God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Part I: The Intuition of Being

Chapter 1: The Mystery of Metaphysics


The greatest obstacle that stands in the way of our appreciation of metaphysics is the difficulty we have in understanding that metaphysics is about something real. We are inclined to think of it as some abstruse theory that survives only in books on the history of philosophy. Instead, it is about the meaning and purpose of life, and when seen in this way, it is a subject that challenges our intellect to the utmost and can be exhilarating.

The doors that open onto the world of metaphysics are all around us. Someone I know well told me: "Early one morning when I was busy making breakfast the sun came over the horizon and its first rays streamed through a window and struck a red cup sitting on the kitchen table. I had seen that cup hundreds of times before. I had washed it, put it away, drunk from it, and let my fingers get warm around it, but until that morning I had never truly seen it. The sun seemed to illuminate the cup from within. It was no longer a simple kitchen utensil, but sat there in the middle of the table aglow with being. I felt, "This isn't just a cup. It is! And the radiance of this "is" took my breath away."

This is a taste of what metaphysics is about. It is one of a myriad of experiences that should form the warm living atmosphere in which genuine metaphysical thought unfolds. Unfortunately, all too often these experiences have been ignored, and metaphysics treated as if it were merely a matter of words.


The 700th anniversary of the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1974 also marked a century-long Thomistic revival. (1) Its work included an attempt to produce a critical edition of St. Thomas' writings, a historical analysis of his sources and major commentators, a systematic development of his thought, and finally, an encounter between Thomism and contemporary philosophy. But the greatest achievement of this Thomistic renaissance was the rediscovery of the true meaning of St. Thomas' metaphysics. In the years just preceding and following World War II, a number of scholars working independently and with different preoccupations came to fundamentally the same conclusions. (2) The central role of existence not only distinguished St. Thomas' metaphysics from his Aristotelian and Platonic sources, but was the very heart of his creation of a far-reaching and original synthesis.

Today, however, we are faced with what appears to be a wide-spread and pervasive loss of interest in this metaphysical work. How could such a prodigious effort to rediscover St. Thomas and place him in a contemporary setting fade so quickly? Even more to the point, why did St. Thomas have to be rediscovered in the first place?

Part of this eclipse can be traced to the inevitable rebellion of students subjected to the Thomism of the dehydrated and hyperlogical scholastic manuals. (3) But the roots of the problem go deeper than a question of textbooks. The philosophy of St. Thomas has rarely been presented in a living way. It had originally developed within his theology and when it was abstracted from it, it lost the sense of direction that theology had given to it and failed to find its own distinctive philosophical way of proceeding.

As Jacques Maritain, one of the foremost foes of this manual style of Thomism, put it:

"The via inventionis, or way of discovery, which is essential to philosophy, was ignored; so, too, was the procedure proper to philosophy which has its starting point in experience and a prolonged intercourse with the world and with sensible reality. The characteristic atmosphere in which philosophy takes shape, which is the atmosphere of curiosity where it dwells with its fellow sciences and from which it raises itself to the pure and more rarefied atmosphere of what comes meta ta physica was equally absent." (4)

But what was most lacking was the inner light from which genuine metaphysics originates and which guides its development. Another Thomism did exist in which this light was alive. It was a Thomism of a Fabro or a Gilson, a de Finance or a Maritain, but by and large the atmosphere of the manuals prevailed. (5) It is the neglect of this aspect of metaphysics that has brought Thomism to the brink of another decline, but its exploration could point the way to a genuine recovery. The best guide for such a journey is Jacques Maritain who first brought this light, which he called the intuition of being, to explicit awareness.


One summer afternoon at the turn of the century two young people in love wandered in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. But their joy at having found each other was overshadowed by a deepening despair. Years of study had given them a miscellaneous collection of scientific and philosophical knowledge, but none of it could give them a reason for living. They decided that life in a world filled with injustice and sorrow could only be made bearable if they could find an answer to this question of meaning. They would exert all their energy in a search for a solution, and if they could not find one, they would kill themselves. (6)

Jacques Maritain and Raissa Oumansoff had met as students at the Sorbonne and had soon become inseparable. Raissa, sensitive and introspective, had looked forward with anticipation to her days at the university. There among the finest minds of France she hoped to find the answers to the meaning of life she was searching for. Filled with these unspoken questions, she attended the classes in natural science waiting for the day when these kinds of truths would be presented. But the sciences of the Sorbonne either stayed within the boundaries of their particular disciplines, or when they went further afield they embraced a variety of materialistic philosophical theories that left no room for questions about the ultimate meaning of life. Raissa wrote of these days, "we swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like fish in the depths of the sea without seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us." (7)

Raissa and Jacques did not fare any better in the faculty of philosophy. It was a philosophy that was taught but not lived. It hid itself in its own history while its practitioners "despaired of truth whose very name was unlovely to them and could be used only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile." (8)

This was a world dominated by the natural sciences which still retained much of the arrogance of the power they had achieved in the 19th century and produced an atmosphere which was corrosive to any way of knowing which was not their own. Philosophy had let itself be made over in the image and likeness of this science and parroted its methods and limitations. Yet Raissa and Jacques had unwittingly discovered the starting point of all genuine philosophical activity, which is an inner personal search for the meaning of life. Any philosophy divorced from pain and wonder and this burning thirst for understanding soon degenerates into the academic transmission of answers to listeners who have never experienced the questions.

Their search was first rewarded by finding Henri Bergson who was teaching at the Collège de France. Bergson drew large crowds, for he offered an alternative to the scientific materialism of the day with lucidity of thought and clarity of language. He defended the possibility of there being a genuine metaphysics by which the mind could know some sort of absolute. This bold program gave Jacques and Raissa hope, and the possibility of some sort of absolute knowledge excited them more than the details of Bergson's doctrine. They interpreted his knowledge of the absolute to mean "that we could truly, absolutely, know what is." (9) They married, and continued their search for what that absolute might actually be.

The second stage of their journey was something they had never anticipated. Jacques came from a liberal Protestant background and Raissa was Jewish, and neither one had any religious beliefs. Then they read a novel by Leon Bloy, The Woman Who Was Poor, that gave them a fleeting glimpse of the inner meaning of Christianity. Bloy had the reputation of being a literary brawler given to extravagant language, but the essence of his message strongly attracted them: "There is only one sadness and that is not to be among the saints." They were soon visiting him regularly, and they were impressed by the fact that he did not argue with them about the truth of his Catholic faith, but tried to live it out himself. He read to them from the saints and mystics who in some mysterious way seemed to be in possession of the kind of truth that they were longing for. Slowly they were drawn toward baptism and if, before, they had to struggle against the science of their day in order to find room for the possibility of philosophy, now they felt they were running the risk of losing the whole of the intellectual life if they embraced Catholicism. The externals of institutional religion put them off, yet finally they felt they had no choice. If the truth they sought was actually to be found there, they had to accept it despite the consequences.

After their baptism they were in the middle of a struggle to integrate the three basic elements of their lives: science, metaphysics and religion, and it was a very serious conflict because they refused to give up any one of them.

They moved to Heidelberg. Jacques had received a grant to study new developments in biology in Germany. Joined by Raissa's sister, Vera, their life became an apprenticeship in the practice of their newfound faith. And accompanying the scientific studies and spiritual exercises was a deepening awareness of the role metaphysics should play in their lives. Jacques wrote in his diary of the need for a "restitution of the Reason, of which metaphysics is the essential and highest operation... We now know what we want, and it is to philosophize truly." (10) But this was easier said than done. Such philosophizing demanded an intense effort at understanding science and religion. More than 25 years were to pass before the Maritains' fully mature solution appeared in Jacques' masterpiece, The Degrees of Knowledge.

The first crisis on this road was the conflict between the philosophy of Bergson and their faith. They reasoned that if faith can speak in words of its inner mysteries, how can Bergson claim that concepts must give way to intuition as the only true way to metaphysical knowledge? Implicit in this conflict was the question, "Is there a metaphysics that was open to both concepts and intuition, and to science and faith?"

The Maritains' Catholicism had not brought with it a ready-made philosophy like a convenient appendix. They were struggling to conceive of the kind of metaphysics which would be compatible with their faith, that would coalesce in a mind and heart enlightened by faith. When they discovered St. Thomas' Summa Theologicae several years later, they penetrated beyond the externals of his 13th century format into its metaphysical heart, for they were ready to receive what they later called its "luminous flood." (11)


In ancient and medieval times metaphysics was the queen of the human sciences. It was the way men tried to come to grips with the ultimate nature of reality and the existence and attributes of God. Metaphysics does not depend upon any delicate instrumentation or an act of faith. It is the working of the human intelligence at its deepest level. But as profound as its subject matter is, it begins with the most basic facts of the world of common experience. It starts from the fact that things exist. Its natural and spontaneous beginning is not in some subtle and elusive form of introspection, but in seeing a flower or the flight of a bird, or a smile.

The basic facts that are at the beginning of metaphysics are so accessible that if there were not another vital ingredient necessary, then the disagreements in this field would be inexplicable. Simple facts are intimately familiar to us, but unfortunately, this alone does not make us metaphysicians. Metaphysics eludes us not because of its difficulty as if it were some kind of higher mathematics or nuclear physics, but because of its very simplicity. The fact of existence is all around us, but our intellectual sight is too weak to grasp what is right in front of our eyes. Our very familiarity with reality has rendered it banal. We are not attuned to hear the mystery of existence that all things are murmuring. Maritain compares the object of metaphysics to Edgar Allen Poe's purloined letter; it is perfectly hidden because it is brazenly put right out in front of us. "The little word "is", the commonest of all words, used every moment everywhere, offers us, though concealed and well concealed, the mystery of being..." (12)

Metaphysics starts with ordinary experience and common sense. This common sense is a pre-reflective and instinctive knowledge that can blossom into genuine philosophical understanding. With common sense we accept the fact that things exist, but unfortunately, existence is simply a predicate we give to each of the things around us, and then think no more about it. (13) What is lacking is an insight or intuition by which we glimpse the inner depths of this mystery of existence. And what is this intuition? "It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration." (14) Intuition is not some spiritual vision that lifts us out of the human condition. It does not dispense us from the laborious construction of ideas and judgments. It goes hand-in-hand with these concepts and judgments, sometimes preceding them and sometimes following them, but always linked to them and vivifying them so they can rise to the mystery of knowledge in which we in some way become the things we know. (15) Intuition is the immaterial fire of the intellect. It glows and sputters and occasionally some breeze quickens it, and it flashes into flame. Then for a moment we see. These are the moments of intuition. They are not divorced from the normal ways of understanding, but permeate them and on occasion, lead them in unexpected directions. It is this intuition that according to Maritain makes the metaphysician. No intuition, no metaphysician. (16)

How do we arrive, then, at this indispensable metaphysical intuition? Maritain describes two pathways: one is by way of experience. Some concrete event triggers the intuition. The other, and probably much rarer, is by way of judgment. The strength of our reasoning leads us inexorably to a peak of tension that is resolved by a moment of insight. (17)


If our sight has been dulled by too long an exposure to the fact of existence, then something must come along to shake us loose and make us really see what is in front of our eyes. Our ordinary experience must be magnified so that existence appears before us with its original face. Maritain suggests that there are various paths that can lead to this intuition. He mentions Bergson's duration, Heidegger's experience of anguish, a "feeling at once keen and lacerating of all that is precarious and imperiled in our existence..." (18), and Gabriel Marcel's sense of fidelity, but he stresses that all these approaches are insufficient in themselves. For though they are pregnant with ontological values, they do not deliver the intuition in all its naked intelligibility.

"The experience in question gives information only of itself." We must let "the veils - too heavy with matter and too opaque - of the concrete psychological or ethical fact fall away to discover in their purity the strictly metaphysical values which such experiences concealed. " (19)

Here examples drawn from philosophy should not lead us to the conclusion that there must be something vaguely scholarly or theoretical about these concrete approaches. There is not. The propitious circumstances are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. A sudden manifestation of the beauty of nature can lead us in this direction, as can the discovery of human love, or simply an unexpected moment of insight with no obvious antecedents.

What are these experiences like? Raissa describes one that took place before their baptism, while she was in a car which was passing through a forest:

"I was looking out the window and thinking of nothing in particular. Suddenly a great change took place in me, as if from the perceptions of the senses I had passed over to an entirely inward perception. The passing trees had become much larger than themselves, they assumed a dimension prodigious for its depth. The whole forest seemed to speak of Another, became a forest of symbols, and seemed to have no other function than to signify the Creator." (20)

Maritain finds a similar experience described in the autobiography of Jean Richter. "One morning when I was still a child, I was standing on the threshold of the house and looking to my left in the direction of the wood pile when suddenly there came to me from heaven like a lightning flash the thought: I am a self, a thought which has never since left me. I perceived my self for the first time and for good." (21)

What distinguished the powerful experiences that could lead us to the intuition of being from those that, in fact, do so? Perhaps the inner questioning that permeated the life of someone like Raissa becomes focused and creates a fleeting pathway to being. Then the alluring palpability of the concrete gives way to another dimension, the inner world of metaphysics. What is this world like? It is the task of metaphysics as a science to attempt to conceptually articulate what is given in intuition.



  1. For the 19th century origins of the Thomistic revival: McCool, Catholic Theology in the Nineteenth Century. One Hundred Years of Thomism, edited by Brezik.
  2. For a review of the work of most of the major figures: John, The Thomist Spectrum.
  3. Unfortunately, these manuals continued in use long after better material was available. See p. 84.
  4. Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne.
  5. See note 2 and bibliography.
  6. Raissa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together, and Adventures in Grace.
  7. Ibid., p. 57.
  8. Ibid., p. 61.
  9. Ibid., p. 72.
  10. Ibid., p. 143.
  11. Ibid., p. 157.
  12. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 88.
  13. Maritain, Approches sans entraves, p. 264ff.
  14. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 50.
  15. Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, Chapter III: Critical Realism, especially his summary on pages 112ff.
  16. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 52.
  17. Maritain, in any number of places, contrasts the via inventionis and the via judicii: the way of discovery and the way of confirmatory rational analysis. But the via judicii can itself become a path to the intuition of being as Maritain explains in a passage in A Preface to Metaphysics. This rational analysis "leads us by logical necessity, and in via judicli, to the threshold which an intuitive perception alone enables us to cross, the perception of being as such. When the mind once has this intuition it has it for good." (p. 59) Thus, there is a parallel we will note later between such a rational analysis leading to insight and intuition and Zen's koans.
  18. Ibid., p. 54.
  19. Ibid., p. 56.
  20. Raissa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together, p. 115-116.
  21. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 52.



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Chapter 2