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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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.’” 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.” 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!
 Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.
 Ibid., 7.
 Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.
 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.
 Ibid., 38.
 Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.
 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.