In this second excerpt from his essay on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton, Fr Collins explores Merton's thinking on the otherness of spirituality — it is a process of learning to detach oneself from the attachments of the world, including ego.
Part II: Spirituality viewed as a journey from the false self to the True Self...
Thomas Merton's own spiritual life, as it deepened, called him toward more solitude and silence. Later in 1963 he wrote to Etta Gullick that he was feeling torn between his external commitments and his interior life. He shows his awareness of the importance of and also the difficulty of balancing and blending contemplation and action in all states in life. He realized that he must see some people but it was really wearing as he interiorly resisted the superficial side of it which distracted him from interior prayer.
"Obviously, anyone living a life of prayer has to confront this kind of problem and each one has to solve it for himself in his own circumstances. You being married obviously cannot evade the duties of your state. I being a monk cannot nevertheless use the duties of my 'state' as a blanket pretext for avoiding all contacts since some of them seem to be definitely willed by God. One can never work this out perfectly satisfactorily and therefore one always has to face the unpleasantness of a kind of insecurity, not knowing whether one has judged rightly. But it is a responsibility one must assume in one way or another. Once you form your conscience to abide by God's will, you will have all the fruits of prayer even though you may be deprived sometimes of the enjoyment" (Gullick, Etta 10.18.63 HGL 362-363)
The spiritual life involves a gradually expanding and deepening experiential awareness of God's love. As Merton would write near the end of his life: "The real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts." (Road to Joy, 1. 118) Merton had come to realize by 1966 how much this is true, no matter what one's spiritual "weather" may be at any given moment. His correspondent, Mrs. Gullick, apparently wrote of the purging that she had discovered to be an inevitable and essential part on the spiritual journey. Merton responded by saying that there are no rules for that. Each one gets what he needs. What matters is that God loves you for himself or for others, and there is no use in trying to plan on having or not having any. Feelings of consolation and desolation will be there but such distinctions are of little significance Are they as real as they seem to be? What matters is that God loves us. "If we had to rely on our love where would we be?" (Gullick, Etta 3.8.66 HGL 375)
Spirituality — a journey from the false self to the True Self...
Thomas Merton's principal metaphor for the spiritual life is that of a Journey. For him, spirituality is simply a journey from the false self toward the True Self. During the 1960's, after having written extensively during the 1950's about the Self and the self, Merton expounded in greater and more concrete detail about what he meant. In a 1962 letter to the Pakistani spiritual scholar and seeker, Abdul Aziz, Merton described the false self in terms of the exterior and interior detachments in the will. "One must know what are the real attachments in his soul before he can effectively work against them, and one must have detached will in order to see the truth of one's attachments." Life's painful situations will let us know where we are attached to our inner egoism. It is easier to practice exterior detachment while inner detachment centers around the 'self' in one's own will. "This attachment to the self is a fertile sowing ground for seeds of blindness, and from this most of our errors proceed. I think it is necessary for us to see that God Himself works to purify us on this inner 'self' that tends to resist Him and to assert itself against Him." (Abdul Aziz Dec 26, 62 HGL 53)
As the years went by, Thomas Merton became more and more realistic and compassionate about the realities of the false self. In a letter to Etta Gullick he wrote of the false self in terms of the inevitable defects of all human character. He said that he had never met anyone who did not have a lot of defects, things in their character which they can't really help. They can be very useful if one accepts them rightly. On the other hand he said that "there are a lot of defects which we could easily be without if we were not dominated by our environment, and caught as it were in a kind of trap by our own surroundings and our own history." (Gullick, Etta 2.16.64 HGL 35)
This realism about the human ego and its entrapments in the environment continued to be described by Merton in a 1966 letter to Linda Sabbath. She is a Canadian with great spiritual curiosity and her interests in religious experience prompted her to initiate a lengthy correspondence with the Trappist in the mid-1960's. Merton told her that no one eliminates the ego and its exterior ambiance. Rather, on the spiritual journey the ego becomes purified by the action of God cleansing us from the inside out. "Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction, and do not look for very special significances: all is part of a purification process, with which you must be patient," he told her. One cannot get rid of ego by your will power. The harder you try the more you will be in a bind. "Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain... Identify with the Ground and you won't worry too much about the weeds. The Ground doesn't. And the Ground can't be anything but Good. In Himself He plants His own seeds without you knowing or being able to do much about it." (Sabbath, Linda 3.19.66 HGL 527)
Merton philosophized in 1967 about the differing understandings of the self and The Self in Eastern and Western spiritualities. In a letter to the noted Chinese scholar, John C. H. Wu, the monk pointed to the failure in the West to understand and to experience anything except the empirical "I", which is the false self. Western thought and practice finds difficulty with the Eastern experience of and notion of the Void as The True Self. In the West no one has treated of person to show that "what is most ourself is what is least ourself, or better the other way round." The void that is our personality. Our concrete individuality is not really "I". "It is what is seemingly not present, the void, that is really I. And the 'I' that seems to be I is really a void."
Merton claimed that we are completely enslaved by the illusory I that is not I except in a purely fictional and social sense. One must learn to suppress the apparent division between empirical self and inner self. "There is no such division. There is only the Void which is I, covered over by an apparent I. And when the apparent I is seen to be void it no longer needs to be rejected, for it is I." (Wu, John 1.31.65 HGL 627)
Thomas Merton consistently taught that spirituality involves realizing in one's consciousness that God is ever-present in the depth of the soul. This is an experience of God which "...tells us that he is but not what he is. We tend to experience him as one whom we do not know." (Ripu Daman Lama 8.16.64 HGL 453) In his 1959 letter to Englishman John Harris he wrote about the presence of God to ourselves and to all creation in ways which very much reflect Eastern thought. He spoke of God in Zen-like fashion as a "vast emptiness" into which we sink and settle. "The great thing is not things but God Himself Who is not things but ourselves, and the world, and everything, lost in Him Who so fully IS that we come closer to Him by imagining He is not." We simply need to sink into Being in being and be carried away in it to see that this nothing is All. Everything is really very simple, Merton pointed out. We need not let yourselves be disturbed by "appearances of complication and multiplicity." He admitted here that he was sounding a bit like Meister Eckhart. (Harris, John 5.5.59 HGL 390)
Thomas Merton's sensitivity to Eastern ways of thought and expression about the Absolute Mystery can be found in a 1967 letter to his Indian poet and scholar friend, Amiya Chakravarty. Words, for Merton, were never the point. They simply pointed toward the Real which is beyond yet within the human, call it Being or Atman or Pneuma or simply Silence. Merton said that by being attentive and by learning to listen or, better said, by "recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing", we can be engulfed in a happiness which is beyond explanation: "the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations." (Chakravarty, Amiya 4.13.67 HGL 115)
Dr Patrick W Collins
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©2007Patrick W Collins