Tag Archives: healthy religion

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 1 of 3

Thomas Merton has deeply influenced my spiritual journey. Since I think many who are seeking a different, more authentic way of being Christian today will find him compelling, I thought I would write a little about the spirituality of Thomas Merton as an introduction.

Thomas Merton was one of the greatest Catholic spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, and is one of the most well known authors of the contemplative life. While his life led him to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was a writer by nature and has authored over sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems. One writer once introduced him as “a monk by vocation, a theologian by conviction, and a writer by instinct.”[1] While he may have been all of these things, he is best known as a spiritual guide, a mystic, and a contemplative. His writings have inspired many who continue to find them relevant and insightful for their own spiritual journeys. In following  posts, I will explore Merton’s spirituality, his view of the goal of the Christian life, sin, and salvation.

Transformation of Self

Merton’s spirituality is fascinating. While his view of God, the world, and creation are not all that different from the Easter Christian tradition, his views are new for many in the West which tends to emphasize doctrine and theology over experience. For Merton, the goal of the Christian life is not an accumulation of information or correct doctrines, which is often the case for western Christianity. Reflecting upon Merton, one author writes, “He understood the interior transformation as the meaning and goal of the monastic life and of its solitude and contemplation.”[2] Concerning the inner journey Merton writes, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”[3] Clearly the transformation of the self, or as Merton states this “inner voyage” is central to his view of spiritual formation.

Merton often contrasted what he called the “true self” with the “false self.” For Merton, exposing the false self and walking into the true self (or realizing one’s true self) is what leads to transformation. Merton defines the false self in the following way:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him…My false 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.[4]

The false self is an illusion, it is not who we actually are. I think what Merton is saying here is that people put on masks and then mistakenly identify themselves with that mask. Merton writes, “The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[5] The major problem is that this mask tells us we are outside of God’s reach, that we are not loved, valued, and accepted as we are. (Notice many forms of religion will capitalize on the feelings of shame and unworthiness that is brought on by the false self.)

If the false self is an illusory mask, the true self is “the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit.’”[6] It is precisely in realizing our true self that we experience union with God. According to Merton, our true self is who we actually are; our true self is our self “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[7] As we expose the illusion of the false self, it is at this moment where we are receptive to God’s love and presence in our lives. This is available at all times and all places and for all people.

True Self/False Self

My spirituality has been so shaped by the idea of the true self and false self I’m not sure I can explain it any better than Merton. I view the false self as the part of us that feels unworthy of love and is full of shame – something I believe every human experiences (for more on shame explore Brene Brown’s work). Unhealthy religion will capitalize on this by pointing out our sin, separation, and unworthiness – often suggesting we need to believe all the correct things or do all the correct things in order to be loved and accepted by God. Healthy religion will allow us to transcend this shame, because we are already accepted as we are.

The false self is that part of us outside of God’s love because we don’t feel like we deserve God’s love. When we step into our true self, we realize that we are deeply loved by God regardless of whether or not we feel worthy. The spiritual path helps us walk into our true self by exposing the illusion of the false self – that part of us that feels outside of God’s loving union, that says I’m not good enough or worthy enough. In other words, the spiritual path allows us to become more aware of reality – the reality that we are already in loving union with God!

For me, this is everything!

 

 

 

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.

[4] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.

Spirituality is about seeing

All religious teachers have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see. That’s what religion is for. That’s why the Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Be awake.” [1]

It is unfortunate that for many religion has tended to teach people “what to see rather than how to see.”[2] Some people are drawn to religion because they are trying to make sense of the world. Some want security, and often they believe this is found in certainty. Thus, we see in our world today, a whole lot of religious people who “split hairs” over theological issues, doctrine, and truth claims, all the while missing the point entirely! Religion is not the same as spirituality, but healthy religion develops spirituality – they are not mutually exclusive.

What is spirituality?

Spirituality is about seeing. It’s not about earning or achieving. It’s about relationship rather than results or requirements. Once you see, the rest follows. You don’t need to push the river, because you are in it.[3]

Spirituality is about seeing, and religion should be the forms, rituals, and communities that help people see.

See what?

See the Divine, Ultimate Reality, the Sacred in all things, to see that everything is connected. To see that we are all living in this Sacred Presence or this Flow.

Religion should help foster this awareness, informing us that this already exists, but much of religion has instead produced forms, rituals and communities that try to control what people see, how people see, and what they cannot see. In essence, some feel the need to control and push “the river” rather than inviting people to see and enjoy the river. You don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops, pray for hours each day, attend church every Sunday, or read Scripture ever day in order to see and enjoy the river. Your don’t need religion in order to be spiritual, but healthy religion can deeply enhance this “seeing.”

The difference between healthy and unhealthy religion has to do with control. Unhealthy religion tries to control what you believe and what you see. Healthy religion understands that whatever the Source of all things is (God, Ultimate Reality, the Universe, the Sacred), it is ultimately Mystery and cannot be contained.

Religion…has not tended to create honest humble people who trust that God is always beyond them. We aren’t focused on the great mystery. Rather, religion has tended to create people who think they have God in their pockets, people with quick, easy, glib answers. That’s why so much of the West is understandably abandoning religion. People know the great mystery cannot be that simple and facile.[4]

mountain-sunrise-background-wallpaper-1

Perhaps God is not so much a “being out there” who can be clearly defined, contained, understood, and controlled as much as God is a flow – or a dance – we are all invited into. Perhaps God is more like a sunrise on a beautiful morning. When those first rays of sunlight hit your face, something beautiful happens. For a moment, you feel at peace. You feel connected, centered, and invited into something far deeper than yourself. It is Mystery – you cannot describe, contain, or control the Sun. It’s simply there for you to enjoy.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 29.

[2] Quote taken from Richard Rohr.

[3] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 33.

[4] Ibid., 35-36.