Today, Jesus is calling us forth from our tombs. Like Ezekiel’s people we are in exile in a strange land. In Robert Moore’s Jungian language, Jesus is calling us forth from the dragons of our grandiosity. Moore warns us that there is real evil—dragons—in the world that thwarts our efforts to heed Jesus’ call.
In Merton’s language, Jesus is calling us out of the tomb of our false selves—all in us that is not in accord with God. Like Lazarus, we are dead and Jesus promises us new life in the Spirit.
Having been in the tomb of our false selves for so long, we stink but Jesus anoints us with the balm of the Spirit. “I have come that you might have life.”
Having endured a harsh, critical mother who died when he was six years old, Merton became the poster boy of those who live in their false self. Orphaned at 16 when his father died, Merton set out to get everything out of life that a 16-year-old could. Freedom was license to do as he pleased. While he was a student at Cambridge, he impregnated a young woman who bore his son. His dissolute life style caused his guardian and grandparents to bring him home from England.
Eventually, Merton would find a “container” that was not a tomb that would nurture his spiritual growth. The Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit would provide the structure—the container—for Merton’s growth. Out of the depths of narcissism and grandiosity Merton called to God and God heard his plea. By way of contemplative prayer and his writing, and later in life his calligraphic drawings and phoyographs, Merton would abandon his false self and enter into union with the true self which was the Spirit of God in the depths of his being.
The monastery is a school—a school in which we learn from God how to be happy. . . . What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing. (Seven Storey Mountain)
God was calling Merton forth from the tomb and healing him:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .
Merton’s false self is Paul’s “flesh”—not the physical body but all that is not in accord with God:
Brothers and sisters:
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
If we look carefully, we can see Jesus calling him forth from the dark tomb of his false self. Mosaics in churches in Rome fanned a flickering flame of spirituality. Children singing during Mass in Cuba gave him a thunderclap sense of God. Enduring friendships with Bob Lax, Dan Walsh, Ed Rice, Henry Giroux, and Mark van Doren at Columbia College put Merton on the path of developing authentic human relationships. Observing people walking around shining like lights awakened him from his separateness on a street corner in Louisville—he now knew he was one with God, others and creation. Days before his untimely electrocution death in Bangkok, the smiling and reclining statues of the Buddha in Polonnawara had stirred a deep sense of spirituality. He had come home to a place he had never been. Coming forth from the tomb of the false self is homecoming.
A psychiatrist, Gregory Zilboorg, once remarked that the narcissistic Merton, who doubted whether he could ever meet his mother’s (or anyone else’s) expectations, wanted to be a “hermit on Times Square.” In Robert Moore’s terms, grandiosity run amok. This is the false self that Merton described so well:
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothing into something objectively real.
Merton eventually realized that “The idea of a separate self—a false self—is an illusion.”
In calling Lazarus forth from the tomb, Jesus us calling us to awake. Jesus is about resurrection to new life. He is challenging us to come into our true selves—our selves in loving union with God, one another and creation. It is called solidarity in Catholic social teaching.
Merton wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation (NCS), “There is only one problem on which my existence, my peace and happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”
God dwelling deep within us is our true self. Again in NSC Merton wrote, “To say 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.”
He got it—love is his true identity. Love is our true identity.
Merton had morphed through the negative emptiness of loss through the emptiness of alienation and angst into the positive emptiness of compassion. When we lose ourselves completely, when we have emptied ourselves, we find God who is mercy, love and compassion—positive emptiness.
When we find ourselves in the darkness of the tomb, when we feel the sheer pain of loss and abandonment, we need to stop and listen. We need to listen in silence and solitude for the voice of Jesus, “Come out.” Come out from the darkness of the grandiose false self into the light of resurrection hope.