A few years ago, I read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton as a reading for the season of lent with my dear friend in our long distance two person book club.
I find Merton to be a fascinating thinker, and New Seeds of Contemplation was full of insights about faith, meditation, authenticity, sin, and the life of a Christian. His writing is densely packed with ideas, but there’s one idea in Chapter 5, “Things in Their Identity” that has stuck with me and I often revisit.
It helps to know that he starts by observing that a tree, animal, mountain or other creature has no choice but to be itself. And by being itself it gives glory to God. As humans, however, we have the choice to be ourself or to not be ourselves. In fact, he argues, the project of our life is to create and become ourselves.
Then he writes:
We are not very good at recognizing illusion, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves–the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
[sic] Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.
I find this image of the false self – like some weird zombie mummy or a pitiful, wounded shadow of a self – haunting (which I think is what he was going for).
I wonder how I can be my truest self, but also still make it through daily life. Merton spent a large part of his in solitude in a hermitage at a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky. My husband is fond of saying that he’s not super impressed by people who achieve enlightenment in a cave of solitude – in the cave you only have to deal with and face your own demons. Show me how to transcend reality while you’re caring for a young human, when you have to face your own demons while caring for a small human.
I love my children desperately, but I find that they are stark mirrors of the self. If I have an illusion about myself: the way I talk, the way I speak, the way I stand, the way I treat people – I have to look no further than my children to see if what I think is happening is real. Because, as the old parenting adage goes, children may not listen to what you say, but they will model what you do.
In that sense, I feel like they are great spiritual teachers, but also strikingly similar to trickster demigods who will torment you into learning the lessons life offers you. But my girls are getting to the age where they can learn to be something other than what they are. I think of all the things I wish I could teach them, it would be that they don’t have to hide or cover themselves with accolades, knowledge or the hundreds of other kinds of armor we use to protect ourselves from the world. But how do I do that, when I’m entirely sure I know how to do that myself?
I don’t have any answers or insights here today. Just sharing what I thought was some beautiful insights about life, the world and what it can teach us. I sometimes think that we don’t have to answer every question, but that puzzling over the questions can be enough.