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True Self/Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self
Sunday, August 30, 2020

The thing that we have to face is that life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true. —Thomas Merton

I learned the terms “True Self” and “false self” from Thomas Merton (1915‒1968). These are words he used to clarify Jesus’ teaching of dying to self or “losing ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mark 8:35). Merton rightly recognized that it was not the body that had to “die” but the “false self” that we do not need anyway. The false self—or what I am calling lately the “separate self,” disconnected from Divine Love—is simply a substitute for our deepest truth. It is a useful and even needed part of ourselves, but it is not all of us; the danger is when we think we are only our small or separate self. Our attachment to the false self must die to allow the True Self—our basic and unchangeable identity in God—to live fully and freely.

Thomas Merton said that the True Self should not be thought of as anything different than life itself—but not my little life—the Big Life. [1] Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus (c. 1266‒1308) said that the human person is not different or separate from Being itself. This is not the little being that you and I get attached to and take too seriously, but Universal Being, “the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being,” as Paul put it to the Athenians (Acts 17:28). We Franciscans call this “the univocity of all being (speaking of all beings with one consistent voice), “that all may be one” (John 17:21).

When you’ve gotten too comfortable with your separate self and you call it Life, you will get trapped at that level. You will hold onto it for dear life—because that’s the only life you think you have! Unless someone tells you about the Bigger Life, or you’ve had a conscious connection with the deepest ground of your being, there’s no way you’re going to let go of your separate self. But your attachment to that separate self must “die” or “the single grain of wheat remains just a single grain” (John 12:24).

Your True Self is Life and Being and Love. Love is what you were made for and love is who you are. When you live outside of Love, you are not living from your true Being or with full consciousness. The Song of Songs says that “Love is strong as Death. . . . The flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of YHWH” (8:6, Jerusalem Bible). Your True Self is a little tiny flame of this Universal Reality that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, Light and Fire itself, God’s very self.

References:
[1] Merton writes about the true self throughout New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions: ©1961).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self/False Self, disc 2 (Franciscan Media: 2003), CD; and

Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 38‒39.

Epigraph: From “A Life Free from Care,” Merton’s final talk as novice master (August 20, 1965). See Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, ed. Christine M. Bochen (Orbis Books: 2000), 70.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. —Thomas Merton
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