I couldn’t resist. As I was glancing through a magazine that I read online, my eye spotted the title, “Discovering the true self in God with Merton’s guidance.” I knew immediately that I would be reading this one. As most folks who know anything about me know, I find the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, inspiring and instructive. Although he died tragically in 1968 in Thailand far away from his monastic home in Kentucky, his impact on the world continues in some remarkable ways. He certainly is one of the most impactful spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century.
But Merton was not the only lure to read the article. The author of the article is another person I admire and follow through her writings. Ilia Delio is a Franciscan who teaches at Villanova. She is a widely recognized expert on science and religion. I like reading her because she knows so much about the natural world that I never know. And yet, she carefully tries to articulate her faith in a theology that takes seriously the natural world and, yet, honors her own Christian and Franciscan sensibilities.
As I engaged the article, I realized it was another one of the series in which famous people talk about an influential book they read that made a difference in their life. Delio was writing about my favorite book of Merton, namely, Need Seeds of Contemplation, originally published in 1961. Delio confesses that she discovered Merton in a laboratory. In her own words, “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)…” She says she “was drawn to Merton like a magnet.”
She tells us more about Merton when she acknowledges, “What drew me to Merton (and still does) was his deep inner search for truth and light, his inner yearning for God.” As I read on in Delio’s article, I realized what I liked was her own perspective on this favorite book of mine. She summarizes in these words: “Two particular ideas stand out in the beginning that I think govern the flow of ideas throughout the book: prayer and self-identity.” She was right, but I probably would have offered a slightly different summary.
I would join her in saying Merton is famous for wrestling with the issue of identity. No doubt, this is partly true because much of his early life---if not his entire life---was spent finding out who he was at the deepest level. Merton worked effectively with the well-known pair of ideas, namely, the false self and the true self. When I first read him, these ideas resonated so well with me. I realized immediately I knew a great deal about the false self. But I was not at all confident I knew anything about the true self.
Delio continues her sharing when she focuses on the identity issue. “Often we think of ourselves as finished products, as if God created us and then disappeared. But Merton…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.” I find this perspective makes a great deal of sense. I don’t think I ever assumed I was a finished product. I am willing to assume there is some core “me.” Perhaps there is an enduring “me” that gets lived out in this body and with this mind throughout my earthly life. If this is in any sense accurate, I am assuming that is what Merton meant by the true self.
As I said, however, I know more about my false self. I know that person I tried to be. I know the many masks I have worn during my lifetime. I can tell you about the persons I have tried to be to please others---my parents and other people. These masks were not dishonest, but they were not the true self. That quest---like Merton’s quest---has been my spiritual pilgrimage over the past few decades. And Merton certainly has been a help, as Ilia Delio helps me.
Further into her article, Delio says something that I found very perceptive. “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.” I am not sure I ever would have come up with that on my own. True identity requires honest self-love. It requires that we see ourselves as true, good and beautiful. I wish someone had told me that a long time ago. But in many cases, I think people find that hard to believe and, perhaps, even harder to do. But until we get that right, it will be hard to get anything else right.
Delio adds one more thing, which she would be confident is Merton’s sense. “Without real love of self, all other loves are distorted.” Perhaps this explains why so much love today is messed up love. There is so much messed up love because people don’t know about honest self-love. Instead of honest self-love, we go looking for self-love in the love of others. And it just doesn’t work very well.
I thank Thomas Merton and his interpreter, Ilia Delio, for giving me another, fresh look at an old personal issue for me. It is the question of identity. Who am I really? Who is the real me---the true self?