In his address to the US Congress in 2015, Pope Francis mentioned the prominent American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, describing him as “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.” While we don’t know the full extent of Merton’s influence on the spiritual life and thought of our Pope, there are obvious similarities between them. One of these areas is Merton’s notion of the “false self,” which correlates with the recent remarks by Pope Francis on mercy and care for the environment.

After the fall, human beings became fearful creatures. We now tend to view the universe not as our home, lovingly crafted for us by our Creator, but as a dangerous place that must be wrestled into subjugation. This primal fear, which emerges from our lack of trust in God and from our woundedness, creates—in Merton’s parlance—the false self.

According to Merton, the false self, based in fear, does not find its primary identity in God. Rather, it seeks to construct its identity, meaning, and inner experience by its own power. This self tries to shield itself from the universe it ultimately fears, and often plunges into the relentless search for pleasure, comfort, power, and control.

The false self acts as a filter on reality, whereby everything the person encounters is first parsed through a discriminator. This discriminator assesses people, other creatures, and the environment not as they truly are, but through the lens of whether they will provide pleasure or pain, utility, or loss of control. Reality, under the false self paradigm, is not the meeting place between the person and their loving Creator. It becomes a disparate set of objects that are given value only insofar as they benefit the selfish needs of this disordered self.

Consider the following quote from Merton:

“There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our ‘self,’ that is to say, in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false ‘self’ that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God. It is then the false self that is our god, and we love everything for the sake of this self.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, page 21)

Here Merton argues that when we are governed by this egotistical false self, we make all of creation serve our selfishness, instead of giving glory to God. Gnostics and overzealous ascetics throughout the ages of the Church have often treated created goods as if they were evil. They are also wrong: it is the treatment of people and creation as objects for our selfish use that is evil.

When we think of Jesus healing the sick and suffering across ancient Palestine, we imagine Him encountering each person as ­a beloved, precious child of God and joyfully setting them free from their misery. We certainly don’t imagine him alleviating their suffering as a means of, say, furthering his personal renown and popularity through word of mouth. Yet many of us, to greater or lesser degrees, treat others and the world around us as mere means to a selfish end, or—even worse—as threats to be eliminated or controlled. That is our false self operating within us.

Pope Francis against the False Self

To my knowledge, Pope Francis hasn’t used the term “false self” in his teachings. He frequently refers, however, to the destructive nature of this insular, self-interested ego and condemns it in his writing and teaching.

The hardened heart

One example of this is his homily at daily Mass on February 18 of this year in the Domus Sanctae Marthae chapel. In it, Pope Francis spoke about hardened hearts and the need for mercy and compassion:

“A heart without compassion is an idolized heart, a self-sufficient heart that goes forward, held up by one’s own ego, that becomes strong only with ideologies.”

In this description of a hardened heart, we can also see a description of the false self, which is really the same thing. A heart without compassion is an “idolized heart”—in other words, a heart that is protective of itself, is afraid of the world, and therefore embraces ideologies to feel secure. This hardened heart does not seek its identity and security in a relationship with a loving God, but rather seeks its security and superiority through attaching itself to some (usually politically aligned) worldview.

This hardened person identifies with a label—conservative, liberal, traditionalist, socialist, etc.—and finds in this ideology their source of security, belonging, and a way of making sense of a bewildering world. By making an idol out of this false identity, the person immediately creates a schema by which they can value or devalue others. A “conservative” encountering a “liberal” is less likely to see the “liberal” as a beloved child of God with intrinsic dignity, and the temptation to demonize and hate “the other” will be great. Mercy and compassion are the first casualties. Again, let’s hear from Pope Francis:

“A hard heart leads to fights, wars, selfishness, the destruction of one’s brother because there is no compassion.”

When we rigidly define ourselves in this way, we cut ourselves off from the true self—the identity that God wants to form in each of us that is in union with God and transcends any label or ideology. Of course, as human beings, we need to communicate with each other and generalizing labels are perhaps necessary at times. But we should never reduce ourselves or others to mere labels.

In using and mistreating creation

Another example where I believe Pope Francis refers to the destructive nature of the false self is in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. In the introduction, the Holy Father quotes Pope Benedict XVI approvingly:

“Creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything simply is our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognise any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.’” (6)

In this quote, we see Pope Benedict refer to that characteristic trait of the false self that is defined by the objectification of all things, including God and His creation, and the ceaseless transfer of meaning from the glory of God to the glory of ourselves. We no longer see creation as a gift to us from our Beloved Creator, which we accept as His children with thankfulness and praise, thereby giving Him glory. Instead, creation becomes a vehicle of self-worship—it becomes a tool in our hands to fashion idols built in our image. We destroy creation to ensure our own excessive pleasure, comfort, and security—but the little idol in our heart is never quite satisfied.

Again, from the introduction to Laudato Si’, we read from Pope Francis:

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (11)

When operating from the false self, we want to control and dominate, as the false self craves security and comfort because of its existential fear. The false self is also a slave master. While we may think we are free when operating from this disordered self, we are really slaves to our ceaseless appetites. A society dominated by such enslaved and insatiable people, coupled with the power of modern science, poses a great danger to creation and—by extension—to the poor.

However, the false self is not invincible. It can be illuminated and brought under subjection by the light of the Gospel and the action of the Spirit. Then we are enabled to live more and more from our true self—the self which is, in some mysterious way, already united with God. For this to occur, however, great and radical conversion is required. All our allegiances must be given solely to Christ, so that our petty self-serving political and social allegiances and identities can die—or rather, be subordinated to the values of the Gospel. This is undoubtedly a painful process, but the rewards are a levity and lightness of spirit that allows us to approach God, creation, and others with “openness to awe and wonder.”

This is the conversion to which Pope Francis (and indeed all popes before him) are calling us. This is a conversion so that we may die to self, walk with Christ in the Spirit, and see the goodness of others and creation more clearly.


Image: Thomas Merton. On Being. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/speakingoffaith/16244241512

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Andy Thomas is a husband, father of 3, Catholic convert, engineer, and Aussie. He enjoys thinking and writing about various topics, such as theology, philosophy, science, and AI. You can follow him on Twitter @thomas_catholic or read more on his blog Spirit and Communion (www.spiritandcommunion.com).

Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and the false self
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