Mystic, Poet, Prophet: A review of A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey by Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox is the passionate prophet of Creation Spirituality.  For nearly four decades, he has championed the spiritual movements and persons that affirm the sacredness of Creation and unite mysticism with prophecy.  In his latest book Fox explores the life of Thomas Merton, the influential 20th-century contemplative, writer, poet, and activist who did much to put Christianity in dialogue with the world’s religions and to challenge the social, economic, and political trends of his times.  A Way to God traces Merton’s journey from a conventional “Fall/Redemption” Catholic theology to a nondual Creation Spirituality that is “more ecumenical and more prophetic, more grounded and earthy.”

The book can be thought of as a conversation largely involving Fox, Merton, and Meister Eckhart, the medieval Rhineland theologian and mystic who is “the spokesperson par excellence for the wisdom-based and nature-based mystical and prophetic tradition called Creation Spirituality.”  Meister Eckhart not only deeply influenced Fox’s own life but also profoundly affected Merton’s transformation. Indeed, Merton called Eckhart “my lifeboat,” “a great medieval thinker,” and “a great man who was pulled down by a lot of little men.” According to Fox, Eckhart “permeates Merton’s work and consciousness from 1959 onward.”  Fox demonstrates that Buddhist teacher and writer D. T. Suzuki, who was in dialogue with Merton from about 1958 to 1968, played a pivotal role not only in catalyzing Merton’s new ecumenical orientation but in fostering his reappraisal of Eckhart (twenty eight of Eckhart’s theological propositions had been condemned by Pope John XII in 1329).  It was Suzuki who wrote that “Eckhart’s thoughts come most closely to those of Zen and Shin. . . . Eckhart, Zen, and Shin can be grouped together as belonging to the great school of mysticism.”

For readers unfamiliar with Merton, I will briefly synopsize his life.  Born in Paris in 1915, the first son of two artists—an American mother and a New Zealander father—young Tom moved with his family in 1916 to the U.S. where his maternal grandparents lived.  His mother died five years later of stomach cancer, and from then on he was largely raised by his itinerant painter father, who tried to make a living by farming, music, and journalism. In 1925 father and son moved back to France, where Tom was initially enrolled in a Catholic school and later, due to his grandparents’ insistence, in a secular school.  In 1927 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, from which he slowly recuperated. In 1931 his father died, so his grandparents sent him to public school in London, where he majored in languages and became editor of the literary magazine. Considering a career in the British diplomatic corps, Tom won a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1933 but plunged into a wild life of alcohol and women and fathered at least one illegitimate child.  His grandparents urged him to return to the U.S., where he enrolled in Columbia University. By 1935 he was extremely focused on the question of the existence of God while continuing to pursue literary and political studies.

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Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:77-80


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