Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain & The “True Self”

I have not blogged in a long time.  This is for at least two reasons.  First, much of my life recently has been consumed by thinking about this.  The second reason is that I’ve been spending all of my free time for the past three weeks reading Thomas Merton’s  Seven Storey Mountain.  I had read New Seeds of Contemplation before, and thus appreciated his writings.  His autobiography gave me a deep appreciation for the man behind the writings.  But reading it did more than that:  I was sucked-in. If I had a free minute, I couldn’t put the book down.  Parts of his story resonated with my own life and other parts left me utterly fascinated. It made me hungry for liturgy, tradition, the sacraments and prayer.  So, in an effort to process through some of the questions it raised for me, I’m going to write a few posts about Merton and Seven Storey Mountain.  Tonight I’m thinking about the idea of the false-self and true-self.

A year or so after Seven Storey Mountain, Merton wrote Seeds of Contemplation.  Twelve years later, that was revised as New Seeds of Contemplation.  There Merton talks about the false-self and the true-self.  He writes:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.  This is the man that 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. . . . A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. (p. 36 of the Shambala edition [2003], emphasis added)

A page later, he defines the true-self:

“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.  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.” 

Our false-selves are the persons we fancy ourselves to be, the “imposters” to use Brennan Manning’s term, the facades we project.  The true-self is a person experiencing life in union with Christ, abiding in the beloved state of being a child of God, and thus living without need of any facades or shadows. 

As Merton shares his life story, it becomes apparent while he’s studying at Columbia that his false-self is the self that wants to be a famous writer.  He works on two novels which never get published, spends all his time in literature, and writes book reviews and stories for periodicals.  Once he gets to the monastery, he thinks he’s left that false-self behind, until his superior starts assigning him translation and writing projects:

“By this time I should have been delivered of any problems about my true identity.  I had already made my simple profession.  And my vows should have divested me of the last shreds of any special identity.  But then there was this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister. He is still on my track.  He rides my shoulders, sometimes, like the old man of the sea.  I cannot lose him.  He still wears the name of Thomas Merton.  Is it the name of an enemy?  He is supposed to be dead.” (pp. 448-449, Harcourt [1998])

He’s admittedly confused: Merton thought he gave up his prideful pursuits only to enter a monastery where he became a bestselling author.  What was God doing with him?

Back in August, Upper Room decided to do an exercise to help people think through their false and true selves.  It was difficult, partly because people experienced the same confusion that Merton did.  I think Merton’s story is helpful and instructive because it reveals that the difference between the false-self and the true-self lies not in the action one performs (writing books, for example), but in the motivation that lies behind the action. It was only after Merton had dedicated his life and writing to the pursuit of God that he became a published author.  As he later wrote: “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.”  The more Merton found himself in Christ, the more his writing flourished.  Quite obviously, Merton’s “false-self” contained a seed of his “true-self”.  That seed, though, needed to be consecrated in order to grow into the source of blessing for others which God intended it to be. Praise God for the transformation that took place in his life that allowed such wisdom to be shared in his writing.

  1. Merton’s insights are nearly always eye-opening. I preferred Seeds of Contemplation to Seven Storey Mountain, but just about anything he writes is rich with real revelation.

    So…what does your “false self” look like? I think mine is cheesed at me for not having gotten around to building a robot army.

  2. Heidi said:

    You mention an exercise to help with the discovery of this false self. Do you have a link by any chance? I came here in search of finding that. I’m in his NO Man is an Island right now and wanted to dig deeper.

    • Thanks for commenting Heidi. The way we did the exercise in our church is described here. The exercise was inspired by a passage in Mark Scandrette’s book Soul Grafitti.

      • Heidi said:

        Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: