Merton gave a talk in Bangkok, a final contribution, and he talked quite a bit about alienation, the separation of ourselves, tearing ourselves into parts: that which somebody else tells us we are, and that which we know ourselves to be as a center where God is present. Now if we choose from that center, as Merton continually instructed his novices, then we are choosing according to a unified sense of self. If we choose from what other people tell us we are or tell us we should do, or tell us anything else that we should do, or have or whatever, we have broken ourselves into two. That’s alienation.
Thomas Merton was a very famous Trappist Monk in the 20th century, who wrote about a variety of things related to contemplative practice (think a combination of prayer and meditation geared towards fostering a relationship with God). This description of his last talk, held at a multi-religious conference in Bangkok, points out something very true and very human about our existence. To be true to God, ourselves, and others, we must be true to who we really are, deep inside.
In order to do this, though, we must risk facing what Carl Jung called “The Shadow”. The Shadow is that part of ourselves that we do not want to see because it doesn’t fit the persona we like to present to God, the world, and ourselves. It’s our darker side. It isn’t necessarily our sinful side, if that is our orientation, although it can be.
When we make a conscious decision to acknowledge that this side exists and that it must be embraced, then we are able to move closer to the center, where God is. What do I mean by “embraced”? I don’t mean that we actually go ahead and revel in our sinning or in our harmful action. I mean that we allow ourselves to accept the fact that this part of ourself exists, and that it is within our nature to do these things. We compassionately reach out to that part instead of struggling against it and allow God to heal it through acceptance that it is simply there.
We also spend time listening to it to see what its underlying message is. When we struggle with the temptation to gossip, for example, we sit with the feeling and ask it what it is really trying to tell us, in an attitude of curiosity, open-mindedness, and compassion. What we will find is other things that flash across the mind’s eye…perhaps an underlying loneliness that needs to be addressed? A desire for something that the other person has that we need to develop in ourselves? A feeling of inadequacy? Then we reach out and compassionately accept this underlying hurt and thereby move to the center, asking God to help us. In this healing act, we experience the presence of God, who was there in the center anyway. Reliant on God’s help, we then brainstorm ways of addressing those underlying hurts without causing harm to self or others, and start to put action to these ways in our here and now daily life, as a whole person, accepting of all our parts, and centered in God.
Accept who you are, choose to invite God to be present in your center, live your life out of that center, and you will have a full, rich life.