Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 16

Becoming Real: Thomas Merton and the True Self

Ekman P. C. Tam

Most of us present carefully prepared facades. At least I do. While the self we offer to others may not be the product of conscious deception, we are careful to ensure that no one disturbs the meticulously maintained image.

We do not want others to look too closely at our real self because we fear they may crack our pretense. How vulnerable we are as we come to terms with the reality of our self!

The Christian life is a journey of living out the reality of who we really are and who we are created to be. The spiritual path of knowing God is inseparable from discovering our true self, our authentic identity in God. Spiritual life is neither pious self-actualization nor self-absorbed navel-gazing. It is a transformation of the self in God, with God, and for God.

Thomas Merton has helped me gradually see my real face as the reflection of God’s face. In New Seeds of Contemplation (1961), he describes three stages of the journey of spiritual transformation, building the movement from the false to the true self into the very heart of this process.

01.  Awakened from the False Self

Conversion brings us to conscious relationship with God. As a Chinese person who formerly embraced traditional religious and cultural beliefs, my conversion marked the beginning of my Christian spiritual life. But to deepen that life, I need ongoing conversion experiences in which I am so moved by the love of God that I turn from superficiality to authenticity. Merton describes this ongoing conversion as a journey from the false to the true self. Our true self is what God creates us to be—a person who lives life in love, joy, and peace.

Masking our true self is a false, superficial self. Because it is not real, this false self constantly seeks to enhance its visibility and prove its reality. This happens in all of us.

Brainwashed by materialistic culture, I easily regard real things as those that are visible, sensational, and expensive. To prove that I am real, therefore, I want to fill up my empty self with things that will make me desirable to others, thus covering my emptiness and masking my unreality.

Ironically, however, my efforts to make myself more real produce just the opposite effect; they simply feed the false self.

Merton writes “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self . . . 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 pleasure and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.”Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), 35. But my false self is so greedy that it can never be satisfied by the things it seeks. I may hide this greedy face in disguise as a powerful preacher, a prolific writer, or sophisticated theologian. But hiding is not the same as transformation. Greed is, indeed, one of the deadly sins, and hiding it merely allows it to grow and operate outside of awareness.

The way of the false self is to show off and possess, whereas the way of the true self is to be and to share. But it is not by “doing” more “sharing” and “working” harder on “being” that I come to know my true self. The path of finding my true self begins with the awareness that I am “shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.”Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34. The deepening of my spiritual life therefore demands that I first see clearly my falsity. But at the same time the loving whisper of God consoles me and calls me to discover the positive potentials of my true self.

God’s aim is not to punish us by exposing us to our own ugliness, but to show us our falsity so that we may see beyond it to the original beauty of our true self.

Merton says that God calls us to shift from the circumference to the center, from appearance to reality, from the sensible to the intelligible, and from time to eternity.

02.  Search for the True Self

Our true self is who God wants us to be. It is our whole reality. The path of finding our reality in God involves our active response to the calling of God. This usually requires some kinds of ascetic practice or spiritual discipline.

Growing up in Chinese culture, I have no difficulty in keeping disciplinary practices. My problem is excessive attachment to these disciplines. Prayer easily becomes for me a kind of spiritual performance, and I seek contemplation as a technique to become spiritually proficient.

Merton reminds me of these pitfalls. Apart from occasional reference to the Eastern practice of the “Jesus prayer” and the possibility of using short scriptural texts as a basis for prayer, he generally declines to talk about specific prayer methods. He suggests that spiritual discipline is basically learning not to do things we instinctively feel driven to do. It is learning to let go of whatever is false or unreal and be prepared to settle for nothing other than God.

Although his writings center on contemplation, he never presents this as a special method of prayer or a higher stage of spiritual life. Borrowing from the wisdom of Zen and classical Taoism, he emphasizes contemplation as a way of life—more a lifestyle than a prayer method. Or put differently, the contemplative prayer method should ultimately help us grow and become contemplative persons who live everyday life with heightened awareness of God.

Contemplation, as a way of life rather than simply a form of prayer, is seeking to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity—“Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 32, 60.

In contemplation we unmask our true self, returning to our real identity in God. Contemplation starts with the question of who I am and rests in the discovery of our true self. Both the question and the answer come from God. In Merton’s own words,

It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us in contemplation God answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer. The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second, awareness of the answer.Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 16.

Personally, I experience contemplation as a process of entering into the deep center of my being, and through that center I enter into the center of God. In probing the ground of my being, I find that God is there. In some moments when I practice contemplative prayer, I come to new levels of awareness of the reality of myself, the reality of God, and the reality of God being the ground of my being.

Less frequently, I have sometimes been simply absorbed in pure awareness, in which nothing is needed and nothing is sought— even the sense of time and space disappearing. Is that what Christian theology refers to as eternity? I don’t know. My experience in contemplation is very shallow. But my limited and transitory experience can help me grasp a bit more what Merton describes about the union with God.

03.  Union with God’s Self

With regard to the search for one’s true self, contemplation can be described as a process of differentiation and identification. In contemplation we differentiate our true identity from the false self by receiving the loving embrace of God. “I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God.” Silent contemplation provides the interior and exterior space for the differentiation process, in which we encounter the grimace of our false self and recognize all the destruction we have done to ourselves, to others, and to the world.

Not only is contemplation a process of dropping the mask of the false self. It is also a way of confirming the true self with whom God is identified. The identification process (or what Merton calls “infused contemplation”) is sheer grace. In theological terms, it is the self-emptying Christ, the Word made Flesh, who becomes our strength and leads us to the Father.Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, chapters 21–22. In contemplative experience, it is falling into the arms of the Father, like the prodigal son coming home and being given the identity of a son. The ultimate transformation we experience in contemplation is analogous to that of the son fully embraced by the Father—our true self is found and affirmed by and in God. The story of the prodigal ends with a union, no longer the waiting Father and the wandering son separated from each other, but two in embrace.

Describing union with God, Merton says, “God alone is left. He is the ‘I’ who acts there. He is the one Who loves and knows and rejoices.”Merton, 287. At this point, the question of false and true self is answered, or, we should say, no such question will be asked. In union with God, whatever we do or think is of God—God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

To put it in mystical terms, when the praying person is no longer visible, God becomes tangible and is fully mediated through the human flesh of the praying person. Union with God is mystical but not abstract, nor is it an experience of a spiritual high. Merton strongly states that the fruit of union with God can be seen in everyday life.

The way Merton describes the self in union with God separates him from those who advocate a privatized spirituality. He argues that Christian spirituality is not a private “me-and-God” relationship. The person who is, by grace, identified with God in contemplation embodies God in the contexts where life is lived. To find our true self in God is to become the true self of God in humble service to the needy. One who is fully known by God will know the heart of God and see the world through the eyes of God.

The goal of the spiritual journey is not only to become real to ourselves and to God, but also to be real to others so that the reality of God can be seen in and through us. While authentic Christian spirituality may begin or be revitalized in a monastery or a quiet place of retreat, it must always lead us back to the messiness of the world and our wounded neighbors. In the monastery, Merton’s struggle to bring peace or to contain violence and injustice weaves into his daily rhythm of silent prayer.

As a retreat facilitator living in a quiet mountain in Hong Kong, I am reminded not to romanticize retreat and prayer. In Merton I see that mystics and prophets are not necessarily opponents. I shall continue to explore the connection between mystical prayer and prophetic action.

04.  Tam Talks with David Benner

DGB:     I suspect some readers might find these concepts of true and false selves overly abstract, failing to see just how important they are to their personal spiritual journeys. To help with this, can you tell us a bit more about your own journey?


ET:    Like many Chinese Christians, I was converted to Christianity in my early twenties. I was attracted to Christianity because my life was meaningless, and I felt lost. I had a very sad childhood, feeling deprived of love and care. I lived the first twenty years of life unhappy and uncertain about my role in the world. To give myself a sense of my existence, I sought pleasure in wild, all-night gambling. But taking a taxi home at the end of a long, lonely night, all I felt was emptiness, loneliness, anger, and jealousy.

Merton helped me identify my false self and pointed me toward my “becoming” in the love of God. His words brought healing to my deeply wounded self. I was convinced that I was not what I felt I was; my true self rests in God and is with God. I am wonderfully and fearfully made. My joy comes by finding who I am in God. Merton pointed me to truths that I am learning to make my lived realities.


“The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore, I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.”

–Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation


DGB:       In his Thoughts in Solitude, Merton reminds us that that there is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. Can you say anything more about the importance of accepting the realities of our existence in the journey from our false to our true self?


ET:    I remember the first phase of God’s healing in my spiritual life. It involved a very painful acknowledgement of the ugliness of my false self. I was moved to tears so easily in hearing a song with words like “In His time, God makes everything beautiful.” One day I saw a person on TV with tattoos of strange patterns on his face. Looking at him was terrifying because it made me feel as if I was covered by the skin of a snake. I was afraid of myself. And I brought that fearful self-encountering experience into a silent retreat. “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” The words from Mark came as deep consolation and healing. They remain deeply affirming. From time to time in my silent prayer, I still repeat them and let them soak over me. This was one of my early experiences of facing my unreality.


DGB:      You mention the important role of contemplation as a way of life, not simply a form of prayer. Please say a bit more about this. How does this work out in your own life?


“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 God, I will find myself, and if I find my true self, I will find God. But although this looks simple, it is in reality immensely difficult. In fact, if I am left to myself, it will be utterly impossible. No man can ever do [it] alone. Nor can all the men and all the created things in the universe help him in this work. The only One Who can teach me to find God is God, Himself, Alone.”

–Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation


ET:    I have always been a hardworking person, something I learned from my family. While this is a positive part of my personality, I tend to overwork. After becoming a Christian and seeking growth in my spiritual life, I learned many different prayer methods while attending retreats and workshops. I was tempted to think I could progress in my spiritual life by simply learning more techniques and methods of prayer. But while reading Merton, I was reminded of the pitfalls of making the means into the goal.

Contemplative prayer is very much in vogue today. But Merton is right in warning that contemplation can be false when it comes from the desires of the false self. In my teaching about prayer or contemplation, I put very little emphasis on methods. In my personal life, contemplation is my habit of taking long, loving looks at God in and through all things. Hopefully, by the grace of God I am then able to see all things in God—my spouse, children, colleagues, friends, and, indeed, all of life.


DGB:      You are a Chinese Christian who I know has been deeply committed to living out your spiritual life in a way that is true to your culture and heritage. Has Merton been of help in doing that?


ET:    The reason I made Merton the focus of my doctoral research was his interest in and respect for Chinese culture. I was struck by his openness to and knowledge of Zen and classical Taoism. In his early monastic life, he was a typical Catholic monk at the time, defending the Church and showing no sympathy for other religious traditions. But as he matured, he boldly defended the wisdom of Zen and other religious traditions. I was struck by this change, and his courage to show appreciation publicly for the insights of other religious traditions. He gave me the courage to begin to affirm my own culture and heritage. The majority of Chinese Christian churches in Asia at the time ignored Chinese culture and advocated a total distancing from local religious-cultural values. But Merton stimulated me to think about my own identity and how I could live an authentically Chinese Christian life. This is the area I wish to explore in future writings and teaching. Living and working in a retreat center designed to serve as a center for religious dialogue with the other major faiths of our country greatly facilitates this.


DGB:      Finally, I really appreciated your reminder of Merton’s connection of the true self and living out our social responsibilities in a broken world. You live and work in an incredibly peaceful and beautiful place on the top of a mountain.

How do you stay connected to the issues of the brokenness of life in Hong Kong?


“One of the paradoxes of the mystical life is this: that a man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through the center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love . . . The more I become identified with God, the more will I be identified with all the others who are identified with Him. His love will live in all of us. His Spirit will be our One Life, the Life of all of us and Life of God. And we shall love one another with the same Love with which He loves us and Himself. This love is God Himself. . . The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore, I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.”

–Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation


ET:    This is indeed a challenge. I rarely go down to the city. My family goes to bed around nine every night. People jokingly wonder if I am disconnected from the world. Sometimes I have the same doubt. But Merton’s life has deeply impressed me that I must try my best to open my ears and eyes to the world. As Merton says, we are not alone in solitude; in solitude we are in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the wounded world. One way I try to do this is by taking my neighbors with me to God in prayer.

To illustrate, may I share my recent experience as SARS has hit us so hard in Hong Kong. The news of people dying of SARS has deeply troubled my heart.


Each of them is unknown to me. But whenever the news on TV shows their faces or tells their stories, I am moved to tears. My heart aches as I see their loved ones weeping. I don’t understand why. But every day when I go for noon prayer (a daily prayer rhythm at our Centre), I feel like praying together with and on behalf of those who have died and their survivors. I feel as if God is weeping for each of them. Maybe this is the way I keep connected with the wounded world. Similarly, when the war on Iraq finally broke out, I was depressed for the whole month, feeling very angry, helpless, and sorry. Our human family is indeed broken.


DGB:     Thank you so much for sharing these personal experiences. You have helped me better understand these concepts of the true and the false self, and reminded me that by fixing my eyes on God, I see both who I am in truth and others as they are in God.


Dr. Ekman P. C. Tam is the spiritual director of Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, Hong Kong. He is the founding person of a training program in spiritual direction for Christian ministers in Asia. As spiritual director, he teaches, gives retreats and spiritual direction, and provides therapy and supervision.
Part 3 of 16

Soul Talk

Larry Crabb
October 1, 2003
Part 4 of 16

Knock Outs

Gordon MacDonald
October 1, 2003