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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton and the False Self

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 21, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Merton False Self


Thomas Merton frequently wrote about the dangers of the false self, a fact that Rowan Williams observes in his essay, "Bread for the Wilderness." In it Williams writes:

"There is here [in certain passages by Merton] an implicit recognition that the monastic vocation demands a real encounter with one's own 'nothingness,' with the false and illusory persona created by one's betrayal of the true self, the image of God, in a concordat with a false and illusory society." [Rowan Williams, “Bread for the Wilderness,” in A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011), p. 25.]

As true as it undoubtedly is that one must struggle with the false self in the monastic vocation, it is also true of the human vocation into which we are baptized as followers of Christ. In Merton's reflections on the lives of the Desert Fathers (the hermits who fled the cities of the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the church to seek God), he finds a resonance between the most secluded religious figures and those, like many of us, who follow a more secular path. Merton writes:

"What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion of 'the world'. ... [The hermit] had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known, and lost in Christ. He had to die to the values of transient existence as Christ had died to them on the Cross, and rise from the dead with Him in the light of an entirely new wisdom. Hence the life of sacrifice, which started out from a clean break, separating the monk from the world. A life continued in 'compunction' which taught him to lament the madness of attachment to unreal values." [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 5-6, 7.]

Merton's reference to the Desert Fathers' flight from "the world" as a dying and rising in Christ evokes St. Paul's description of baptism (Romans 6:1-4). We can imagine the arid reaches of wilderness that separated the Desert Fathers from the unreal values of the world as reflected in the waters of baptism, a font as vast as any desert. Not only does baptism seal the self who has died with Christ and has been buried with him in a watery tomb, we are promised in this rite that when we rise from the waters, we are rising with Christ in newness of life. The sacramental waters return to us again and again throughout our lives washing over us in liturgical remembrances; they wash over us at the most ordinary of moments in our daily lives, too. Baptisms pour down upon us like rain when we prepare for the Eucharist, receive a blessing at the end of worship, and sometimes just walking along the crowded street. "Remember your baptism," we are told by priest, minister or friend, and this remembrance performs not only a retrospective but a prospective spiritual function, claiming us anew in Christ's name.

When we find our deepest values threatened by our own compulsions and compromises, one false step following another, until we find ourselves wondering how we came to be making decisions so out of character with what we most deeply believe, we hear the churning of a watery grave promising to bury our false self beneath leagues of divine mercy.

When we find ourselves replaying in our heads a loop of self-loathing tapes, plunging us into regret, guilt and shame, descending ever more deeply into remorse, imagining that our sin is somehow more powerful than God's love, a dam-burst of undeserved unmerited grace tumbles over us in life-giving waves bearing us along streams of living waters.

When we find ourselves on the treadmill of acquisition, allowing ourselves to be defined by economic taskmasters as "laborers" or "consumers," comparing ourselves endlessly and anxiously to one another in a desperate scorekeeping driven by commerce, uncertain of our own worth, or what or how we should value, even here in the madness that holds so many in thrall, the waters of baptism are a gulf as wide as the sands of ancient Egypt separating us from that which is unreal and untrue.

Whether prideful or shameful, arrogant or hollow, falsely all-competent or just as falsely incompetent, the selves we construct and present to ourselves and to others threaten to obliterate the true self we were created to become in Christ, the self we don't have to earn, the self not made with human hands but given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. False selves must die if a true self is to live. And these false selves will not go quietly. They will kick and raise a ruckus, pitch fits and cry out like the demons confronted by Christ: "What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" (Mark1:24) The false selves blame and disparage others. They shiver with anger and terror in the presence of Jesus. But as we recognize ourselves buried and risen and alive again in Christ, the weaker the false selves will become.

For Merton, the construction of a false self is a form of idolatry, what we might term an "auto-idolatry." Merton speaks to the temptation to build an image of the self, a strong, permanent, lasting image of me which I will believe in, serve and defend. Like a golden idol, I will cast the image of myself from molten materials. I will carve it with care, set it in a prominent place, worship it, and hope others will worship it, too. I will work to insure that no one takes the name of my image in vain, that it is treated seriously with respect, that it doesn't get threatened or damaged, because I want this image to endure all the changes of life. The false self is a lie we tell ourselves, a self-deception designed to deceive others, a misrepresentation of who we are and what the world is like.

The true self, by contrast, though (as Merton says) "hidden," "transcendent," "half-known," mysteriously "lost in Christ," is true in every sense, reflecting the deep reality of who God is, who we are, and what the world is like. This means at least two things: 1.) The more we attend to Christ, the more our true self will emerge; and 2.) God gives us our true self in community with others (a fact the Desert Fathers, though hermits, understood). With that, we have no real control over the true self, no real idea about what this self will finally become (other than like Christ), and no need to justify this self at all because the true self lives totally by God's mercy. The true self embraces the ambiguities of life and its transient and contingent nature, resting in the faithfulness of God. This also means that the true self, as opposed to the false one, does not delude itself into believing it owes its strength to pretensions of its own power and righteousness and ingenuity. Nor does the true self have to exist in a state of anxiety to sustain what the false self calls "motivation." The true self rests in God because it doesn't depend on us for anything.

In one of his most profound passages on the false versus the true self, Merton speaks of the way the false self masquerades as true. He writes:

"Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive uncontrollable dynamic of fabrication designed to protect mere fictitious identities - 'selves,' that is to say, regarded as objects. ... Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fill." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 15-16.]

The deep irony at the heart of realizing our true selves, then, lies precisely in our embracing our own contingency, our emptiness and need. We depend at every moment upon the God who holds us in existence. We are not omnipotent and immutable. Far from it. We are "frail creatures of dust and feeble as frail." Nor need we fear the fact that we are not all-powerful and unchangeable. Nor need we be anxious if we find ourselves feeling inconsequential, irrelevant and empty. As Merton writes:

"The [person] who dares to be alone can come to see that the 'emptiness' and 'uselessness' which the collective me fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen as illusory.” (Merton, Raids, p. 18.)

The true self finds itself sustained by God alone. This is the source of our peace. (Which may explain why these words flank one another on the walkway leading to the church at the Abbey of Gethsemani: "God Alone" above the monastic enclosure; "Pax" above the doorway to the Retreat House.)

There are times when Merton parallels what one might describe as C.S. Lewis's paradox of authenticity. Lewis believed that the more we try to be ourselves, that is, to be our unique, original and authentic selves, the more we tend to fall into a trap of constructing a false self. A mundane example of this spiritual dynamic occurs among those who, in their quest for non-conformity, wind up dressing, looking and talking alike. Only by surrendering our "selves" to Christ and by allowing Christ to make us ever more like him are we liberated from our false selves to be uniquely and truly "ourselves." And the hard work of surrendering ourselves to Christ, according to Merton, is best done in silence and solitude.

In silence and solitude, as difficult as it may be to endure, we may discover the quiet courage that allows us to see the desperate machinations banging and prattling inside our own heads; the inner devices and desires relentlessly driving us toward in-dependence and dis-grace; the source of those insecurities that cause us to deny who we are in Christ. Shutting the door on all the distractions that keep us from yielding to the God who stands always ready to awaken us so we can "come to ourselves," we find ourselves welcomed home from the far country. Merton understood that it is when the prodigal sees himself in the eyes of the waiting God that he knows who he is and what he is made for.

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