ruether, for advice and counsel. He also drew on many other women for their wisdom to nourish his intellectual and spiritual life, from Rachel Carson to Julian of Norwich, from Denise Levertov to Flannery O’Connor, from Sister Therese Lentfoehr to Mechtild of Magdeburg, from Dorothy Day to Valerie Delacorte, from Marguerite Porete to Teresa of Avila, and more. (Though, like most clerics of his generation, he rarely if ever had a woman teacher in his life.) The women’s movement was just emerging in his day, and he did not ignore it nor belittle it but reached out to it to learn from it while it was just getting off the ground.