Merton and Theoria Physike  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's commemoration of Thomas Merton, we look at how he engaged with the thought of St Maximos the Confessor.  This can be found in his lecture notes for a course in ascetic theology given to the novices of Gethsemani Abbey, Merton's monastic community.  The excerpt deals with how Maximos addresses theoria physike, a stage in the contemplative journey in which the practitioner makes an effort to sense the divine presence in the created universe.  It is found in Merton and Hesychasm, Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., Fons Vitae, 2003, pp 434-435.


Theoria physike is then:
a) Reception of the mysterious, silent revelation of God in His cosmos and in its oikonomia [stewardship of all things, the structure of God's dispensation of the cosmos, God's providence and judgement], as well as in our own lives. 

b) It is the knowledge of God that is natural to man, with God's help (grace).  But note it is not "natural" in the modern sense, [that is], clearly distinct from and opposed to "supernatural".  It is natural in the sense that it is what God intended for man in creating him.  It is proper to him as a son of God, was his when in paradise, is proper to him as a brother of the angels.  We must be restored first of all to this "natural" contemplation of the cosmos before we can rise to perfect theologia.

c)  This contemplation is demanded by the cosmos itself and by history.  If man cannot know creatures by this spiritual gnosis, they will be frustrated by their end.  If man cannot spiritually penetrate the meaning of the oikonomia, it runs the risk of being frustrated and souls will be lost.

d) Hence theoria physike is a most important part of man's cooperation in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos.  It is by theoria that man helps Christ to redeem the logoi of things and restore them in Himself.

e) This theoria is inseparable from love and from a truly spiritual conduct of life.  Man not only must see the inner meaning of things, but he must regulate his entire life and his use of time and of created beings according to the mysterious norms hidden in things by the Creator, or rather uttered by the Creator Himself in the bosom of His Creation.

f) The vision of theoria physike is essentially sophianic.  Man by theoria is able to untie the hidden wisdom of God in things with the hidden light of wisdom in himself.  The meeting and marriage of these two brings about a resplendent clarity within man himself, and this clarity is the presence of Divine Wisdom fully recognized and active in him.  Thus man becomes a mirror of the divine glory, and is resplendent with divine truth not only in his mind but in his life.  He is filled with the light of wisdom which shines forth in him, and thus God is glorified in him.  At the same time he exercises a spiritualizing influence in the world by the work of his hands which is in accord with the creative wisdom of God in things and in history.

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