No-Questions and No-Answers

Merton wrote a book of essays called Disputed Questions, and the great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, had a book called Ultimate Questions.  So…here’s a few of my own kind of questions.   Just some interesting and intriguing and troubling thoughts….

  1. There is no “I” in I.

What could this possibly mean? 

Sounds very Buddhist, doesn’t it?  Maybe a bit Hindu, as in Advaita, Sankara, etc…..  But what about Christianity?  Definitely not if we stick to conventional Christianity.  Yes, Paul did say, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  But it’s usually taken  in some kind of metaphorical way, or as some external acts of imitation….be like Jesus, act like Christ…..  However, in some mystics, like Eckhart….this goes much, much deeper.  And for someone like Abhishiktananda, with  his “advaitic insights,” well, we are way beyond the usual Sunday sermon/piety.  But in Thomas Merton you see a trajectory, a growth in awareness concerning this…which we will look at shortly.

Lets borrow a term from Marxist theory: false consciousness.  False consciousness is  a way of thinking that prevents people from being aware of the true nature of their social or economic situation; their true relationship to the whole material scheme of their existence.  They are not able to recognize that they are being exploited and how they are exploited.  They may even contribute to their own exploitation.

Borrowing this term, we can use it to designate an even deeper and more fundamental problem: our lack of awareness of who we really are.  We get this wrong very badly.  I, me, myself, mine…..that sense of “I-ness,” that strange orientation of everything toward  that sense.  This is a mistake with enormous consequences.  So we end up fretting about this “self” quite a bit.  It feels very fragile, so we want to protect it, defend it.  Thieves can come and rob it….  But what if we ask that universally profound question: who am I?  

Merton becomes quite sensitive to the problem in the middle period of his monastic life.  You get a hint of it in quotes like this:

“In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anyone else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.”

Drawing on a deep interpretation of his own tradition, he formulates the issue in terms of “false self” vs. “true self.”  Note:

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.”

“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.”

“We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.”

“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life 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 nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”

“But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasure and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”

(All Merton quotes are from New Seeds of Contemplation)


A number of people have been very influenced by Merton’s insights here, like Richard Rohr, for example:

“The false self is all the things we pretend to be and think we are. It is the pride, arrogance, title, costume, role, and degree we take to be ourselves. It’s almost entirely created by our minds, our cultures, and our families. It is what’s passing and what’s going to die, and it is not who we are. For many people this is all they have—but all of it is going to die when we die.  

But Merton’s awareness grows and deepens even more as his encounter with zen and Buddhism unfolds.

Recall, early on,  Merton’s dialogue with D. T. Suzuki about Cassian’s notion of “purity of heart.”  At first Merton wanted to consider it as something like the zen “sunyata,” emptiness.  Suzuki emphatically corrected him!  With Cassian’s “purity of  heart” there is this “heart,” this self, which you can look at and work at “purifying.”  But with sunyata there is no self there as object for you to work on.  Who you are is not an object that you can grasp and “purify”…that you can look at, admire as being “pure,” that you can “polish,”  etc.  In zen terms, who you are is no-self.   Foolish westerners have claimed that zen denies the personhood of the human being.  Quite the contrary, the fullness of personhood only emerges when the boundaries of that narrow, little self vanish.  Toward the end of his life Merton begins to use that term “no-self” more instead of “true self” (or some variant, such as no-hearer in a beautiful essay about solitude).  In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the last book he published, he provocatively writes:  “”As long as there is an ‘I’ that is the definite subject of a contemplative experience, an ‘I’ that is aware of itself and its contemplation, an ‘I’ that can possess a certain ‘degree of spirituality,’ then we have not yet passed over the Red Sea, we have not yet ‘gone out of Egypt.’ We remain in the realm of multiplicity, activity, incompleteness, striving and desire.”

By that time his zen awareness colors everything he touches.  My favorite is this lovely piece on the hermit life:

“The hermit life is cool. It is a life of low definition in which there is little to decide, in which there are few transactions or none, in which there are no packages delivered. In which I do not bundle up packages and deliver them to myself. It is not intense. There is no give and take of questions and answers, problems and solutions. Problems begin down the hill. Over there under the water tower are the solutions. Here there are woods, foxes. Here there is no need for dark glasses. “Here” does not even warm itself with references to “there.” It is just a “here” for which there is no “there.” The hermit life is that cool.

The monastic life as a whole is a hot medium. Hot with words like “must,” “ought” and “should.” Communities are devoted to high definition projects: “making it all clear!” The clearer it gets the clearer it has to be made. It branches out. You have to keep clearing the branches. The more branches you cut back the more branches grow. For one you cut you get three more. On the end of each branch there is a big bushy question mark. People are running all around with packages of meaning. Each is very anxious to know whether all the others have received the latest messages. Has someone else received a message that he has not received? Will they be willing to pass it on to him? Will he understand it when it is passed on? Will he have to argue about it? Will he be expected to clear his throat and stand up and say “Well the way I look at it St. Benedict said . . . ?” Saint Benedict saw that the best thing to do with the monastic life was to cool it but today everybody is heating it up. Maybe to cool it you have to be a hermit. “

“This is not a hermitage—it is a house. (“Who was that hermitage I seen you with last night? . . .”) What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. Who said Zen? Wash out your mouth if you said Zen. If you see a meditation going by, shoot it. Who said “Love?” Love is in the movies. The spiritual life is something people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it. Is it supposed to be clear? I am not inviting anybody to try it.”

  1. There is no “I” in Paradise.

In Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima, a key character, tells of his older brother, Markel,  who died young but had a powerful influence on Zosima. He had been scornful of spiritual realities and generally a rude, brusque person.  But as he was being overwhelmed by illness, one Holy Week he experienced a profound change which no one could explain.   A key quote from the novel, Zosima speaking:

 “I remember he used to cough all night and sleep badly, but in the morning he dressed and tried to sit up in an arm-chair. That’s how I remember him sitting, sweet and gentle, smiling, his face bright and joyous, in spite of his illness. A marvelous change passed over him, his spirit seemed transformed. The old nurse would come in and say, ‘Let me light the lamp before the holy image, my dear.’ And once he would not have allowed it and would have blown it out.

‘Light it, light it, dear, I was a wretch to have prevented you doing it. You are praying when you light the lamp, and I am praying when I rejoice seeing you. So we are praying to the same God.’

Those words seemed strange to us, and mother would go to her room and weep, but when she went in to him she wiped her eyes and looked cheerful. ‘Mother, don’t weep, darling,’ he would say, ‘I’ve long to live yet, long to rejoice with you, and life is glad and joyful.’

‘Ah, dear boy, how can you talk of joy when you lie feverish at night, coughing as though you would tear yourself to pieces.’

‘Don’t cry, mother,’ he would answer, ‘life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but refuse to see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.’”

Paradise???  What could this possibly mean?  Is it mere sentimentality, delusions of a sick young man.  Needless to say the literati who have written so much analyzing this novel from various angles are not the ones to consult about this!  Also, forget the pop culture appropriations of that word, “Paradise,”  so comical in their obvious hedonism.  Best way to get a sense of this is to look at its opposite: hell!  No, again not the pop images of devils with horns and pitchforks and flames.  Consider the following  images:

  1. The ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus.  The guy condemned to roll this boulder up this hill, and as he is about to get to the top….the boulder gets too heavy and it rolls down….and this for all eternity…..  This is a marvelous picture of life lived  grounded  in that ego self.  The gist of this is also witnessed in that old Rolling Stones ditty, (I can’t get no) “Satisfaction”…but I try and try….  

This is a life loaded with burdens, obvious and not so obvious, and it offers satisfactions like mirages in the desert.  Being in a wrong relationship to oneself and to all around one is a very heavy burden; but the real sadness is that this is simply experienced as “life,” life as a kind of “heaviness,” a burden that weighs on  us more and more.  And there is a built in futility to all you do.  If pushed to an extreme, this leads to such a distortion of humanity, such a dysfunctionality, that it can make one forget what human life is about.

The Gospel invites us to lay down that burden of “self” and pick up the burden of Christ’s life in us, a burden that is no-burden….because there is no-self.

Here we are at the Gates of Paradise….or I should say the “Gateless-gate of Paradise”!

  1. There are much more subtle pictures of hell in literature, more refined ones, if you will.  One place you can find it is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby.  From the closing paragraph of the novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——”

Again, that sense that one’s fulfillment is just out of reach!  In that old classic move On the Waterfront the lead character, former boxer Terry Malloy, laments to his brother, “I couldva been somebody, I couldva been a contender.”  We are are all caught up in wanting to be that “somebody.”  Some pursue it in wealth, some in sex, some in power, some in heroics, some in learning, some in religion, etc.; but this is essentially an “unattainable illusory self” even as we seem to hold it in our hand.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth is another figure who desperately wanted to be “somebody.”  At the end of his road, at the end of his insane pursuit of power, he concludes this about the meaning of life:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

What a marvelous picture of hell!  Because hell is a state of mind, a state of awareness, a state of relationality, a state of being.  

And so is Paradise.  Paradise is your own being, your own personhood, not something “out there” to reach or achieve.  To enter Paradise all you need do is “return home” so to speak.  If you are alienated from your “true self,” you are in effect this illusory individual “I” separated from all, an isolated consciousness, filled with deep anxiety about its separateness, seeking connections in all manner of modes, which never really satisfy it.  This is one sign of being an “outcast” from Paradise.  But to be in Paradise is to be in the Wholeness and interrelatedness of all being.  It is our Original Nature as the Buddhists would put it . Francis of Assisi  knew Paradise.  Think of the significance of the stigmata in his body (historical or symbolic, no matter).  Think of that in relation to Paradise.

  1. There is no “I” in Namaste.

Consider this poem by W. S. Merwin, my absolutely favorite modern poet:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

Hands folded, bowing slightly, quietly saying “Namaste,” a greeting thousands of years old….this is such a more beautiful and profound way of greeting than  a handshake….but what does  it mean?   Of course a simple translation opens a vast door…. “The Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you.”  There is no “I” in Namaste, not if it is real.  But it’s not like there is only “God,” or only “I,” or “God” + “I”…..  Who you are is a mystery lost  in the Mystery of God, so do not think you know who is bowing or to whom….

But there is more.  In a fragile little wild flower in  the wilderness, it is  the Whole Cosmos bowing to you.  In the smiling eyes of a little child.  In the   quizzical gaze of a lonely coyote.  In the loveliness of another person, young or old.  In the kindness of a stranger.  In the tears of loss.  In the vast beauty of the night sky.  In the self-sacrifice of a parent….   Bow your head slightly and whisper “Namaste.”