For the past couple of days I have been working on a little paper on my favorite monk, Thomas Merton. Even though Merton tragically died in 1968, there still is an amazing amount of interest in him and his spirituality. Somehow this guy who took vows in 1941 in an obscure, rigorist monastery in the middle of nowhere Kentucky became relevant as a spiritual mentor and leader in his own time and still in our time.
Too often monks are seen as those folks who deny and despise the world. The caricature is some grumpy guy running off to join a bunch of other strange folks to do their religious thing. In some ways Merton was running away. But what he was running away from was himself! He wanted to transform his life. He was unhappy with the life he was living, although in many respects, it was a successful life. He was a college professor, had written and had a bright future in front of him. But he wanted to be happy.
I think Merton is so fascinating and still relevant because his writings let us see the inner struggles of a person in search of authenticity and meaning. He was betting that would not come via money, worldly success or fame. The ironic part is Merton likely became more famous because he was a monk than if he had stayed at St. Bonaventure or, even, gone to Yale. He could have been wealthy from book royalties, but his vow of poverty meant the monastery and other good causes were the winners.
His writings are inspired and inspiring. He is very quotable. He puts things in a way that makes you think and to work on your own authenticity and meaning in life. I consider him a pal, even though I never met him. The first time I encountered his ideas that each of us has a false self and a true self, I knew I had contacted a spiritual friend. That continues to this day. Let’s look at one example of a piece that touches me in significant ways.
In his book from the early 1960s, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton shares a deep truth that he knows. He says, “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…” Let’s unpack this and be instructed.
Surely there is a center of our being in every one of us. But we may not know or be in touch with that center. Too many of us are stuck on the outside of ourselves---often dealing with illusion or self-delusion. I have been there. It is what Merton means by our false self. It is the self others want us to be. Often it is a cultural self---wearing the right clothes and fashionable in every way possible. Merton says there is deep within a pure place---untouched by sin or illusion.
At the center of our being is the point or spark which belongs to God. Of course, it is ours, too, but Merton wisely knows that finally we are not really independent, self-enclosed humans. We are originally and organically related to God and to each other. Too many operate with the myth of independence. Finally we are made by love and for love. We are relational creatures.
At that center point we come to see that we are the pure glory of God. What dignity and delight. And how sad that we often we desecrate that glory by inglorious lives of misplaced energy and action. Sometimes we win, but the win turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory. It is a win that is so costly we lose the battle.
Merton uses a wonderful image to talk about this deep center. It is like a pure diamond blazing its heavenly light. Everyone has this diamond. You are a diamond! And if we could see each other’s diamond, the world becomes light and enlightened. Merton concludes that passage with a clear sense of the peace that would come upon our world.
I love the fact that I have that deep center and that it is diamond-like. The means I have value and am valuable. If I can accept it and live it out, I don’t cheapen my life in stupid ways. The spiritual path is the path that comes to know the truth that Merton speaks. The spiritual journey is the commitment to live like you are a diamond. In business language, we become “value add” in any situation we find ourselves.
It is amazing to realize I possess a diamond. And I revel in the fact that you do, too.