God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Chapter 3: The Cultivation of the Intuition of Being


In an essay entitled, "Reflections on Wounded Nature," written near the end of his life, Maritain left hidden in a footnote, a clue to what the future might regard as one of his greatest metaphysical achievements. He said:

"The intuition of being has been lived and practiced by St. Thomas and the Thomists (the good Thomists), but I do not know (perhaps due to my ignorance) of a treatise or disquisitio where it has been explicitly studied by them." (1)

St. Thomas had this intuition. Throughout his writings from his early work, On Being and Essence, to his mature Summa Theologicae, a new metaphysical vision is presented centered on the act of existence. Unfortunately, we have no firm information about how St. Thomas arrived at this fundamental insight. The story is told of Thomas as a child wandering about asking, "What is God?", and this points to a temperamental inclination towards such an intuition, and Maritain suggests Thomas had the intuition as "the innate gift of an imperial intelligence serenely relying on its limpid strength." (2) But whether this intuition came as a natural endowment or a sudden revelation, whether it came from a religious meditation on the text of Exodus or pondering a metaphysical conundrum, Thomas never directly spoke of it. (3)

Maritain, on the other hand, never stopped speaking of it. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he returned again and again to the question of intuition, its nature and its interaction with reason. Unfortunately, what he hardly ever speaks about are the circumstances that surrounded his own arrival at this insight into being. The general context is clear enough. As an ardent Bergsonian, forced to break with his master, the central role of intuition in Bergson's metaphysics had to be in the forefront of his mind. Even more so would the vivid experiences of Raissa have effected him. He commented on her experience in the forest: "At the sight of something or other, a soul will know in an instant that these things do not exist through themselves and that God is." (4) And perhaps Bergson's duration was his own concrete approach to being.

In an unpublished essay in 1906 he wrote of the intuition of duration:

"...in which the instants do not follow one upon the other, which does not at all admit of separated instants, but which completely conserves itself in the powerful simplicity and the expansion of its inconceivable unity... he is in the presence, not of an idea which seems true by its convenience, to be handled in discourse and explication, but of the real itself, which asserts itself royally, and makes itself known by its force, through which it enraptures the mind, and by its absolute nature, into which the most agile rapidities of thought hurl themselves in vain... Of this primary intuition he will retain, when he has returned to consciousness, only a primary truth, and he says: I exist in an absolute manner, that is to say, I perdure..." (5)

Much later he remarks about these lines that "under the mask of Bergsonian duration it was indeed the intuition of being which preoccupied me from that moment." (6)

If not in that moment, somehow, in some way, either while he trudged through the snow in Heidelberg pondering the demands of faith and the nature of Bergson's philosophy, or when he met the Summa with a mind hungry for metaphysics, he came to this intuition.

Maritain described it as a "natural revelation" or as "presenting the semblance of a mystical grace." He does this not because he was of the opinion that it was beyond human effort, for he explicitly rejects the position that it should be looked upon as a "mystical gift, a supernatural gift granted to a few privileged persons," (7) but rather because of its gift-like quality. It is not simply the outcome of our normal ways of reasoning. It is not in easy continuity with our ordinary experiences. Its entrance into a consciousness conditioned to see everything by way of object or essence comes as a shock. The intuition of being is the natural crowning of the human intellect, but we live so far from it and so rarely arrive at it that we receive it with gratitude as a great unexpected gift.


Maritain indicates two basic dispositions that smooth the way for the reception of this intuition. The first is a sensitivity to the actual existing world around us. This means an immersion in the concrete world of things by means of our senses, for through them we have a "blind existential perception" of the mystery of existence. If we desire to be metaphysicians we must be "plunged into existence, steeped ever more deeply in it by a sensuous and aesthetic perception as acute as possible and by experiencing the suffering and struggles of real life." (8) This is the antithesis of a scholasticism which is purely academic, the simple transmission of concepts without a living sense of the reality they refer to.

The second necessary disposition for attaining this intuition is to be still enough to listen to the mystery of being that is whispered by all things. This intuition demands, not intricate intellectual technique, but rather an "active attentive silence" and a "degree of intellectual purification" by "which we become sufficiently disengaged, sufficiently empty to hear what all things whisper and to listen instead of composing answers." (9)

In short, Maritain made a decisive step and leaves us a well-developed exposition of the nature of the intuition of being, the concrete ways to approach it and even the interior dispositions that could help in attaining it. And all this implies the possibility of consciously cultivating it, and this Maritain hardly ever discusses. Perhaps it came to him and Raissa so much like a gift that such a possibility was thrown into deep shadows. Or since the explicit description of the intuition was such a dramatic departure from the normal Thomistic fare all his attention was on clarifying and expounding it. Yet, at least once Maritain did take the next step and formally recognized the possibility of cultivating this intuition. It came in the midst of an open letter to the authors of Philosophy At The Time Of The Council, which dealt in large part with how the teaching of Thomism could be improved. One of the passages in this work that caught Maritain's eye read as follows:

"Now there is with St. Thomas such philosophical intuitions - the initial intuitions of which Bergson spoke - that their vision of the real ought not to be lost sight of under the pain of a deviation from philosophy and all that depends on it in the Church and in the world." (10)

Maritain comments:

"The misfortune of ordinary scholastic teaching, especially that of the manuals, has been to neglect in a practical way this essential intuitive element and replace it from the beginning by a pseudo-dialectic of concepts and formulas. There is nothing to do as long as the intellect has not seen - as long as the philosopher or apprentice philosopher has not had the intellectual intuition of being. It could be noted from this point of view the great pedagogical interest of a year of initiation to philosophy entirely centered on the need to lead spirits to the intuition of being and to the other fundamental intuitions by which Thomistic philosophy lives." (11)

Thus, Maritain explicitly sets forth the possibility of the cultivation of the intuition of being and closely connects it with the success or failure of the whole philosophical endeavor. And as we have seen, his own metaphysical writings are pregnant with this possibility. You cannot talk about the indispensability of the intuition of being without preparing the ground for the inevitable question of how this intuition may be obtained. And so the possibility of its formal cultivation appears to Maritain. Regrettably, though, he does not leave us his ideas of how such a year of initiation would be structured and what methods it would use.


Yet there are potentially deeper reasons, which are less personal, that could have deflected him from the full consideration of such a possibility. There is something in the whole make-up of classical Thomistic metaphysics that militates against such a possibility. We saw at the beginning of Chapter 1 how the metaphysics of St. Thomas was at the service of his theology, and when it tried to leave that context it often failed to discover its proper way of proceeding. It could create syllogisms, but that is far from the lived logic of genuine philosophical activity.

But in practice, as Maritain points out, the intuition of being existed in St. Thomas, the good Thomists of the ages and, we could add, the fine minds that rediscovered St. Thomas for us. But even when this light exists it does not have to be distinguishable from other lights in the same person for it to do its work. The metaphysics of St. Thomas has been predominately exercised within a Christian context. As powerful as the metaphysical light may have been, it was always operative in a soul that relied on higher lights as well, and these lights would tend to make the light of metaphysics harder to see in itself, even while they strengthened it.

Even when Maritain discerned this light for itself, aided perhaps by the intuition of Raissa that predates their conversion, he was keenly aware that this intuition was but one moment in the ascent of the soul to God. He lived in the context of the gift of faith, whose ultimate earthly expression was mystical experience, and since the idea of technique was foreign to these realms, it would not have been easy to associate the idea of technique and the intuition of being.

The intuition of being constellates the question of God, but this question is not a purely metaphysical one. A metaphysical proof of God's existence does not satisfy the heart. We live in a world beset by pain and loneliness, and our search for meaning is the search for an answer to these sorrows. Given such a world, could a God of love actually exist? Now, the word existence has been transformed again, meaning neither essence nor existence in the philosophical sense, but whether God can exist for me. Even when I possess the intuition of being and know God exists, I am drawn toward the question of whether He truly exists for me so I can voyage in the darkness that surrounds Him and make contact with Him. Even a genuine experience of the intuition of being can be swallowed by these other deeper longings and not be examined for itself, still less in terms of whether it can be cultivated. Paradoxically, while the Christian context made possible in an existential sense the discovery and the development of the intuition of being, for it created the inner spiritual atmosphere where metaphysics could discover its deepest roots, it hindered the formal explication and cultivation of this intuition. For example, it would probably be possible to discern moments of the intuition of being in the experience of the mystics, for the higher experience created the condition of soul where it would flourish, but how could the mystics leave that living fire in order to pursue a reflection, even one as powerful as the intuition of being?

The question of the cultivation of the intuition of being becomes a specific instance of what Maritain described under the heading of Christian philosophy, which in its turn was a reflection of his own experience. If faith could not enter into the structure of philosophy without destroying it, it could provide its living context, the strengthening of soul, in which this philosophy could be best exercised. The metaphysics of St. Thomas is not Christian by nature. It is not a crypto-theology that demands revelation in order to discover its first principles or reach its conclusions. The intuition of being does not demand a Christian context in order to be discovered or elaborated, yet this is precisely the atmosphere in which it was born. And this is why the question of its cultivation has never become a real possibility.

Perhaps some student of history will attempt to piece together, before it is too late, how the leaders of the 20th century Thomistic renaissance arrived at the intuition of being. But could these men to whom the intuition came as a happy chance be attuned to the possibility of a cultivation which they never had to attempt for themselves? (12) Yet this is the critical problem facing Thomistic metaphysics. If without the intuition we cannot be metaphysicians, it is little wonder that Thomism, having neglected this issue, is sliding towards another period of oblivion. Can the intuition of being be cultivated? It can and it must be. But how can it be in a tradition that knows so little about such a venture? Imagine if in another time and place, men and women, suffering the same thirst for the meaning of life, discovered metaphysics, but this time it was not subjected to and lived out in relationship to revelation. Then all the longings that the West associates with mysticism would be directed to this metaphysics and to the intuition which is its heart, and the question of the cultivation of this insight would be in the forefront. Then it would be to such a tradition the metaphysics of St. Thomas could look for inspiration in how to resolve its own dilemma.

In summary, Part I asserts that the intuition of being is the soul of the metaphysics of St. Thomas. It is the living experience out of which metaphysical reflection and conceptualization has to emerge. Therefore, it is essential that we attain this intuition, and that we cultivate it. But we don't know where to look for an example of the methods that are geared to such a metaphysical cultivation. Enter Zen.


  1. Maritain, Approches sans entraves, p. 267, note 31.
  2. Maritain, Existence and the Existent, p. 30.
  3. See Gilson on the theme, "Haec Sublimis Veritas" in A Gilson Reader, pp. 230ff.
  4. 1 cannot relocate the source of this citation.
  5. Maritain, Notes, p. 28-29.
  6. Ibid., p. 28.
  7. Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, p. 2.
  8. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 30.
  9. Ibid., p. 53.
  10. Kalinowski and Swiezawski, La philosophie l'heure du Concile, p. 139.
  11. Maritain, Approches sans entraves, p. 79.
  12. Cornelio Fabro, for example, describes how a passage in the Summa (I. Q44, a. 1) "was the first that persuaded me of the central function that the notion of participation ought to have in Thomism." In La Nozione…, p. 230.



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