Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Musings on Merton: The True Self and False Self

            I have occasionally read and heard contemplatives writing and talking about the true self and the false self but until recently did not have a clue to what they were referring. That started to change after I participated in a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Spiritual Formation Course about “Thomas Merton and the Journey to True Self.”
From new seeds, new life will find a way.
            I think the best book to read for insight into Merton’s understanding of the false self and true self is his The New Man. It can be dense and a real struggle to get through, however. It is also more theoretical, philosophical, theological, and offers even less practical advice about contemplation than New Seeds of Contemplation. Nevertheless, Merton does discuss the true self and the false self in this latter work and therefore offers some insight.
            Unfortunately there is no index to New Seeds of Contemplation, so I cannot go back to read everything Merton wrote about the true and the false self.  I recall him first mentioning the false self in the chapter entitled “Everything That is, Is Holy,” in comments he made as he discussed detachment. I first became aware of the concept of detachment through my study and practice of mindfulness meditation, but thanks to Merton, I have learned more about detachment as a Christian spiritual discipline that is both essential to and flows from contemplation and leads to detachment from the false self and the discovery of the true self.
            Merton writes “We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. … There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our ‘self,’ that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will.”[1] According to Merton, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” [2] In other words, to “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self.”[3] “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.” [4] “My false self 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 self cannot help but be an illusion.”[5]
            “Until we love God perfectly,” writes Merton, “everything in the world will be able to hurt us,” everything including our separate, external, egotistic will that manifests itself in our false self. “Instead of worshipping God through His creation we are always trying to worship ourselves by means of creatures. … But to worship our false selves is to worship nothing. And the worship of nothing is hell.”[6]
            The “ourselves” and “self” that contemplation seeks to help us detach from is what Merton calls the “false self,” the illusory person we normally and usually think we are. This “false self” can get in our way of experiencing union with the divine. “The only true joy on earth,” writes Merton, “is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our very own souls.”[7]
            By detaching ourselves from the falsity of illusion and instead choosing the truth of our identity as created in the image of God, we “share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.” According to Merton, “to work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls ‘working out our salvation,’ is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears.” [8]
            If I understand Merton at all, it seems that the false self is the fallen self, the self that is tarnished by original sin, not the self we were created to be. The true self is the self of original blessing, the self that was created in the image of God. In contemplation, we open ourselves to the power of God to help us detach ourselves from the illusion that our sinful self is who we were meant to be and through the grace, mercy, and love of God rediscover our true self as a child of God created in God’s image.

                Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[1] New Seeds of Contemplation, 21.
[2] Ibid., 34-35.
[3] Ibid., 33.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 26.
[7] Ibid., 25.
[8] Ibid., 32.

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