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Tag: Thomas Merton

The things that have helped me over the past year or so

This is a list of resources that have been an important part of my eudaimonia over the past year. I am excluding things that would not be available to most people – such as, for example, my friends. They are not in a particular order. Many of them were somewhat serendipitous. I will explain how I came by each of them so you can see for yourself!

They are vaguely in chronological order in terms of when I started paying attention to them.

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The Triad: Authenticity, Courage, and Humility

The process of spiritual growth, I have found, depends largely on the interplay between three virtues: authenticity, courage, and humility. I’ve given each one a patron saint, too!

Authenticity is truth-telling. It is being plainly honest with ourselves (and with others) about what we think and what we feel. If we persist in telling ourselves lies, then we will always be stuck with lies. It’s obvious when we think about some external matter – what is the sense in maintaining an illusion that your car is working fine when there is smoke pouring out of the engine? It may be unpleasant, but that does not mean that it is not true. I believe this is what Freud had in mind when he spoke of our efforts to push unpleasant feelings aside. This is an inauthentic way of living. Carl Rogers, my patron saint of authenticity, said that only when we have first accepted who we are can we change. A curious paradox. I think the practice of authenticity taps into those desires which expand and open up the self.

This takes courage. Many truths are hard to face, and we prefer the comfort of lies. Courage allows us to walk the difficulty path of authenticity, knowing that it is a good path. The difficulty is not removed, though. The source of our anxiety and fear remains with us, and we will have many opportunities to fall into despair. Courage is not a magic bullet that destroys the anxiety; it does, however, enable us to transcend it. The patron saint of courage is Paul Tillich. “Courage,” he said “is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.” In fact, Tillich sees courage as a vital part of faith.

Humility is a particular posture. The humble person is a servant of the truth, not the other way around. It is a posture of openness that comes from a recognition that we are limited, finite beings whose knowledge is always condition by our finitude. Humility is a peculiar virtue because the desire to attain it precludes true humility. This is a point that was made by Thomas Merton, the patron saint of humility, who had an uncanny knack of detecting the subtle ways that pride works its way into our lives. On the surface, we appear to be defined by selfish devotion, but in fact we are intent on hoarding spiritual riches (as if there was such a thing) for our selves. He uses a beautiful image of glass which becomes more invisible the more light it lets through. You’ll notice that this brings together humility and authenticity. The person who is both open to receiving understanding and committed to speaking authentically will become a conduit through which grace and mercy flow.

From “Solitude is Not Separation” by Thomas Merton

Words for those who long for connection:

“Man seeks unity because he is the image of the One God. Unity implies solitude, and hence the need to be physically alone. But unity and solitude are not metaphysical isolation. He who isolates himself in order to enjoy a kind of independence in his egotistic and external self does not find unity at all, for he disintegrates into a multiplicity of conflicting passions and finally ends in confusion and total unreality. Solitude is not and can never be a narcissistic dialogue of the ego with itself. Such self-contemplation is a futile attempt to establish the finite self as infinite, to make it permanently independent of all other beings. And this is madness. Note, however, that it is not a madness peculiar to solitaries–it is much more common to those who try to assert their own unique excellence by dominating others. This is the more usual sin

“The need for true solitude is a complex and dangerous thing, but it is a real need. It is all the more real today when the collectivity tends more and more to swallow up the person in its shapeless and faceless mass. The temptation of our day is to equate “love” and “conformity”–passive subservience to the mass-mind or to the organization. This temptation is only strengthened by futile rebellion on the part of eccentrics who want to be madly and notably different and who thereby create for themselves only a new kind of dullness–a dullness that is erratic instead of predictable.

“True solitude is the home of the person, false solitude is the refuge of the individualist. The person is constituted by a uniquely subsisting capacity to love–by a radical ability to care for all beings made by God and loved by Him. Such a capacity is destroyed by the loss of perspective. Without a certain element of solitude there can be no compassion because when a man is lost in the wheels of a social machine he is no longer aware of human needs as a matter of personal responsibility. One can escape from men by plunging into the midst of a crowd.

“Go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.”