On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Feb 18, 2024

On Thursday, February 22, we have a unique and exciting event happening at the church. In lieu of our normal Candlelight Communion service, we’ll be hosting Doug Hertler for a special presentation of his one-man show Merton and Me: A Living Trinity. The play explores the struggles of youth, the complexities of faith, and the universal search for meaning and identity in an increasingly chaotic and divided world. Over the course of the evening, we’ll be asking two of the most humbling and elusive of all questions, “Who am I?” and “What am I supposed to do with my life?”

I hope you’ll join us.

Thomas Merton was one of the most important and interesting spiritual writers of the twentieth century. A Trappist monk–Trappists being a particularly strict order of Cistercian monks–Merton wrote over fifty books on varied topics dealing with both spirituality and social justice. He was an influential pacifist, and also opened up new pathways for interfaith dialogue with Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. His autobiography Seven Storey Mountain is a modern spiritual classic, and was named one of the one hundred best nonfiction books of the twentieth century by the National Review.

I first read Merton in a seminar on the “20th Century Catholic Renaissance” as a graduate student at Baylor, and later taught Merton to Baylor undergrads in a course called “Christian Spiritual Classics.” It was interesting to see how quickly and eagerly Texas Baptists took to this idiosyncratic Catholic mystic and activist. There is truly something in Merton for everyone.

One of my favorite pieces on Merton is a short essay from his Seeds of Contemplation, simply entitled: “Integrity.” It came to mind as we come to ask questions like “Who am I?” and “What am I supposed to do with my life?” Reflecting on the work of writing poetry, though with direct and explicit relevance to those seeking to live a religious life, Merton writes:

“Many poets are not poets for the same reasons that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives…. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint. For many absurd reasons, they are convinced that they are obliged to become somebody else…. They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems or possess somebody else’s sanctity.”

That’s a big claim–that many of us fail to succeed in being ourselves. Why does Merton think this is the case? His answer may surprise you, may even seem paradoxical. In effect, Merton says: It is our ego. We become others because of our egoism.

How can this be? Merton suggests two “egotistical” things are happening in our failure to become ourselves by trying to become others. First, we are in a hurry. We imitate others in a desire for quick success rather than taking the time to become our true selves. Second, we are putting ourselves in the place of God. We are telling God we know better, that it would be better for us to be this other person, rather than being the unique person God has created us to be.

Merton writes a stinging lament of those who seek “perfection” in this way.” He writes:

“They have become satisfied…with the perfection they have woven for themselves out of their own imaginations. And God Himself, Who wanted to create their special perfection and their own joy, will have to wait until after they have passed through a laborious Purgatory before He can finally do so.”

I confess, I find it at least provisionally hopeful that God’s love will not let us fail to become our true selves, even if God must complete this work on the other side of the grave (I think here of Rev. 2.17, and that moment when God hands us a “stone” with our true names on it). Even still, it begs the question: Is there anything we can do now, in the present, in order to avoid this affliction of becoming false selves?

Merton’s answer may again surprise us. In order to be our true selves, we must be humble. “In the great saints” he writes “you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide. The two turn out to be practically the same thing.” Merton hastens to say that humility does not “assert” its individuality “on the surface of everyday life.” That, again, would be egoism. But if God has made each person unique, and being humble means that we have submitted ourselves wholeheartedly to God, then humility also entails our being ourselves, of being nobody but the person God has made us to be.

That is a difficult line to walk, and Merton concludes his essay with the acknowledgment that truly being humble and being ourselves will likely mean that we do not “fit”–that people will not know what to make of us, and may even think we are crazy (suggesting that if we are “being ourselves” in ways that bring honor and recognition from others, we may not be living with “integrity” after all). But as we enter into the season of Lent, my prayer is that we will take up this difficulty now, through self-examination and amendment of life–amending our lives toward our true selves–so that the labor of Lent may save us a laborious future, and we can enter into our special perfection and unique joy today.