Thomas Merton and the Search for Our True Selves

Addressing the avalanche of lies that pass for news on a certain cable news station recently, we have invoked the centrality of the search for truth in mystics/prophets such as Teresa of Avila, Jesus, Thomas Aquinas, bell hooks, and Sister Dorothy Stang. 

Unfit news. Photo by Marek Pospíšil on Unsplash

Truth and the search for it lies at our core as human beings.  To dress up falsities and lies as facts and truth is an insult to everyone’s intelligence as well as a path to the killing of community, the eroding of society and the end of democracy.  Fascism is constructed on lies.

The prophets are engaged wholeheartedly in telling the truth about how things really are.  Whistleblowers do this as part of their work of interfering which, as Rabbi Heschel makes clear, is the primary work of the prophet.

Another way to speak about truth and truth-telling is in terms of the search for our true self.  St. Paul and Meister Eckhart talk about our “inner person” as distinct from our “outer person.”  Today’s parlance speaks of our “true self vs. our false self.”  The latter is about external reference, a self trying to please others.  The former is where we truly reside, who we really are.  Of course we evolve as all things do but keeping track of that evolution in self-understanding is itself a continuing search for the “true self.”

Thomas Merton on the False Self, from “Everything is Holy” in New Seeds of Contemplation. Gregory Palaskas on YouTube.

Catholic monk Thomas Merton spoke of the importance of being true to oneself, and on this point, Merton was unbending. He wrote that people are “at liberty to be real or unreal . . . be true or false, the choice is ours.”

He insisted that we not hide behind masks that cover up our true selves– that some people wear “one mask and now another and never if we so desire to appear with our own true face.” The true self is to come first, for “we have a choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthly existence;” and the true or inner self.

“Get Back to Your True Self” by Dr. Gabor Mate. Way of Thinking on YouTube

But to live with the hidden, inner person is to give oneself “eternally to the truth in whom [one] subsists.” Living under a mask, playing a role, makes a person “itch with discomfort,” till some must eventually pay “a psychiatrist to scratch him.”  To be continued.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, p. 185.

Also, Fox, Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, p. 70.

To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner image: Removing the mask. Image by Mike T on Flickr

Queries for Meditation

Do you agree with Merton that playing a role or living out a “false self” makes one “itch with discomfort”?  And that we all have a choice to find and live out our true self?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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9 thoughts on “Thomas Merton and the Search for Our True Selves”

  1. Avatar

    Did Teresa of Avila simply ignore the truth of the horror of what was happening in the Americas perpetuated by the Spanish aristocracy for the sake of reforming the Carmelites?

    1. Richard E Reich

      William, Today you ask: “Did Teresa of Avila simply ignore the truth of the horror of what was happening in the Americas perpetuated by the Spanish aristocracy for the sake of reforming the Carmelites?” I honestly don’t know, but perhaps Matthew will write on this in another meditation coming up!

      1. Avatar

        Why are the majority of Catholics
        So willing to believe the lies dressed up as truth (as proven in the last election). AND are gobbling down more dished out by a catholic governor . ? Could the USCCB be accused of not stepping up with the truth?

  2. Avatar

    An answer to Matthew’s questions for today about the true universal self as differentiated from the false individual self was given by Martin Luther King on March 25, 1965 after the long bloody struggle for voting rights for blacks:

    Dr. King spoke if his prophetic dream for the future: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

    Since 1965, voting rights for blacks have gradually been degraded by whites. The current chaos of division in US politics generated by lies is the result…a kind of communal ‘hell.’ Some of the media personalities who have had their lies exposed are probably ‘itching with discomfort.’

  3. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    The search of the true self, is about lifting the veils of our perceptions, understanding and believing… in order to discover the revelation of the unfolding, evolving emergence of the unveiled self. The gospel gives us a clue about this transformative process, telling us that the veil has been torn from top to bottom… that this illusory veil that we perceived, understood and believed, separated us from entering into the holy of holies… isn’t true. The reality is… that we all have an open invitation of relationship with… the mystery of God’s essence and presence… within not only the temple of self, but also the temple of the other… and the temple of the all and the everything of creation.

    We enter into this holy of holies, through relationship with. This involves seeing, listening, touching, tasting, feeling and intuitively sensing; the sacredness, present in its presence and essence… one to another; and the inherent beauty, goodness and truth of this unveiled reality.

    There is a naked vulnerability in living this out, through a contemplative and reflective stance, a surrendered willingness of trusting… that in, with, for and through this intimacey of honest open hearted relationship with… with the Spirit of Mystery incarnate in the temple of all that which exists… that whatever is unfolding and being revealed; is a blessing which moves us towards the evolving emergence of embodying a truer version of whom we are created to become and be.

  4. Avatar

    Yes, definitely! On my spiritual journey, I’ve always been fascinated in my studies of the mystics, starting with Carl Jung in college, of the difference stated in different languages and words throughout human history and indigenous cultures between our ‘True Heart Self’ and our ‘ego mind self.’ In our personal development and growth in our families and society we gradually become separated in our consciousness from the Oneness of our True Self/Nature and we identify ourselves only with our limited egocentric ‘false self.’ Our human nature becomes separated from our Divine Nature of Love within and among us spiritually uniting us to ourselves, others, Sacred Mother Nature and All Her graceful/beautiful abundance and creatures, and All of our ongoing co-Creation~Incarnation~Evolution of our physical and non-physical sacred multidimensional-multiverse Cosmos in Loving Diverse Oneness….
    ????

  5. Avatar

    “,,,truth is loved in such a way that those who love some other thing want it to be the truth, and, precisely because they do not wish to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are deceived.”

    St. Augustine, Confessions (10:23), Fifth Century

  6. Avatar

    I agree that there is an itch of discomfort when we operate out of a false self, and that we have a choice to find and live out our true self. However, it is a lot easier to misunderstand the itch to mean a sense of scarcity that can be filled only with material things like wealth or fame or power. It takes courage to recognize that these can never satisfy, that the grasp for them never ends—there is never enough in this insatiable striving. That is why power corrupts. Those who are trapped in these delusions are dangerous to themselves and others, as all mystics have recognized. To be willing to go deeper for the very holy essence of ourselves is a lifelong journey that it takes courage, commitment, and practice to make. It appears that only a minority are willing to do so.

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