Merton and the 'True Self'
Writing about Paul Elie yesterday has me recalling a passage from his outstanding book The Life You Save May be Your Own. I first read it in law school, when I was searching intensely for my own place, for my own path, for that combination of career, location and life plan that, like a railroad switch, would direct me automatically onto a long track of contentment.
Looking back now, then, it's no surprise that these lines from Elie charting a restive time in Thomas Merton's life carried the power of a diagnosis:
For [Merton] the vital religious questions will always be variants of the question: Who am I, and who am I meant to be? In this sense he is a representative, even a typical, modern person, whose strong sense of self is constantly met by the sense that the self and its preoccupations are unworthy or illusory. His answers will always involve a pledge to devote himself to an ideal way of life, and this way of life will be bound up with an ideal setting: a space, a place, a destination, a habitation. If only he can find the place where he is meant to be, he will tell himself, he will become the person he is called to be -- will fulfill his God-given nature.
This language resonates still today, not only in my life, but in the language of a dominant strand of Catholic theology. I'm thinking here of the motif of the "true self," which recurs often in the writings of Catholic authors like Fr. Robert Barron and Fr. James Martin, S.J. In his book And Now I See . . . : A Theology of Transformation, for example, Fr. Barron offers a timely and apt description of the forces that pulled at Merton: "Merton felt in his bones that his own life constituted a battleground between conflicting interests, warring tendencies, mutually exclusive 'selves.' For him, the spiritual life could be defined as the awakening to the true 'I,' the Christ living in me, and the dying to the vaporous and destructive ego created by fear." It is, says Fr. Barron, the "motif of the inner battle," the "struggle between two selves..."
This language speaks to many modern believers, and I find it helpful when talking to students. The journey into adulthood, particularly at the college and high school level, is often filled with the conflicting interests and warring tendencies that Fr. Barron describes. They are the ghosts stalking Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat. Students wrestle with different selves circling within them, and part of growing up is discerning which of these selves to nourish, and which to abandon. It's a delicate subject, however, because the turn inward can lead to solipsism. So our faith, and good education, constantly call the teacher to return to a Christian paradox: the self is found in service, in letting the self be displaced, in abandoning the search for the "ideal" and instead embracing the cross.