True Self and False Self: Our Ultimate Identity
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) developed wonderful insights into the true self and false self. James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, lived and prayed with Merton for six years at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This week Jim shares some of what he learned from this great contemplative teacher.
Merton’s whole spirituality, in one way or another, pivots on the question of ultimate human identity. Merton’s message is that we are one with God. Our own deepest self is one with the “Risen and Deathless Christ in Whom all are fulfilled in One.” 
Along the journey to God, the self that begins is not the self that arrives. At the outset, our self is who we thought ourselves to be. This self dies along the way until in the end “no one” is left. This “no one” is our true self. It is the self that stands prior to all that is this or that. It is the self in God, the self bigger than death yet born of death. It is the self God forever loves.
Merton doesn’t question the reality and importance of the empirical self we call our personality. We must deeply respect our whole person, including the day-by-day realities of life and the self that is formed by them. What Merton does say, however, is that when the relative identity of the ego is taken to be my deepest and only identity, when I am thought to be nothing but the sum total of all my relationships, when I cling to this self and make it the center around which and for which I live, I then make my empirical identity into the false self. My own self then becomes the obstacle to realizing my true self.
The true self is our whole self before God, the self we were created to become, our self in Christ. It is the self that breathes, that stands and sits. It is the self that is. The true self, being simple like God, can be realized only in the mode of simple, contemplative awareness.
The whole of the spiritual life finds its fulfillment in bringing our entire life into a transforming, loving communion with the ineffable God. Such a communion is beyond what words can say, but a prayerful, respectful pursuit of Merton’s understanding of the true self can bring us to the brink of the insight into our own ultimate identity as radically one with God in Christ. This insight, which is itself a gift, will provide us with the unifying vision that is expressed not only in Merton but in all the great mystical traditions.
~Adapted from James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 17, 18, 19.
 Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1967), 42.