Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation


Thursday, August 17, 2017

True Self and False Self: Week 2

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member James Finley continues exploring insights on the true self and false self that he gleaned from Thomas Merton.

The contemplative journeys within, to discover “that if you descend into the depths of your own spirit . . . and arrive somewhere near the center of what you are, you are confronted with the inescapable truth that, at the very roots of your existence, you are in constant and immediate and inescapable contact with the infinite power of God Who is Pure Actuality and Whose creative and personal will keeps you, every moment, in existence.” [1]

And how does God display this power? Above all, by existence itself. “The One Who Is” sustains us in many ways, but above all God sustains us in existence. Our reality is truly our own, given to us by God, but it is nevertheless a received reality.

This vision is not apprehended as a theory but as an irreversible and immediate intuition. Merton writes:

It [metaphysical consciousness] starts not from the thinking and self-aware subject but from Being. . . . Underlying the subjective experience of the individual self there is an immediate experience of Being. This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. . . . It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object. The consciousness of Being . . . is an immediate experience that goes beyond reflexive awareness. It is not “consciousness of” but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such “disappears.” [2]

In the immediate intuitive awareness of existence, a tree and I are seen as one, for that act by which the tree is and that by which I am is the same act; namely, existence. Surely, the tree’s act of existence is proper to the tree; it is the tree that exists. Likewise, my act of existence is unique to me. But existence itself is the one common denominator that binds all together in the unity of being.

Thus, in this mode of vision, there is no subject-object division, for the vision enters into the flow of being which is “beyond and prior to subject-object division.” It enters into the flow of existence as The-One-Who-Is-Existence gives existence to all that exists. This is the vision of the true self which subsists in God as presence created in Presence, as love created in Love.

In the moment of this existential realization, the statement “I Am” takes on an explosive, shattering, yet peace-giving force. In utter simplicity, we intuitively realize within ourselves that our existence, though truly our own, is as the waves are to the sea, as the light is to the flame. Our prayer becomes our basking in this light, our being quietly warmed by it, our being consumed by it. Our prayer becomes our silent sinking in the sea of being that is at once God and ourselves.

Gateway to Silence:
I am one with God.

[1] Thomas Merton, “The Contemplative Life: Its Meaning and Necessity,” reprinted in Thomas Merton: Early Essays, 1947-1952, ed. Patrick F. O’Connell (Liturgical Press: 2015), 107. Emphasis in original.
[2] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions: 1968), 23-24. Emphasis in original.

Adapted from James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 135-136, 137-139.

Join Our Email Community

Stay up to date on the latest news and happenings from the Center for Action and Contemplation.

HTML spacer