We will be at Aquinas College this morning hosting a book table for Fr. Barron’s visit there. His topic is “Thomas Merton and the Metaphysics of Peace.” The lecture is based on an article he did in the Josephinum Journal of Theology (Summer/Fall 2003). It is also included in the book Bridging the Great Divide (Rowan and Littlefield). He begins the essay saying that he’s never been comfortable with those who have seen a “huge gap” between the thought of Merton in his early days and the latter Merton. There is authentic development but it “is always marked by a continuity of principles and stability of form.” (p. 199) He recounts an early event in Merton’s life which would prove to be life-changing.
“In a particularly lively section of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton speaks of his discovery of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy at the Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue and how that book revolutionized his life. He bought the text because he was enrolled in a course in medieval French literature and ‘had five or ten loose dollars burning a hole’ in his pocket. But he was mortified when he noticed the nihil obstat and the imprimatur on the frontispiece. So disgusted was he by this association with Catholic dogma that he was sorely tempted to hurl the book out the window. By ‘a real grace,’ he didn’t throw it away; in fact, he actually read it.
The ‘big concept’ that he took away from Gilson’s study was ‘contained in one of those dry, outlandish technical compounds that the scholastic philosophers were so prone to use: the word ‘aseitas.” This designates the fact that God exists through himself or by himself (a se), that he is, in Aquinas’s language ipsum esse subsistens, the sheer act of to-be it-self. This pithy but profound description convinced him that what Catholics mean by God is not some ‘vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age,’ but rather something ‘deep, simple, and accurate.’ A child of his skeptical age, Merton had assumed that the God in whom Christians believed was nothing but a projection of their desires and ‘subjective ideals,’ a Feuerbachian fantasy or Freudian wish fulfillment.”
The essay is brilliant and well worth reading. As a matter of fact this book was one of my favorites from Barron. Many of the articles are previously published material but it’s nice to have it in one resource. His essays “Priest as Bearer of the Ministry”, “Priest as Doctor of the Soul”, and “Mystagogues, World Transformers, and Interpreters of Tongues: A Reflection on Collaborative Ministry in the Church” are worth the price of the book alone.
Bridging the Great Divide is a paperback with 312 pages. It sells for $24.95.