Extrapolations from “New Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton. All quotes in this article belong to his above mentioned book. Thomas Merton was a great Christian thinking of the early to mid 1900’s. He was a Cistercian monk who spent much of his time writing and pushing for peace between Eastern and Western religions (though not equating them) and protesting war and racism. Because of this, he seems to speak in a way different from many modern Christian writers. Though he is not without his critics and his flaws, his writing has been quite refreshing for me.
America, true to it’s rugged individualistic self, loves the expression: “Just be yourself” and the more vernacular version: “You do you, I’ma do me”. Now, this phrase has always bothered me. I’d think “Don’t be yourself, yourself stinks. Your self is stuck in sin; it’s not good enough. Don’t accept your flaws and your weaknesses just because they come naturally to you.” It just felt intrinsically wrong; a flawed argument. I never heard God telling anyone in the Bible to just “be yourself”. Does God tell us to be ourselves? Sorta, actually.
First, I think it’s important to distinguish between the various self options that exist. There’s the natural self: which is our natural conditions and basic instincts and attributes we are born with. There is also the false self: who we pretend to be and who we often think we are. Our real self: the self that we currently are. And lastly, there is also the true self: who God created us to be. The self that can only exist in our fully sanctified perfect state. So which self should we be? How do I know which one I am now? Am I all of these? At the risk of improper grammar: at my very core, who is my “self”? WHO AM I?
So, over the course of this discussion, I’d like to discuss the ideas of knowing yourself leading to knowing God, knowing yourself giving God the most glory, discovering your true self, the dangers of not knowing yourself, our unique identities, our sanctity and our salvation, creativity, and community.
Why is our natural self not enough? Why can’t we just be how we were born? Merton says, “A tree gives God glory by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is obeying him. It consents, so to speak, to His creative love.” So why can’t I just be like a tree and be whatever shape the wind of the world blows me and my form takes, as I was created. Because, He continues later, “Unlike the animals and the trees, it is not enough for us to be what our nature intends.” The problem is that while trees have no say in their form, “God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please.” Unfortunately, “I came in to the world in a false self, I was born in a mask.” My natural self is continually striving to become my false self, instead of my true self. Who is this 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. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.”
But what about the people who, without God, do good acts and change the world for the better?
“Even though some natural acts are good, they have a tendency, when they are only natural, to concentrate my faculties on the man that I am not, the one I cannot be, the false self in me, the character that God does not know… Even when I try to please God, I tend to please my own ambition, His enemy.”
Personally, I love living behind a mask and embracing my false self. This is because I fear to be truly known and I fear deep connection. But, without being known by God and by others, I’m avoiding being truly loved and cared for. So, if I don’t embrace my true, I can’t be truly known. “We only know Him in so far as we are known by Him.” If we do not let God show us who we are, then we can’t be known by Him. And if we aren’t known by him, we can’t fully know him. It’s like when you have a friend that isn’t vulnerable or open. How can your relationship have any depth? When they pretend to be fine and cover their problems, then a barrier is kept in place in your friendship and you can’t love each other as well as you could.
How do we recognize our false self? 2 Cor. 13:5 says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” We can also recognize our false self, when we find our true self and spot the differences. We must strive to know our true self so that we can cast aside our false self. “To become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be”
I believe it’s worth striving to know my true self because it can direct me back to my maker. You know how in some movies, maybe a spy or a detective, “can tell everything there is to know about a man by the way he dresses, or by the way he eats or walks or whatever it may be”. There are ways we come to know the maker by knowing his creation. We can discover this in the universe he created or deep down in our hearts that he crafted. Ps 139:14 says we are “wonderfully and fearfully made”. Eph 2:10 says that we are his “workmanship”. Our very beings were crafted intentionally by a God who wants to love us and be loved by us. We can see God’s character in our deepest urges of the heart, not the flashes of passion that rage in our natural selves. Our hunger for justice and peace and love and being known, are all signs that point to a maker that desires these things.
Another motivation for discovering our true self is that we can use our unique selves as unique instruments of God’s love to others. Merton says “Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if He did not live in me, and because His love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter from which it would not otherwise come.” What a special gift.
But how do I discover the gifts and ways God can move through me if I do not discover this true self that God created me to be? “In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be.” I would suggest that our sin, lack of fulfillment, and lack of joy is due to this gap between our striving for the false self and striving for our true self. We must find this true identity, so we can fulfill the great commandment: to love God and love others.
Now, I know my “identity is in Christ”, and that I’m a “son or daughter of God”, but that’s all vague Christianese that neither describes my current state in the real world or supplies me with unique insights into how to live my life and know what God has created me for. I cannot fully realize God’s potential to move in and through me until I know who God is and how God has made me. God has given me gifts to bless others and share his love to others. If we don’t spend time in determining who we are and how we were created, we end up only speaking the thoughts and mimicking the actions of others who have spent that time. We become empty machines, simply following the rote ramblings of men who have discovered themselves and thus their God. God tells us when can know him by meditating (or dwelling) on His law and His word. Merton suggests that this time of contemplation is the key to our discovery of God and ourselves. Merton describes it this way “Very often it is the solitary (contemplative) who has the most to say; not that he uses many words, but what he says is new, substantial, unique. He has something to communicate, something personal which he is able to share with others. He has something real to give because he himself is real” When this doesn’t exist, people find themselves in “only in immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and clichés repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking.”
So what does this contemplation look like? Merton describes the process this way, “To work out our own identity in God… is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation.” We must be thoughtful. We must be paying attention. We must be sensitive to the Spirits movings. We must be in community with others. We must seek God whole-heartedly. Merton continues, “But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him, and in Him, the work will never be done.”
To find our true self is also to enable us to be more fully used by God in community with others. Merton thinks of it this way, “The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else. It gives them a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.” Because they’ve stopped worrying about how others view them and stopped worrying about trying to become their false self, that now they are emptied to respond wholly to God’s will in their lives.
Not only will seeking him help me to be known by him, but it will result in minimizing the gap between my false and my true self. The self I want to be will continue to be more and more like the true self God created me to be. “Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence. Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God”
There are dangers if I miss finding my true self. I will be motivated by wrong things. I will be confused on where the spirit is leading me. Not recognizing which self we are acting in can cause us to use wrong motivations and follow the wrong spirit. These ideas are especially dangerous if we think we are following God, but are just barely off-course. You can end up going down a dark road, thinking you are following the light. “Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?” “The pleasure that is in his heart when he does difficult things and succeeds in doing them well, tells him secretly, ‘I am a saint’… He burns with self-admiration and thinks: ‘It is the fire of the love of God.’ He thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost” “He will be virtuous not because he loves God’s will but because he wants to admire his own virtues”. In the end “When a proud man thinks He is humble, his case is hopeless.” Well, there is always hope in Christ. But when we misunderstand ourselves, we misunderstand the God we serve and we misunderstand the people we are called to love.
In the end, we need to seek to know God and love God and serve God. We can only do those things fully if we know ourselves more fully. God’s ways are so far above our ways, but I believe we can’t even fully know ourselves, much less God. So we must seek to be what God means for us to be, even if we aren’t quite sure why or how.
I want to strive to seek God perfectly, or as Merton describes it: “to withdraw from illusion and pleasure, from worldly anxieties and desires, from the works that God does not want, from a glory that is only human display; to keep my mind free from confusion in order that my liberty may be always at the disposal of His will; to entertain silence in my heart and listen for the boice of God; to cultivate an intellectual freedom from the images of created things in order to receive the secret contact of God in obscure love; to love all men as myself; to rest in humility and to find peace in withdrawal from conflict and competition with other men; to turn aside from controversy and put away heavy loads of judgment and censorship and criticism and the whole burden of opinions that I have no obligation to carry; to have a will that is always ready to fold back within itself and draw all the powers of the soul down from its deepest center to rest in silent expectancy for the coming of God, poised in tranquil and effortless concentration upon the point of my dependence on Him; to gather all that I am and have all that I can possibly suffer or do or be, and abandon them all to God in the resignation of a perfect love and blind faith and pure trust in God to do His will.”
A prayer for our hearts:
God, “Keep me, above all things, from sin. Keep me from the death of deadly sin, which puts hell in my soul. Keep me from the dead works of vanity and the thankless labor in which artists destroy themselves for pride and money and reputation, and saints are smothered under the avalanche of their own importunate zeal. Untie my hands and deliver my heart from sloth. Set me free from laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me, and from the cowardice that does what is not demanded, in order to escape sacrifice. But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride, which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for you alone. For there is only one thing that can satisfy love and reward it, and that is You alone.”