Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
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. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
The false self, sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes. Merton writes:
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
For Merton, the spiritual life is a journey in which we discover ourselves in discovering God, and discover God in discovering our true self hidden in God. Merton writes:
The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.
But whatever is in God is really identical with Him [sic], for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.
Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.
Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.
.. When we seem to possess and use our being and natural faculties in a completely autonomous manner, as if our individual ego were the pure source and end of our own acts, then we are in illusion and our acts, however spontaneous they may seem to be, lack spiritual meaning and authenticity.
Merton doesn’t question the reality and importance of the empirical self we call our personality. We must deeply respect our whole person, including the day-by-day realities of life and the self that is formed by them. What Merton does say, however, is that when the relative identity of the ego is taken to be my deepest and only identity, when I am thought to be nothing but the sum total of all my relationships, when I cling to this self and make it the center around which and for which I live, I then make my empirical identity into the false self. My own self then becomes the obstacle to realizing my true self.
The true self is our whole self before God, the self we were created to become, our self in Christ.
the ones who have done it wrong and are humble about it (the younger son and the tax collector) are the ones who are forgiven, transformed, and rewarded.
.. Those who are proud of how they have done everything right—but also feel superior to others, or feel they are now entitled—are not open to God’s blessing.
This is Jesus’ Great Reversal theme. He turns religion on its head. We thought we came to God by doing it right, and lo and behold, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong—and growing because of it! The only things strong enough to break open our heart are things like pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general absurdity of life.
.. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. That’s where faith begins. Up to that moment it has just been religion!