In those who are most alive and therefore most themselves, the life of the body is subordinate to a higher life that is within them. It quietly surrenders to the far more abundant vitality of a spirit living on levels that defy measurement and observation. The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called, variously, a “super-ego” or a pharasaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man’s powers in striving for the realization of his deepest spiritual potentialities. It is not so much a control of one part of man by another, but the peaceful integration of all man’s powers into one perfect actuality which is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self.
Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own existence, that is to say when he experiences something of the fullness of intelligence, freedom, and spirituality that are actualized within himself.
But can we really expect a man to attain to this kind of consciousness? Is it not utterly cruel to hold before his eyes the delusive hope of this “fullness” of life and of “realization?” Of course, if the nature of the hope is not understood, it is the cruelest and most mocking of delusions. It may be the worst of all spiritual mirages that torments him in his desert pilgrimage. How can a man, plunged in the agonia, the wrestling of life and death in their most elemental spiritual forms, be beguiled by the promise of self realization? His very self, his very reality, is all contradiction: a contradiction mercifully obscured by confusion. If the confusion is cleared away, and he fully “realizes” this tormented self, what will he see if not the final absurdity of the contradiction? The “real meaning of his existence” would then be precisely that it has no meaning.
In a certain sense, that is true. To find life we must die to life as we know it. To find meaning we must die to meaning as we know it. The sun rises every morning and we are used to it, and because we know the sun will rise we have finally come to act as if it rose because we wanted it to. Suppose the sun should choose not to rise? Some of our mornings would then be “absurd” – or, to put it mildly, they would not meet our expectations.
To find the full meaning of our existence we must find not the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God. The meaning that comes to us out of the transcendent darkness of His mystery and our own. We do not know God and we do not know ourselves. How then can we imagine that it is possible to chart our own course toward the discovery of the meaning of our life? This meaning is not a sun that rises every morning, though we have come think that it does, and on mornings when it does not rise we substitute some artificial light of our own so as not to admit that this morning was absurd.
Meaning is then not something we discover in ourselves, or in our lives. The meanings we are capable of discovering are never sufficient. The true meaning has to be revealed. It has to be “given.” And the fact that it is given is, indeed, the greater part of its significance: for life itself is, in the end, only significant in so far as it is given.
As long as we experience life and existence as suns that have to rise every morning, we are in agony. We must learn that life is a light that rises when God summons it out of darkness. For this there are no fixed times.
~ From The New Man by Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Thomas Merton is one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century. Though he lived a mostly solitary existence as a Trappist monk, he had a dynamic impact on world affairs through his writing. An outspoken proponent of the antiwar and civil rights movements, he was both hailed as a prophet and castigated for his social criticism. He was also unique among religious leaders in his embrace of Eastern mysticism, positing it as complementary to the Western sacred tradition. Merton is the author of over forty books of poetry, essays, and religious writing, including The Seven Storey Mountain, for which he is best known. His work continues to be widely read to this day.