Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was published in 1961. I first read it in 1996 and am rereading it now. I’m finding more sentences to underline and more pages to mark so I can easily go back to the wisdom and insight they contain. At the same time, I have found myself disagreeing with a portion of Merton’s introductory chapters just as I did fifteen years ago.
It has to do with the idea that the self one portrays in daily life, the persona that one presents to the world, is somehow less authentic than the true and presumably good self buried deep inside. Merton writes, in part, that “[t]here is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self.” Clearly he has more to say about that, but this sets the scene.
That idea is not Merton’s alone; it is the bedrock of much psychological theory and therapy. But I am not so sure of it. Consider any other created thing, an apple for instance. Is the superficial apple the skin but the real apple is the core? It seems to me that the external self, indeed the external selves, that we offer to the public and with which we identify, are as much an authentic part of who we are as anything buried deep inside. With Jung, I have no doubt that there is more to the authentic self that is buried deep, and that we cannot know fully who we are until we know that deep part and the role it plays in our external part.
Moreover, I’m not convinced that digging deep will uncover an especially good self buried under the illusions and delusions of our external self. What lies deeply buried may be nasty and rotten. We are, I think, both psychologically and spiritually, a whole that cannot be so easily subdivided. That brings me to a final point. I wrote above that the external self can be characterized by illusions and delusions. In an odd way, those illusions and delusions are as much a part of who we really are as anything else. The phony love, good will or happy faces one presents to others says much about who one really is, a person who is authentically a projector of phony love, good will and happy faces. On the other hand, one might be an authentic projector of genuine love, good will and happiness, at least some of the time.
Having said that, I am equally convinced that there is in each of us that which is created in the image of God, and that we cannot fully know ourselves until that part infects every other part until the whole becomes holy. Maybe that can’t happen in this life. Maybe that can begin to happen in this life with the sacraments being the sure and certain sign of it.