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THE GREAT CIRCLE OF BEING:

THE UNIVERSE AS JOURNEY

We have now made the tour of the five great pillars of reality
that seem to me to have been the central and must fruitful themes of
my own unified philosophical vision of the world as worked out over
fifty years of metaphysical reflection. There are other themes, of
course, which I have worked on, and other metaphysicians, even
Thomists, might well choose some others as more central. But I have
found that I simply cannot do without any of these, and that with them
I can generate most of the other positions in my total philosophical
vision. Can we now tie together all of these themes into a single
synoptic vision? When one tries to do that, I think he will discover—
as I did in preparing this address—that the most spontaneous, natural,
and effective way of doing so is to shift gears, so to speak, and move
from concepts to images. Only an image, it seems, can hold together
at once a multiplicity of conceptual analyses in a holistic unity. For
this we have to call on our right brain, the locus — according to
contemporary brain theory — of non-analytic, holistic descriptions and
images.

The image we shall be using is an ancient and natural one, handed


down to us by the great metaphysical tradition of Neoplatonism and
taken over with relish by St. Thomas. It is that of the universe seen
as a great dynamic circle of being, and therefore as a journey, a
great circular journey—to link it up with another ancient and powerful
archetypal symbol. As both Plotinus and St. Thomas describe it, the
inner dynamism of all being moves in a great circle. First there is
the exodus, or journey outward of all created being from its Infinite
Source, the emanation of the Many from the One, as St. Thomas puts it.
This outward movement is grounded in God as exercising efficient
causality - to shift to Aristotelian technical terminology — actively
producing out of His own self-diffusive goodness the whole ordered
system of multiple, participated, finite beings, the procession of the
Many from the One. But no sooner has the outgoing journey begun than
it pivots upon itself and starts back on a journey home again to its
Source (reditus), drawn by the pull of the Good in each being. This
pull arises as the inner act of being of each thing pours over into
its characteristic goal-oriented action, seeking the fullness of its
own perfection (i.e., its appropriate goodness), and drawn to this
goodness ultimately, through the channels of participation, by the
same Infinite Goodness from which its original act of existence flowed
in the first place, but this time as final cause. Thus all created
beings, as participating in the Divine Goodness in imitation of their
Source, are really striving, as St. Thomas puts it in a magnificent
run of thought, to imitate and be united to the Divine Goodness as
closely as their natures will allow. Just as "all knowers implicitly
know God in all that they know," he tells us, so too all actors,
desirers, lovers implicitly love God in all that they love and desire.

Thus the Source as Efficient Ground sends the whole universe out
from itself on its journey through multiplicity, and at the same time
draws it back to itself through the universal pull of the Good, as
Final Cause. So the exodus and the return, the leaving home and
returning thereto, the way out and the way back, are a journey motif
woven into the very ontological structure of every being and thus of
the universe itself as a whole.

But there is something very special, in fact indispensable, about


the presence of man in this journey of the material universe home to
its Source. Without the presence of an intelligent being like man
somewhere within it, the material universe on its own would remain

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totally unconscious of this great circle of being, of its being drawn
back toward its Source, and of its own secret goal. Without spiritual
intelligence and will it could neither recognize God as its goal nor
unite itself with Him by love. Only a being endowed with intelligence
and will can be united directly with God. Hence the material universe,
vast and magnificent though it be, needs a mediator, a bridge-builder
between earth and heaven, lest its return journey be aborted. Man is
this mediator, standing in the midst of the material universe, arising
out of it as a synthesis of matter and spirit, a microcosm imaging the
whole in himself, and with the capacity through his intellect and will
to understand the whole process, the entire journey and its meaning,
to gather together into his consciousness the entire community of
existents, especially the material ones that cannot do this for
themselves, and refer them back again with conscious recognition,
gratitude, and love to their Source. Thus man takes all of nature with
him, so to speak, on his own personal return toward final transforming
union with the Infinite Source of his own and of all other being.

Hence man is not supposed to be absorbed merely with his own


individual return to God. He has a fundamental job to do, a service to
perform, in and for the whole material universe, as the necessary
mediator without which it could not complete its own journey back to
its Source. The Great Circle of Being would be incomplete, for the
material universe, without him. Hence the great dignity, the lofty
role of the human person, the whole human race, in this vast cosmos
given to us in stewardship. (This, by the way, is one of the great
services that contemplative religious orders - apparently, to the
outward eye, doing nothing for the common good - can do for the world:
to gather up in their reflective prayerful consciousness the meaning
of the Great Circle of Being, and by their adoration, gratitude, and
love complete the return to its Source of a universe that is for the
most part all too oblivious of the meaning of its journey or the
nature of its Goal).

The image of journey I have used to gather up the whole meaning


of the universe into unity is one of my favorite ones. One reason is
the deep archetypal roots that it has in our psyche and in the whole
history of art and culture. The theme of the journey, of leaving home
and finding one's way home again, is a central one in so many of the
great epic poems, novels, plays, etc. And as one of my students,
Christina Hinck, who has been of great help to me in calling my
attention to illustrations of the journey theme in literature and art,
had pointed out to me just before this lecture, even great music so
often follows what might be called a circular-journey pattern: it
starts off with a theme, then leaves home, so to speak, to develop the
theme through many variations, and finally comes back home again by
returning in an enriched way to the original theme. Carl Jung, too,
lays great stress on the symbol of the journey theme to describe the
development of the psyche toward full integration: we must leave home
— unconscious primordial oneness with the parents - to affirm and
develop our distinct self-identity on our own, but then around midlife
begin the journey home again to reintegrate our individuality with our
original roots deep in the archetypal unconscious.

This age-old theme of the journey as a symbol of human life is so


familiar to us and has so much meaning in our ordinary lives, and yet
it has much deeper and more mysterious undertones of resonance with
something far larger than our individual lives, that is, with the very
hidden life of the universe itself, in whose vast ongoing journey our
own is caught up as a reflection. No wonder that the image of journey
strikes such deep chords within us; the very structure of being itself
involves a journey, a journey of the finite from the Infinite and back
to the Infinite. And the latest work in physics and cosmology only

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confirms this, since the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the material
universe now reveals that the entire cosmos from the first fiery
moment of its origin to the present is enveloped in a single great
unified journey. Physics and metaphysics here reinforce each other.
And the spiritual journey of each one of us becomes a microcosm of the
larger journey.

Before bringing my reflections to a close, I feel I should take


brief notice of an important challenge brought up in the discussion
after the original address. The metaphysical picture of the universe
that I have painted so far seems a very optimistic one, where all is
in order in the great journey. But how does all the evil and darkness
that is so obvious in the universe fit into this bright picture? My
answer is very simple: I have not developed that aspect here, but it
certainly can and should be done. Does not the very notion of journey
imply risk, adventure, the possibility of losing one's way, of
wandering off the path, either deliberately or unwittingly, of getting
lost, possibly even permanently? As realized in the concrete,
existential, contingent world, it certainly does. This has always been
part of the great symbolic depictions of the human journey, at least.
Although it is my conviction that more light can be shed on this
shadow aspect of the Great Circle of Being than is commonly believed,
it must ultimately remain a mystery whose depths cannot be plumbed by
us in our present state of wayfarers. As St. Augustine put it, "To try
to understand evil is like trying to hear silence or see darkness."
But I also believe — and would love to show you if I had the time —
that all philosophical attempts to turn this shadow and mystery
dimension into a cogent objection against the goodness of God or the
meaningfulness of the universe can be shown by careful analysis to be
infected with insurmountable logical and conceptual mistakes. The
inevitable chiaroscuro, light-and-shadow, pattern of the universe
still remains decisively more light than shadow, even taking into
account the great modem "Masters of Suspicion," as they have been
called: Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, possibly even Derrida and the
Deconstructionists — i.e., if one considers the latter's thought to be
more than a merely ephemeral excursion.

I must now bring to a close my own journey back over fifty years
of metaphysical reflection. I would like this image of the Great
Circle of Being, the universe as journey, to be the last word in my
metaphysical pilgrimage of trying to understand all being in an
integrated synoptic vision, and my own place within this larger
journey. I can only wish that all of you who read this may have some
share in the deeply satisfying, yet inexhaustibly mystery-filled,
wonder and profound joy of spirit I have found in my own journey.