There are many passages written by Thomas Merton, otherwise known as Fr. Louis, that resonate very deeply with me. They serve as an inspiration for my life, so in this way, does he. Today I am reflecting on two of these. The first is from his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 8: “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy.”
In my musings, I feel called to start with the question, “What does it mean to say that ‘love is the reason for my existence,’ that ‘selflessness is my true name?’” I am only now coming to recognize the ways that I discount myself due to shame. But understand, this “discounting” is not the same as selflessness. No, self-less-ness connotes the absence of a self. And when I am discounting myself, it is because there is an image that I am supporting with my deeply-held beliefs about what that persona looks like. For example, in every human interaction I am constantly gauging my behavior and other people’s responses to it, consciously or otherwise. “Did they understand that I was trying to be nice? Were they laughing with me or at me? Do they think I’m weird? Do they even see me?” This is the opposite of selflessness. This is life in the kingdom of me. And when I discount this collection of all my preferences, emotional reflexes, my hidden beliefs, and habitual reactions that I call “myself,” it only means that I don’t give this imaginary image a voice. Oh, but I treasure it. Yes, indeed, I am invested in its reality.
Yet, true selflessness means that I no longer identify myself as this mix of intangibles and therefore do not cherish an image at all. It is then that I understand that selflessness is my true self. What freedom there is in having nothing to protect or defend, no side to take, no position to hold! That is true liberation, true enlightenment, true salvation.
So what about, “Love is the reason for my existence?” I am reminded that St. Paul says that love is patient and kind, that it is not self-seeking. What do I say? My reasoning follows, from the vantage point of the witness, that love is patient because there is no agenda and therefore, no rush. There is no timetable to meet in pursuit of a goal. There is just the eternal now, which is infinitely patient.
Love is also kind due to this same lack of agenda. There is not a case to put forth on how things should be, what response you should give, or what emotions you should feel. Everything belongs in this “no-self” zone as I watch you struggle with your shoulds and protecting your imaginary self. Then, without effort, compassion arises because I see your struggle as my own skirmish with my fictional persona. It is a universal struggle, therefore kindness is the only response that makes sense. Why get mad at what is, when there is no agenda in the first place? It is only my attachment that makes me suffer.
So yes, I agree with Merton that selflessness is my true self, and with St. Paul that love is patient and kind; And now I can better articulate why I believe that love is the reason for my existence. It is because I am the witness behind that illusory self. My reason for existence is not to be lost in the identity of the image that I have created, but to transcend its limitations, acknowledging it for what it is — an illusion — and then to enjoy the ride. And in that enjoyment is the manifestation of love. Oh, what a ride it is! The ride of my life — and yours.
Which brings me to the next Merton passage that completes the circle. This one is from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, part 3: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” This “point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth” is the no-self to which I was referring earlier. This “pure glory of God” within us is a vantage point whose lack of substance is felt as complete affirmation, complete validation, and an overwhelming sensation of “I am FOR you forever!” For me, that is love.
Earlier in that passage, he writes, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” and, “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” Isn’t that the whole point behind the Buddhist bow, the yogic, “Namaste,” Jesus’ proclamation that whatever you do for the least of your brethren, you do for him, and St. Paul’s assertion that the great mystery is Christ within, the hope of glory? For truly, you are a light for the world, and so am I. And light has no substance. It simply illuminates. It illuminates what is. It does not define, critique, assess, judge, or condemn. You and I are illuminators of the world. We’re shining like the sun.