“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness”

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.

Thomas Merton

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31 Responses to “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I was asked on Facebook to explain this passage. Here is my reply (or more accurately, an attempt at a reply):

    We are creatures freely brought into being from by God from out of nothing. We do not exist of ourselves. We do not possess our existence; it is freely bestowed upon us at every moment. At the core of our being, therefore, we are nothing. At that infinite point of ontological poverty and nothingness, there is God in all of his glory and love. Or as St Augustine put it, God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. This is the mystery of what it means to be a creature.

    How do you interpret the Merton passage?

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    • robertowenkelly says:

      Fr Aidan, would you say that “nothing” in the paragraph is interchangeable with “God”? As in, “At the core of our being, therefore, we are _____.”

      I wonder what Merton would say…

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        That’s an interesting suggestion, Robert, and was my first thought, too. I immediately thought of Dionysius Areopagite, as well as this quote from Eriugena:

        We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of understood—is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity.

        I wonder if Merton read either writer.

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        • robertowenkelly says:

          Wonderful. This had been my conclusion as well, but Eriugena’s “by excellence and not by privation” is new to me. Also, I’ve never heard a Christian theologian state it so frankly.

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          • St. Athanasius and St. Augustine both have a theology of this call from non-being in Romans 4:17 (“the God in whom [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”). See Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, and David Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification.

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          • robertowenkelly says:

            Thanks, Jonathan. A call of creation into existence from “nothing,” yes, that’s pretty standard orthodoxy. But equating that “nothing” with God himself—do you see that in Athanasius and Augustine? I would be interested to see that!

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  2. Tom says:

    Side note for Jonathan…

    The truth Merton expresses is what makes eternal conscious torment impossible. It doesn’t matter what the precise nature of the will’s exercise may be, it cannot be that we are capable of irrevocably severing ourselves from the reach of those possibilities which constitute the very ground of our existence. We are asymmetri­cally related to that ground which is both origin and end and so not possibly “at our disposal” (as Merton says). It precedes every exercise and scope of dispositive liberty we may possess. We do not call the possibility of union with God into being as ourselves. We cannot foreclose upon it.

    Such a beautiful passage. I’m only sorry that Merton himself (I believe) did not realize the implications. I think he was a believer in eternal conscious torment. But we all perceive some measure of truths whose fuller implications escape us.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, see the quotation of Merton on Julian of Norwich which is posted here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/05/10/all-shall-be-well-but-how-well-is-hell/

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    • This is interesting. I’d consider Merton my emotional rock in Christian life. My late mother and grandmother both commended him to me, and while I’ve studied many better theologians since, I don’t think he’s ever stopped being my reason for Catholicism. In any case, I very much doubt that either he or Julian interpreted “all manner of things shall be well” as excluding eternal conscious torment.

      Merton on hell:
      “My opinion is that it is a very extraordinary thing for anyone to be upset by such a topic. Why should anyone be shattered by the though of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God’s. In damning them He is only ratifying their own decision–a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice. Nor will He ever hold our weakness alone responsible for our damnation. Our weakness should not terrify us: it is the source of our strength. Libenter gloriabor in infirmitatibus meis ut inhabitet in me virtus Christi. Power is made perfect in infirmity, and our very helplessness is all the more potent a claim on that Divine Mercy Who calls to Himself the poor, the little ones, the heavily burdened.” The Seven Storey Mountain

      “Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves. They are all thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from with a huge, impotent hatred. And the reason why they want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them: and all recognize in one another what they detest in themselves, selfishness and impotence, agony, terror and despair.” New Seeds of Contemplation

      Likewise Julian:
      “And in this sight I marvelled greatly and beheld our Faith, marvelling thus: Our Faith is grounded in God’s word, and it belongeth to our Faith that we believe that God’s word shall be saved in all things; and one point of our Faith is that many creatures shall be condemned: as angels that fell out of Heaven for pride, which be now fiends; and man in earth that dieth out of the Faith of Holy Church: that is to say, they that be heathen men; and also man that hath received christendom and liveth unchristian life and so dieth out of charity: all these shall be condemned to hell without end, as Holy Church teacheth me to believe. And all this [so] standing, methought it was impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord shewed in the same time.”

      Both localize the mystery in the inexpressible and incomprehensible unity of all humanity, which we cannot understand short of the beatific vision. But what I have always thought fascinating about Merton is that he does not, as is the modern tendency, localize Hell in the person’s absolute individuality but rather the conflict between that individuality and community. In other words, the torture of Hell is precisely that not only God but *community* is inescapable; it is not only God Himself but the will of God that all things will be, and are, well in the pleroma of humanity that is torturous.

      That is precisely why the decision for self in Hell can be infinite. Because of the prefect union of all things in God, it is with respect to that same spark of infinity and nothing that is at the core. It is the ultimate decision, the decision-for-all, and the fact that it is misdirected does nothing to reduce its power.

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      • Tom says:

        (Jonathan: Both [Merton and Julian] localize the mystery in the inexpressible and incomprehensible unity of all humanity, which we cannot understand short of the beatific vision… That is precisely why the decision for self in Hell can be infinite. Because of the prefect union of all things in God, it is with respect to that same spark of infinity and nothing that is at the core. It is the ultimate decision, the decision-for-all, and the fact that it is misdirected does nothing to reduce its power.)

        ———————–

        I’m glad you made it over here. I wasn’t sure you’d find my post addressed to you here in the corner!

        I want to assure you that I really do see what it is you’re trying to say in attempting to ground the infinite or absolute nature of Hell in the infinity or absoluteness of our rejection of God deriving from our unity in that infinite divine act which defines (and makes transcendently present) both our origin and end at the center and core of our being.

        But this is a mere sophistry with nothing substantial to support it, and upon closer scrutiny it can be seen as violating other truths at the center of things.

        You’re essentially arguing (as one friend of mine describes it), that rejection of the Absolute warrants an absolute consequence. But there’s a missing mediating proposition needed to make this true, which is that an absolute consequence in this case requires an ‘absolute rejection’.

        I know you think you’ve secured this simply by pointing out that that the God one might reject is in fact the Absolute and Infinite One, and that our being and very capacities for choice relative to God are transcendently grounded in him. You suppose final creaturely rejection of God becomes an absolute rejection because of the absolute nature of the One being rejected and the immediacy and intimacy and unity of the creature’s own being and grounding in this One.

        But you’ve raced to a conclusion without taking account of other truths. The absoluteness of God does not transfer to creaturely choices about God simply because God is the object of our rejection, or because our will to choose is transcendently sustained in its exercise by an origin and end that is Absolute. You must ground the proportionate nature of punishment or consequence in the capacities and knowledge and understanding of the chooser (as well, at least). There is a proportionate relationship between ‘mens rea’ and ‘actus reus’. It’s why we recognize the appropriateness of “few stripes vs many stripes” and other moral judgments regarding the just nature of choices vis-à-vis their consequence.

        One would have to construe the rejection itself as ‘absolute’ or ‘infinite’ in its creaturely aspects, namely, intention. And to get that in a creaturely choice, the capacities and knowledge informing the choice would have to be absolute or infinite. That is, one would have to reject God with an understanding of God is that’s as absolute and complete as the God being rejected. Our rejection doesn’t simply become absolute/infinite because God is the one we’re rejecting. We must reject with an equally absolute understanding, infinite in its perception of the truth, suffering no shadow or weakness of the understanding. Only when the mind’s perception is equal to the God being rejected can one’s rejection be said to be ‘absolute’ in its intention, without any measure of ignorance, weakness, or finitude casting the slightest shadow across the horizon.

        But Jonathan, you cannot believe we are capable of such a choice. Finite creatures can do nothing ‘absolutely’. We can do things ‘sufficiently’ to habituate ourselves, given our natures relative to God as our origin and end, yes. Created wills can, through proper use, become irrevocably habituated in the Good as such. And Gregory’s genius insight regarding ‘epektasis’ can account for how this habituation can be itself finite (as it can only be as ‘created’) but nevertheless continue to progress and expand through participation in the infinite God. That can be made sense of because the infinite always exceeds circumscription by finite minds and wills (even those perfected through glorification). What cannot be made sense of is grounding the infinity or absoluteness of Hell in a proportionately absoluteness of creaturely capacities and knowledge (which would have to be the case). Not possible.

        I believed in an eternal hell for 40 years. Stood my ground defending it passionately with the same arguments you’re making. So I get what you’re saying from the inside. I also know that, truth be told, it’s not the arguments that convince you. It’s other concerns (ecclesial, emotional, vocational, etc.), and realizing that can be hell in itself. Sometimes you have to go through hell to see that it can’t possibly be infinite.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, I would also add a Talbotian point: namely, that no one can rationally reject the One who wills the very good and happiness that we will for ourselves. This is why the Luciferian rejection of God as presented by Milton (“All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my Good”) is incoherent. No one can rationally say this, except under the conditions of ignorance, blindness, or enslavement to disordered desire. It only sounds sounds rationally possible because we have all made sinful choices like this under the finite conditions given us in our fallenness, yet even still such choices reveal that we still have not truly understood the coincidence of God’s desire for our happiness and our desire for our happiness. Hence our present willingness to sacrifice the greater Good for lesser or apparent goods. Or to put the matter differently, we still believe that we may possess real happiness apart from God, which is the ultimate delusion. Yet ultimately, this delusion will and must be shattered upon the implacable reality of the sufferings of Gehenna, as so powerfully stated by George MacDonald in “The Consuming Fire” and “The Last Farthing.” One way or another, God will confront us in the deep center of our souls–that “point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth,” i.e., the ineffable God himself–and reveal the inescapable truth of our existence. Here is the secret hope that underlies all of Dame Julian’s visions (“all shall be well”), which she herself could not reconcile with the traditional teaching of the Church.

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          • Tom says:

            Fr Al: I would also add a Talbotian point: namely, that no one can rationally reject the One who wills the very good and happiness that we will for ourselves. This is why the Luciferian rejection of God as presented by Milton (“All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my Good”) is incoherent… One way or another, God will confront us in the deep center of our souls–that “point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth,” i.e., the ineffable God himself–and reveal the inescapable truth of our existence. Here is the secret hope that underlies all of Dame Julian’s visions (“all shall be well”), which she herself could not reconcile with the traditional teaching of the Church.

            Tom: Exactly! All of it. An ‘absolute rejection’ of the Absolute God would have to be perfectly rational (fully informed, free from all ignorance and illusion, etc). One is only justly responsible for rejecting what one ‘understands’ or could have understood but chose to ignore. To justly suffer an absolute punishment, one would have to fully understand what one is rejecting, and that is quite impossible when it comes to God.

            I think Jonathan is afraid (as I was for years) that all this entails a denial of the kind of agency he (and I) want to say must define the will’s movement toward and into union with God. I don’t think such agency is undermined in the least, but I can appreciate how Jonathan and others might suppose it is. And, frankly, it may be that some universalists really do end up admitting created agency is effectively determined by God. That’s a pity, but I don’t suppose God needs to (or even could possibly) resort to such means. Surrender to God and movement toward him must, I think, be an act of ‘trust’. And that means we possess enough knowledge to make trust a ‘rational’ act, but we are also ignorant of enough to make our surrender a genuine act of ‘trust’.

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          • Tom says:

            Merton: …that “point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth.”

            I love what Merton sees here. This “point” is antecedent (I hope Jonathan is listening), a-n-t-e-c-e-d-e-n-t to every exercise of the will. It is the will’s origin and ground. It cannot also lie within our power to determine it in any way, and THAT is why freely and rationally willing ourselves into an irrevocable orientation toward evil, shut off absolutely from God, is quite impossible.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Tom – yes! agency but also the related concept of freedom. If freedom is identified with a persisting, never-ending gnomic deliberation, such that freedom means always being able to “will otherwise”, then Hell indeed can be locked from the inside.

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          • JB says:

            Fr. Al: “God will confront us in the deep center of our souls–that “point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth,” i.e., the ineffable God himself–and reveal the inescapable truth of our existence”

            The mystical revelation is yet another truth that makes eternal torment categorically impossible. This “point of nothingness” that is wholly gifted to us is our true self…and yet it also never ceases in being God. Such is the mystery and wonder of being a creature gifted with the uncreated light.

            Eternal torment requires—in addition to a hideous god of pure evil— a god that is an absolute other. But God lives at the “deep center of our souls” and as such, God is no absolute other. That innermost point of nothingness at your core is an eye. And that eye is you and that eye is God.

            “My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” — Meister Eckhart

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            One more thought: Jonathan, you have not made explicit what I suspect underlies your understanding of an absolute rejection of God–namely, the believed dogmatic infallibility of eternal perdition, which includes the assertion that our fundamental orientation to God is set at the moment of death. In the Latin Church this was worked out in the notion of mortal sin and the finality of the particular judgment. Once this dogma is embraced, then something along the lines of an absolute and irreversible rejection of God must be upheld as the justification for the dogma. It is the dogma that comes first and the formulation of agency and freedom immediately follows. Needless to say there is no reason for non-Catholic to entertain your formulation of freedom and absolute rejection of God, and there are plenty of reasons not to accept it. These reasons have been articulated by a variety of theologians and philosophers, including Sergius Bulgakov, Tom Talbott, and David Bentley Hart. But their arguments cannot be seriously considered by Catholics without rejecting the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

            I will also concede that those who are convinced by the logic of absolute love will formulate their own formulations of freedom that support, or at least leave open the possibility, of universal salvation. That is how it must be. I seriously doubt anyone has come to affirm the greater hope because they were first convinced by a philosophical argument–not even DBH, appearances to the contrary. The value of these reformulations of freedom is that they remove an obstacle to belief in apokatastasis, but they do not provide the evangelical faith that is needed to take that final step. One must first believe, or want to believe, that the God of love will never abandon his creatures made in his image but will find a way to restore them to himself. That God might condemn them to eternal hell was deemed unworthy of him. This was certainly true of the great Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian. each of whom emphatically affirmed synergistic free will.

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        • Thanks for the explanation, Tom. My trouble is that I don’t recognize my thinking in what you and Fr. Kimel are saying, and it seems to be in the question of whether this choice is somehow absolute *in the absolute sense* (absolutely absolute). That is why you are thinking about this in the reverse of the way I am actually thinking, as if I must be defending an absolutely absolute choice in order to protect the conclusion that Hell exists, which I am accepting as dogma. But that isn’t what I’m saying.

          What I am saying is that in order to exercise free choice, one must have a *relatively absolute* freedom. That can’t be univocally mapped onto the absolutely absolute freedom that God has or to the absolutely rational decision making that an omniscient God can make, because we aren’t capable of that no matter how deified we may become. We exist relative to God, but we are not divine persons, so it is never the case that our relatively absolute willing and God’s absolutely absolute willing are united in the same person as they are in Christ.

          We certainly exist *relative to* that infinity at the core of our being, but on pain of pantheism, we *are not* that core of our being. Our existence is only relative, not absolute. That means we are only relatively rational, relatively knowledgable, relatively free. That is why there is an “insofar as possible” qualifier to the likeness to God that we will receive in Heaven. It’s infinite, but it’s not infinitely infinite in the way that God is. That life is aionios (relatively infinite) rather than aidios (absolutely infinite). That qualifier is our relative existence; we aren’t absolutely real but only relatively. It is the quality of that *relation* over which we have our relatively absolute exercise of freedom (again, outside of infants and those not capable of exercising it).

          I agree with St. Gregory (by Przyszychowska’s read) that these three states are the possibilities of our choices with respect to that finite choice. Either we have made no choice (as the infants), we have made a choice to be open to infinity (as the saved), or we have made a choice to be closed to infinity (as the damned). All of those choices are in themselves finite, but there is no reason that they can’t be permanent.

          PS, my conclusion aligns with Perry Robinson, who is an Eastern Orthodox Christian trained in analytical philosophy, so it is not a result either of Catholic dogma or anything particular to Catholic metaphysical traditions.

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          • Tom says:

            Thanks Jonathan. How you qualified ‘absolute’ is how I was understanding you. Obviously we only know and choose relatively. I didn’t think you were positing anything else. It was the ‘infinity’ of God you were seeking to make the ground of Hell as the proportionately consequential outcome of the rejection of God.

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  3. Joel says:

    I love this, and I had to revisit the Bl. Julian of Norwich page, too, to find the Merton quote on universal salvation, which I also love, and Tom’s universalist outworkings of the passage. I hesitate to add anything to what Merton says here, but it made me think of Proverbs 20:27, “The spirit of the human being is the lamp of the LORD, searching out in his inmost chamber,” amplified in 1 Corinthians 2:10, “For God has given us revelation by the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God,” that the almost Eckhartian ground of the human soul is in fact the Spirit of God, which anchors a living thing in God and allows for prophecy, prayer, and spiritual experience. Our souls paradoxically are both ours and God’s, the means by which we animate ourselves and also an extension of God’s spirit knowing us. The Jewish merkabah mystics of late antiquity spoke of Ascent to the Chariot as Yored Merkabah, as “descent,” “going down,” that is, into the heart, where by the Holy Spirit the Chariot could be encountered. This is one of the main themes discussed by the great Jewish philosopher and historian of Jewish mysticism, Elliott Wolfson, in his wonderful book “Through the Speculum That Shines,” that the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit enthroned in the heart is the mirror in which God is imaged and takes on different imaginal forms for the prophets, as it were. This divine ground of the soul is the uncreated nothingness of God where God is seen and where we meet.

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    • Joel says:

      Also, this reminds me of Psalm 73, where the psalmist seems, at least to me, toying with the problem of the afterlife and apparent divine injustice in this life, saying in v. 26, “Though my flesh and my heart waste away, God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever,” trying to ask what of creation is preserved in the solidity of the divine Rock after all created things and aspects are gone.

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  4. Elizabeth says:

    Beautiful! 🙏 I interpret Merton’s passage as an awakening to our true nature, where at the centering of our being is the Spirit of God within. At the centering of our being is our true self, our true being, God in us. A point of Pure Truth and Love.

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  5. robertowenkelly says:

    Wow, a beautiful passage. We are beings, having our being in Being, the deepest point of our share in God. It makes me wonder, do we actually “receive” the Holy Spirit in our metanoia, like God was formerly absent but now comes to live in us for the first time? Or is the Spirit already and always present in us, and through metanoia we “realize” this fact—i.e. come to understand this reality in a profound flash of enlightenment? Merton’s interest in eastern philosophy later in his life is clear. This interest also seems to grow daily in contemporary Christianity. Nondual this and that; everybody’s a mystic. I think there’s a widespread craving for Neoplatonic forms of Christian believing, which express “more or less the same thing” as Vedantic forms of Christian believing (You are Gods, xvii). We may be on the verge of, or in the midst of, a Christian renaissance of Indian metaphysics. Interestingly, I read the same thing this morning in Schopenhauer, written two hundred years ago (intro. to World as Will and Representation,1818):

    “The philosophy of Kant, then, is the only philosophy with which a thorough acquaintance is directly presupposed in what we have to say here. But if, besides this, the reader has lingered in the school of the divine Plato, he will be so much the better prepared to hear me, and susceptible to what I say. And if, indeed, in addition to this he is a partaker of the benefit conferred by the Vedas, the access to which, opened to us through the Upanishads, is in my eyes the greatest advantage which this still young century enjoys over previous ones, because I believe that the influence of the Sanskrit literature will penetrate not less deeply than did the revival of Greek literature in the fifteenth century: if, I say, the reader has also already received and assimilated the sacred, primitive Indian wisdom, then he is best of all prepared to hear what I have to say to him.”

    I’m not saying Merton was echoing the Upanishads. But I think his sense is the same felt by the church fathers who used platonic ideas to expound life in Christ, to mount up to higher gnosis. Merton’s quote above continues with these beautiful images: the point of nothingness “is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely….I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” His point seems to be realization. There’s no thing to gain (Spirit or otherwise) because Light already enlightens every man. When all is lost in kenotic emptiness, we abide with Christ in his death—Christ in us, the hope of glory.

    Owen

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    • robertowenkelly says:

      In other words, perhaps eschatology is fully realized, Now, in an ontological sense, but only partially realized in a psychical sense, that is, until a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…

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    • Elizabeth says:

      Very interesting 🙂
      … if we were created in God’s image … does it mean the Spirit is already and always present in us … (?)

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      • robertowenkelly says:

        I see a possible hint in this passage: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I asked Greg Hillis, an expert on Merton, to exegete this passage for us. Here is his reply:

    Hi! Merton here is drawing on medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart, St Teresa of Avila, and Tauler, all of whom write about the “ground of our being” where we are already united with God no matter the reality of sin. It is the discovery of this most interior place that characterises the mystical journey for them. Hope that provides some clarity.

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    • robertowenkelly says:

      It’s an astounding idea and seems to imply universal salvation—the good kind of universal salvation, where the reality of sin actually matters but unbreakable union with the loving God matters infinitely more. I wonder if Merton’s eschatology evolved over time.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I would imagine that he was constrained by the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church.

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        • Elizabeth says:

          Thank you Father, wonderful and more clarity from Greg Hillis’reply. A few words of my own interpretation … the “ground of our being”… our true self at the deep center of our being and our (natural) abiding place, the everlasting love in the pure glory of God.

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