What We Have To Be Is What We Are: Merton’s Unfinished Agenda

WHAT WE HAVE TO BE IS WHAT WE ARE: MERTON’S UNFINISHED AGENDA
by Joan Chittister, OSB

Merton’s continuing insistence that there is no real spiritual development until we plumb the depths of the self to determine who we are – without the masks, without the labels – is a call to honesty and to self-criticism. The difficulty lies in the fact that both qualities are long lost in the Madison Avenue approach to life. In this world, life becomes a matter of creating images of who I aspire to be rather than setting out to understand who I really am. What really drives me, what I really think and want and care about are the raw materials of me. It is out of these things that the self emerges, shapes and forms itself, and finally, finally, finally comes to fullness.

What Merton calls us to do as part of this slow but fulfilling process depends on the raw and ruthless debunking of the self to the self that is the ground of humility. He challenges us all to cling to the reality that is ourselves rather than enshroud ourselves in the cosmetic world around us, mere specters of who we are each meant to become. He calls us to the most daring truth of all, the truth of who we really are. In the center of the self. In the heart of us. Behind the veils.

But it is not a simple process. To discover the real self implies the peeling away of the layers of persona we have so carefully cultivated for the sake of fitting into a plastic world full of other plastic images. It requires, as they say in publishing, the courage to refuse to believe our own press. Until that happens we risk the danger daily of falling down the rabbit hole of the self. We begin to see ourselves as above, beyond, different from, superior to all the other mere mortals around us. In political language we call it “exceptionalism.” In spiritual dialects we call it “holiness.” We find ourselves outside the pale of basic spiritual disciplines, above the appetites that score the rest of the human race, psychological robots made out of the stuff of a papier-mache world.

It is the task of a lifetime to work with the basic instincts and urgings, soul shifts and values, desires and hopes within us to become the fullness of the raw material of the self. But unless we do, we doom ourselves to buy into the empty images every new world creates to define itself: successful man, tough urban cowboy, wealthy woman, clerical dandy, wonder woman, obedient disciple, leader, stereotype of whatever becomes the fashion of the time.

The spiritual excavation of the real person is the central adventure of life. Merton is right about that. But it is not simply the discovery of the possibilities of the self that constitute its wholeness. It is as well the awareness of what defines us from outside ourselves that is necessary to bring us to spiritual wholeness.

Or to put it another way, we must learn at the same time to be what we are not.

And what we “aren’t” – essentially – is American or Indian, Polish or Chinese, Italian or Turkish, Brazilian or Australian, English or African. In fact, we aren’t any of them. Rather, we must come to realize that we are all of them. Regardless of whoever it is who tells us we are not.

The problem is that everything in the world, including religion too often, wars against the discovery of the essential self for the sake of the public self. The most dangerous of wars have a religious component, from the Crusades to Kosovo, from Hitler’s search for the super race to fanatic Islam and its worldwide terror. We kill one another because of gods we make for ourselves tell us to do so, we declare, for the sake of the soul of the planet. And few religious figures stand up together – rabbis and imams and Christian clergy and Hindu swamis and monastics of all ilk – and witness together to the absurdity of such pseudo-theology.

Neither nationalism nor religion prepares us to simply be ourselves, to be humans together. Neither religion nor society prepares us to simply be ourselves, men and women together, as equal participants in both the life of grace and the affairs of humanity everywhere and anywhere.

And so we all live separated by the very institutions we have a right to expect will bind us together. We go on seeking oneness behind the walls we have built against one another. And we talk about the discovery of our “real” selves, the religion we live inside ourselves, while our societal selves cling to the masks we continue to live behind in public.

It is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia that we are negotiating now in a world highly pluralistic but attempting to live in both isolation and unity at the same time. While the national boundaries of the world seep everywhere and the religions teach oneness but practice separation, we need to realize that unless we unmask our public selves as well as our inner selves, our “real” self – the self we were born to become – we will never be either fully alive or spiritually whole.

Indeed, what we have to be is what we are, individuals on the way to universal oneness where uniformity is no substitute for unity. As Philipp Melanchthon puts it: “In essentials, unity; in differences, liberty; in all things, charity,” is only possible when the inner self is so real that the public self is itself changed by it.

—from “What We Have To Be Is What We Are: Merton’s Unfinished Agenda,” a reflection in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (Fons Vitae Publishing and Distribution), newly released book of short essays from the 100 contributors to honor Merton’s centenary (1915-2015).

Read more about Joan Chittister and her works at joanchittister.org.