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Graduate Faculty Philosophy J oumal

Volume 19, Number 2-Volume 20, Number 1, 1997

Reiner Schurmann's Report of His


Visit to Martin Heidegger
Translation, and foreword, by Pierre Adler

On January 16, 1966, Reiner Schilrmann wrote a letter to Martin Heidegger in


which he submitted two questions for the philosopher's consideration, and
requested a conversation with him. Schilrmann was a twenty-four year old friar
at the Dominican Faculties of Philosophy and Theology of the Saulchoir, at
Essonnes in France, where he had begun his studies in 1962 (he was to complete
them in 1969 and be ordained to the priesthood in 1970, which he left in 1975).
At the time, he was on a stay of study with Professor Bernhard Welte at the
University of Freiburg. Heidegger responded on February 4, inviting the young
man to his home in Freiburg. On March 11, the very day of the visit,
Schilrmann related the content of his discw;sion with the philosopher to an
anonymous correspondent. The three pieces of correspondence were found tucked
away in one of the numerous Heidegger volumes of Schilrmann's library. The
two letters are naturally written in German, whereas the report is in French. We
here publish a translation of these documents.

January 16,1966
Fr. Reiner Schurmann OP
Care of Mrs. Hofmann
Lorettostrasse 42
78 Freiburg
Dear Mr. Heidegger,
Owing to Professor Welte's encouragement, I take the liberty of
addressing a request for a conversation to you. I am a Dominican,
belong to the order's French district, and am at this time interrupting
my studies at the order's school, Le Saulchoir near Paris, in order to
begin doctoral work on the "unknown God in the thought of Meister

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----~----

Eckhart" under Professor Welte's guidance. I am German. I shall be


ordained as a priest in only three years.
There are two questions that I particularly wish to ask you. The first
one concerns Eckhart's relevance to the situation in which thinking
finds itself today: did he perhaps think being as self-sending, as only
eventfully experience able? Meister Eckhart's 'sole thought' is aimed at
the unification of the 'separated soul' with God. Insofar as the soul lets
all things be, it breaks through to the ground where the Godhead continually creates all things, and which in this breakthrough also
becomes my ground. The unity is a unity of the "fabric" in which God
operates and I become-become son, that is. Being is thus thought as
course of experience, and not represented as ontic 'standing reserve'.'
Closer to the soul than any created thing, the "unknown God" is experienced in the event of words,2 beyond this and that,3 and, for that reason, it always remains a 'nil of all things'. Might not Meister Eckhart's
thinking help us along in a meditation directed at being which always
withholds itself and, in this very withholding, addresses itself to us?
I request that you greet my second question with particular indulgence: can the wondering silence in the face of the gift of being not recollect certain words that were first brought forth in a stutter and later
'subIa ted' on account of their inadequacy? And can it not consent to the
event thanks to an inkling remaining from them? I have in mind above
all this one word, 'thou'. The mystery of the gift could be experienced as
mystery of the 'thou', without thinking's having to fall into representation (for example, the repetition of a source of being revealed to it),
while it remains within the boundaries set to it as thinking. Even in
the break through all of God's titles (such as 'the good' or 'truth'), there
still subsists for Meister Eckhart the inkling of the 'thou'. Might not the
proposition 'being is given' ('Es gibt sein') be expressed in the form 'thou
gives being' ('Du gibst sein') without injury to the mystery?
[The carbon copy breaks off at this point.]

***
February 4, 1966
Martin Heidegger
Rotebuck 47
Freiburg im Breisgau - Zahringen

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Honored Brother Schurmann!


Please excuse the belated answer; I was travelling and shall again
be away from Freiburg for a few days. As a result, I can only invite you
to come to my house on the eleventh of March, in order that we may
discuss the questions raised in your letter.
With my best regards and wishes,
M. Heidegger

***
Freiburg, March 11 [1966]
The event that I awaited eagerly and with stage-fright has just
taken place: I have just returned from Heidegger's house. It was a real
late-afternoon reception about the mystery of being .... To begin with
the folkloric aspect of the visit, I had my fill and more: a pious inscription above the door to the house ("God bless you ... "); a small man,
who looked like a peasant, let me in and ushered me nearly without
saying a word into a room that looked rather like a blockhouse; two
glasses and a bottle on a small tray; and, especially, a two-hour long
discussion which ended up, at least outwardly, in complete darkness. I
knew that among things country he had a fondness for those that are
traditional: his writings speak of the pitcher of cool water, of the peasant's rough hands, of mud-caked clogs, and such. I now know that he
also likes discussions in the dark. However, the man is so shrewd, and,
above all, he has such a listening ability (in this respect, I have never
met anyone as heedful of what one says) that it felt like my meager
schoolboy questions were received by warm and reassuring hands.
I should note first that Hans Urs von Balthasar, to whom I had written a short letter in order to introduce myself (I have resolutely taken
on the role of the monk from the East who goes from father to father)
and who responded very nicely, has, for all that, somewhat disheartened me, as regards this particular issue. In his view, Heidegger hides
behind an anti-Christian polemic, and by means of his general epistemology hammers down any mystical impulse, and cannot thus be of
any help in finding answers to such questions as are raised by, say,
Meister Eckhart. It is somewhat of a pity that he said that. I take it
that his own passions lie elsewhere.

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I am nonetheless going to give you a bit of a run-down of what has


just been said. In my letter, written nearly two months ago (he was
away), I had attempted to formulate two questions, one concerning
Meister Eckhart's conception of being, the other concerning the possibility of saying 'thou' to what in some of his texts Heidegger calls 'gift of
being', a phrase formed after the expression 'es gibt Sein' [literally, in
English, 'it gives being'] , 'there is being'. In fact, my secret hope was
that I would manage to make him speak about God. (How difficult it is
to relate a conversation ofthis sort! But I shall try.)
His starting-point still remains strictly that of a phenomenological
ontology, that is to say, of an inquiry into phenomena with a view to
[laying bare] what is already known, being. That is the well-known
hermeneutic circle. The phenomenological gaze sees that that-which-is
is, that beings are owing to being, which gives itself in them (goodness,
it sounds awfully like a dissertation. The letter really flattens things
out!). Heidegger has been wondering about this gift of being for some
years. He has often been asked (happily, I did not do so) whether the
'es' in the proposition 'es gibt Sein' refers to God. He denies that it does.
At this point, I introduced my questions about 'thou': is there not, in
this experience of the gift, of being that is granted (de l'etre avenant), an
experience of saying 'thou'? Would it not be the case that, prior to all
prayer, the saying of 'thou' is part and parcel of the being of Dasein,
just as having to correspond to the ineffable gift, by the response that is
required, is part and parcel of the being of Dasein? I shall not dwell on
this, except to say that the outcome of this part of the conversation, the
longest and most interesting (and of which he himself said that in it we
touched on something profound), was quite remarkable. One could sum
it up as follows: the gift of being opens up within Dasein the possibility
of receiving and of saying 'thou'. This 'thou' is identical with neither
being nor 'es'. There is something like a series of containers (although
he rejects this word): the beings are not being; rather, through beings
one experiences that being gives itself; being is not itself that which
gives being; it is rather the 'es' - the mystery - which gives it; when the
possibility of saying 'thou' to more and to something other than a
human being is realized, it is not this 'es' that is addressed by the
'thou', but rather something beyond it. However, for that, a special
experience is required which man can never obtain by his own doing,
but which only this 'thou' can grant. The experience is no longer one of
thought alone, but of all of oneself (those are still his own words). In
this sense, philosophy does not speak about that experience. It does,
however, open the paths on which such an experience may become real.
In Heidegger's view, HOlderlin certainly had that experience. It is thus
not a matter of the experience of faith, although what is usually desig-

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nated by 'experience of faith' naturally touches upon it very closely.


Incidentally, he let out a beautiful sigh: "Who can say what faith is!"
In a world that is dominated by science and technology, and which
treats art as a commodity, Heidegger understands his entire philosophy
as a preparation for this experience of Something Else of which philosophy itself can no longer speak. From Sein und Zeit to the present, the
whole of his thought has solely been considering the possibilities that
are to be disclosed in order for this ineffable experience to happen: "And
when it is granted to one, one will no longer need philosophy." It should
be specified, however, that his philosophy does not speak of a supreme
being which would give itself in such a fashion: ''What I am attempting
to think is both smaller than traditional philosophy (which constantly
speaks about God) and larger (because it opens the way to an overcoming, by way of an experience, of philosophy)."
He dreads dogmatism. For that reason he was unable to accept what
I was propounding, namely, that philosophy succeed, as philosophy, in
giving a verdict about a 'thou' from which Dasein would 'always
already' originate. To him, it would properly amount to theology to say
that man can only say 'thou' to what in a granting (dans une grace)
gives itself in the 'es', because he also harbors his origin within himself.
For, according to Heidegger's argumentation, to consider man as
always in relation to a 'thou' would, to put it coarsely, make prayer an
obligation for everyone. Indeed, if every man always already had a personal relation to this 'thou' which lies in mystery, one would be able to
reproach those not respecting this 'thou', with living in contradiction to
their being. That is precisely what dogmatism does. One may thus say
no more about the matter than this: philosophy's role is to open the
way by which an unutterable experience may be given, but such an
experience would no longer be answerable to philosophy; it would be
the prerogative of the one to whom it was granted.
What he said very simply and with enormous respect for the matters
under discussion, my letter makes sound awfully complicated and constructed. No doubt I am reporting it very poorly, but I believe that I
have not added anything of my own. I am not going to tell you what he
said about Meister Eckhart and about scholasticism, for it would take
too long. I should also mention a series of remarks about the 'sacred'
and about 'language' (the latter being also only the possibilizing ground
that Some Thing be addressed to us, but not that which allows to infer
it ... ). Heidegger is unquestionably a 'religious' thinker, and it is
because I knew that he had spent some time at the Jesuit noviciate (I
have never been able to determine whether it was ten days or ten
months) that I dared to start him on this traiL He invited me to come
back.

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Welte was extremely happy about the day he spent at the Saulchoir.
He told me: "If I were your age, that would be my monastery of choice."
His maid is even worried that he is going to become Dominican. "They
have a very candid, free, and open way about them; I was presented
with intelligent questions which the theology students from here would
never raise; one senses that this place has caliber." Congratulations:
you seduced him.
Reiner

TRANSLATOR'S NOTES
1. 'Reserve' is to be taken in the sense of 'supply' or 'stock'. It translates
'Bestand'.

2. 'Words' renders 'Zuspruch'. This translation is in all likelihood inadequate,


as 'Zuspruch' may mean speaking, encouragement, consolation, or exhortation, all of which are probably meant here.
3. 'Beyond this and that' translates jenseits von aHem Dies und Das'. A less
literal translation would be 'beyond all concerns and things'.

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