Thomas Merton speaking to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani about the writings of Maximus the Confessor says that being open to theoria physike and the inner logoi – the essence of Christ’s love within every part of creation, means that we can begin to understand the hidden purposes of the creative wisdom and the divine mercy of God, and can cooperate with Him as children of a loving Father.
Theoria is then contemplation of the splendour of divine wisdom in Christ, with nature on one side, and law on the other, both looking to Him as to their fulfilment. In the full development of theoria they both disappear and we see Christ alone. Von Balthasar who wrote about the writings of Maximus says: ‘The meaning of each natural thing and the meaning of every law and commandment is to be an Incarnation of the divine Word; to realize fully its proper nature or its proper law is to cooperate fully in the total realization of the Word in the world.’
Christopher Pramuk in his book ‘Sophia’ uses Merton’s definition of theoria physike as multiform wisdom that apprehends the wisdom and glory of God through the spirit of scripture, things and within ourselves – the full definition I quoted a couple of weeks back in the first post on this subject. For Merton the focus is on the natural world as an epiphany of divine presence. A focus that we all need to open ourselves to in order to defend and repair our destruction against God’s creation. Here the work of Maximus and Merton is both timeless and totally relevant to our contemporary state. Merton urges the novices to appreciate the crucial role played by human beings, through theoria physike, ‘in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos.’ Merton sees theoria physike as a dynamic unity of contemplation and action that means we too can take part in creativity. He offers examples of work attuned to the logoi of things that includes Shaker furniture and handicrafts confirming that seeing the logoi of things is not abstract ‘but attends to the concrete nature (inscape) of things in relation to the whole.’
Merton writes about the ‘silent eloquence of Shaker craftsmanship’ where there is the integration of the spiritual in the physical. In Shaker work there is the participation in God’s work of creation where each object might fulfil its vocation. Merton famously wrote: ‘the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.’
This sophianic wisdom contrasts with the purely instrumental and exploitative relationship with nature – of which we have seen too much in the last decades – consuming, producing and destroying – for its own sake. Christopher Pramuk writes: ‘in honouring the logoi of all living and non-living things, we become “conscious of their mute appeal to us to find and rescue the glory of God that has been hidden in them and veiled by sin”’
Thomas Merton’s photo of a Shaker barn at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky