Who I am on the surface is not the true me. I’m not who I appear to be. My exterior is only the person I think I am, and the guy I put on display for others to see. The real me is buried deep within – unknown even to me, unknown to all but God. I must cast off this projected exterior image, my false self, and discover my true self, the person I was created to be. That process of losing and finding is the stuff of sainthood. I’m living in a dense forest of unreality. Finding my way out is a difficult, confusing, scary task.
The key to finding myself is finding God.
I’m transformed into my true self through the power of the One hidden in me. There is nothing I can do on my own. Even stripping myself of all that is not God will not bring me any closer to the reality of God. The only thing I can do is to respond to God’s call to enter into union with God.
I created my external self, not God. Out of the clay of my own egocentric desires, my own selfish, sinful actions, I molded the person I see in the mirror, the person who loves to flee reality. The real me, my true self, sleeps silently in the depths of my being, undisturbed by all my surface activity, waiting, patiently, to be awakened by God. My true self was created by God, made for God. And I cannot be my true self without knowing God. I am hidden in God. And God is hidden in me.
On my own I can learn something about God through reason and reading, but, as Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation: “There is no human and rational way in which I can arrive at that contact, that possession of Him which will be the discovery of Who He really is and Who I am in Him.” Merton goes on to say: “The only One Who can teach me to find God is God, Himself, alone.”
For most of my life, I was moving away from God, carried along on the tide I created. All along I had been fighting a Wind which had been trying to force me to turn in the opposite direction. My initial movement away from God was propelled by the influence of sin, and was powered by my ego and illusions. The habits acquired while traveling in the wrong direction are hard to reverse.
The superficial, fictional me I see in the mirror is far from the reality of God. The guy in the mirror is incapable of transcendent experiences. Only my openness to God’s call can put me on the path to becoming more receptive to the mystical dimension hidden within me.
This stuff doesn’t come quickly or easily…which is why we don’t bother with it. I devoted a few pages of the first edition of The Sun and Moon Over Assisi to explaining Merton’s ideas on the true and false self stuff. Mostly I quoted sources who understood. I had deceived myself into thinking I understood. In truth, my mind sort of got it – but it was just another theory neatly tucked away in a dingy corner of my brain. Slowly, I am beginning to “see” it with different eyes.
Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis mentioned in his address before Congress last week, wrote so clearly about deep spiritual things that we think we get it. The fact is, his understanding was hidden in his words, which only point the way, showing us the right direction. But we must walk alone. Only God can teach me how to find God…which is why so many true contemplatives are so reluctant to talk about their inner life. They cannot teach us anything – aside from a few techniques to help us get started. But even those, with God’s help, we can figure out on our own.
Find a quiet place. Sit. Be still, mentally and physically. And listen. Easy? No. It is the most difficult thing in the world. Nothing seems to be happening. Results take a lifetime. Maybe even longer.
We are so far from God, it is beyond our ability to measure. Merton knew this, even after a quarter of a century as a monk. He knew he was far from his goal, and had miles to go. Perhaps he came close in Asia. Perhaps not. Only God knows.