July 1, 2022 Wayne Northey

Thoughts on: Discovering the true self in God with Thomas Merton’s guidance

This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Listen to this article

This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Editor’s note: “Take and Read” is a weekly blog that features a different contributor’s reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, “can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb.”

Jan 23, 2017

by Ilia Delio

Spirituality

image above: Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University)

WN: In Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation by Father John Main, we read:

Just as we can cut God down to our own size, impose our identity on God, so we can do this with other people. Indeed, if we do it to God we inevitably do it to other people, and if we do it to them, we inevitably do it to God. This is the obverse of saying what St John said:

‘If a person says “I love God” while hating his brother or sister, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother or sister whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen. And indeed this command comes to us from Christ Himself: that whoever loves God must also love his brother and sister’ (1 John 4.19–21).

Let us be quite clear what St John is saying, namely that we cannot love God or our neighbour. We love both or neither.And what love means is rejoicing in the otherness of the other because the depth of this awareness is the depth of our communion with the other. In this communion the discovery of our own true self and that of the other is the same discovery. So, in the people we live with we find not objects to be cast in our own superficial likeness but, much more, we find in them our true selves, for our true selves only appear, only become realized, when we are wholly turned towards another.

To punish another is to make him your brother.anonymous

In meditation we develop our capacity to turn our whole being towards the Other. We learn to let our neighbour be just as we learn to let God be. We learn not to manipulate our neighbour but rather to reverence them, to reverence their importance, the wonder of their being; in other words, we learn to love our neighbour. Because of this, prayer is the great school of community. In and through a common seriousness and perseverance in prayer we realize the true glory of Christian community as a brotherhood and sisterhood of the anointed, living together in profound and loving mutual respect. Christian community is in essence the experience of being held in reverence by others and we in our turn reverencing them. This reverence for each other reveals the members of the community as being sensitively attuned one to the other on the wavelength of the Spirit, the same Spirit that has called each of us to fullness of love. In others I recognize the same Spirit that lives in my heart, the Spirit that constitutes my real self. In this recognition of the other person, a recognition that remakes my mind and expands my consciousness, the other person comes into being as they really are, in their real self, not as a manipulated extension of myself. People move and act out of their own integral reality and no longer as some image created by my imagination. Even if our ideas or principles clash, we are held in unison, in dynamic equilibrium, by our mutual recognition of each other’s infinite lovableness, importance and essential unique reality.

We cannot love God or our neighbour. We love both or neither.

Thus the mutually supporting and suffering dynamic of Christ’s mystical body has just this creative aim: the realization of each other’s essential being. True community happens in the process of drawing each other into the light of true being. In this process we share a deepening experience of the joy of life, the joy of Being, as we discover more and more of its fullness in a loving faith shared with others. The essence of community then is a recognition of and deep reverence for the other. Our meditation partakes of this essence because it leads us to turn wholly towards the Other, who is the Spirit in our heart. The full revelation of otherness, and our communion with all is achieved in reverential silence. So complete is our attention to the other that we say nothing ourselves but wait for the other to speak. The mantra [Ma-ra-na-tha] guides us into a deeper consciousness of the silence that reigns within us, and then supports us while we wait. (Emphases added)

The above complements the reflection below. It also reflects the wisdom in these two posts:

Living in Communion: AN INTERVIEW WITH FATHER THOMAS HOPKO
March 4, 2015;

Homo Homini Ubuntu,  with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Ubuntu
July 1, 2022.

To consider: If “In others I recognize the same Spirit that lives in my heart, the Spirit that constitutes my real self.,” then how dare I ever seek to destroy that presence of God in every heart through my words or actions?

excerpts:

New Seeds of Contemplation
by Thomas Merton
New Directions, 1961

In this communion the discovery of our own true self and that of the other is the same discovery. So, in the people we live with we find not objects to be cast in our own superficial likeness but, much more, we find in them our true selves, for our true selves only appear, only become realized, when we are wholly turned towards another.

I discovered Thomas Merton in the midst of a laboratory. I was a doctoral student in pharmacology at New Jersey Medical School working on a model of moto-neuron disease known as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and remember standing in the middle of the lab one day, procrastinating by thumbing through TIME magazine. I enjoyed reading the book review section and was struck by a new biography of a monk named Thomas Merton. I had never heard of Merton, but the summary of the book was intriguing. I went home that evening and reread the book review. The highlights of his life were fascinating: an intellectual from Columbia University whose cultural and literary life was relinquished for one of solitude and silence in a Trappist monastery. I was drawn to Merton like a magnet. I bought Monica Furlong’s biography and read it in a single evening. I then went and purchased Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and after finishing this book knew that I wanted to follow Merton’s path. The rest, as they say, is history.

In others I recognize the same Spirit that lives in my heart, the Spirit that constitutes my real self.

What drew me to Merton (and still does) was his deep inner search for truth and light, his inner yearning for God. I encountered his New Seeds of Contemplation while teaching a graduate spirituality course at Washington Theological Union. This book, in particular, encapsulated his spirituality for me — not in a biographical sense — but his profound soulful depth which at times seem to touch infinity. In fact, it is the opening chapters of this book that I return to again and again because they are, to me, like the opening chapters of Genesis, revealing the truth of creation and our capacity for God.

Two particular ideas stand out in the beginning that I think govern the flow of ideas throughout the book: prayer and self-identity. Merton explores the integral link between prayer and identity in his opening chapters, “Pray for Your Own Discovery” and “Things in Their Identity.” He plumbs these ideas with the mind of a philosopher and the pen of a poet:

The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God’s will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity. To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, my very self.

Often we think of ourselves as finished products, as if God created us and then disappeared. But Merton, like the spiritual writer Beatrice Bruteau, realized how short-sighted this thinking can be. The “I” is not a finished product, something left over from God’s creative activity; rather it is the very process of God’s creative action. Merton, too, had something of this idea when he said,

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.” To know this truth, Merton wrote, we are to “pray for our own discovery.

Merton drew on the integral relationship between God and the human person, as if defining the double helix of divinity and humanity: our lives are intertwined with God’s life. “God utters me like a partial thought of himself,” he wrote. Hence the only path to true happiness is prayer, and prayer begins with self-discovery.

The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God’s will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity. To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, my very self.

Merton’s chapter on self-identity is a classic on par with Saint Augustine‘s opening page of the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Merton wrote: “The secret of our identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.” In fact, one could hear the voice of Augustine echoing throughout Merton’s prose. For New Seeds of Contemplation aims to do what Augustine himself did, to discover the ground of our happiness, our true vocation as human persons. Merton’s work like Augustine’s Confessions is not a “how to” book but a foundations book; the ground of contemplation, the realization that there is no cogito or ego only SUM. 1 Contemplation is the transcendence of all divisions into the higher reality of oneness-in-love:

It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

God utters me like a partial thought of himself . . .

It is apparent that the parable of the seeds (Luke 8:4-15) influenced Merton’s thought. A farmer knows that seeds must be planted on rich fertile soil, free of rocks and debris, if good seeds are to bring forth good life. Similarly, to say that God utters me like a partial thought of himself is to say there is a seed of God planted in my life, but the inner soil of my heart must be fertile and free of hardened rocks if this seed is to grow into the fullness of my life. Merton becomes eloquent at times, his artistic prose drawing the lines between Creator and creature, like a painter scanning the canvas of the soul. Nowhere is he more expressive than in his chapter on the true and false self:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. … My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life. And such a life cannot help but be an illusion. … The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. … Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in him. … Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find him (pp. 34-36).

Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us.

The search for true identity requires an honest self-love. Love of self is not selfishness but a humble recognition of our lives as true, good and beautiful. Without real love of self, all other loves are distorted. Lack of self-knowledge, St. Bonaventure once wrote, makes for faulty knowledge in all other matters. Merton realized that so many people are weighed down by deep hurts, anger, resentment, lost loves, broken relationships, desperately seeking to fill their lives with happiness and peace. As he himself was searching for truth and identity, he came to a deep insight, that each human person already has what they are looking for:

Within myself is a metaphorical apex of existence at which I am held in being by my Creator.

Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find him, I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find him.

Merton said, “We cannot go to heaven because we do not know where heaven is or what it is,” so God comes to us. God comes down from heaven and finds us, just as God sought Adam in the Garden of Eden. There is nothing we can do or say that can alienate God from our lives. We can disown God, but God cannot disown us because God cannot disown God’s own self; the self that is the very source of our lives. (2 Timothy 2:13)

The search for true identity requires an honest self-love. Love of self is not selfishness but a humble recognition of our lives as true, good and beautiful.

Merton understood this inscrutable mystery by saying “our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us.” Our praying to God is God praying in us. Our lives and God’s life are so intertwined that loving God is God loving God’s own self in us. Prayer is waking up to this reality, coming to a new consciousness of God’s in-dwelling presence. “We become contemplatives,” Merton wrote, “when God discovers himself in us.” So God does not desire that we become anything other than the true self which God has loved from all eternity.

Please click on: Discovering The True Self in God

Hits: 11

Footnotes
  1. See Wikipedia about the famous “Cogito, ergo sum” of philosopher René Descartes. That idea, Archbishop Desmond Tutu argues as seen in the Homo Homini Ubuntu post mentioned above is the central scourge of Western individualism. It is also direct disavowal of the doctrine of the Trinity as a perichoresis of dancing, pulsating love–in effect calling all humanity to join in, with our becoming a kind of fourth Trinitarian dance partner. Glorious![]

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

%d bloggers like this: