“But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”Matthew 6:6
It would be a great grace of Lent if we were to become aware of our greatest pretenses and then have the courage to cease living from them. All of the great Wisdom Traditions have periods of the year devoted to repentance and penitential practice. These are intended as times of cleansing: of the body through fasting, of the ego through almsgiving, and of the spirit through prayer. To experience hunger, for those of us fortunate enough not consistently to do so, is to awaken us to the reality of our body and its needs. To attempt to put others before ourselves will inevitably teach us about our own greed and selfishness. And to go to our room close the door, and pray in secret will necessitate our confronting of our own falseness and illusions about ourselves.
Every one of us needs, at the very least, this annual reminder of our own falseness. To one degree or another, we are always attempting to be someone that we are not. This is why there is always a need for repentance. True repentance springs from our experience of separation and distance from God and from ourselves as God has created us. Thomas Merton wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 98) that “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men and women are not saints; they never succeed in being themselves.” We need Lent because we always need to be reminded of the necessity of becoming ourselves by overcoming all of the pretenses by which we live.
In my work of counseling others, I am consistently moved by their inner beauty as it is revealed in their suffering and vulnerability. And yet, that innrt beauty that is immediately recognizable to me is precisely what they usually experience as their “problem.” We are so convinced that who we are is inadequate to the demands of social and communal life that we affect varying forms of false identity. Jesus is well aware of this, and it is precisely for this reason that he says that when we give alms, when we fast, and when we pray we are to do so “in secret.” For most of us, our greatest secret to others and to ourselves is our very Self.
For most of us, humility is associated with self-depreciation. Some of our misguided religious teaching has led many of us to feel mistrustful or even ashamed of what we think, or feel, or want. Of course, our perspective is not “the” perspective. Yet, there is no virtue in denying who we are and what we think, feel, and desire. As Merton points out, a poet, or artist, or writer, or whatever never becomes a true practitioner as long as he or she remains an imitator of others. It is only later in life that I have come to realize that what constitutes the quality of a person’s poetry or prose or artwork or intimate relationships is the depth and integrity of the person’s thought. The poetry of Emily Dickinson, for example, can never be mistaken for another’s. The power of her art lies in its expression of her unique life, experience, and reflection. It so stirs us because, as Adrian van Kaam says, it is what is most unique in a person that, at the same time, reflects what is most deeply common among us.
Perhaps the greatest human evil is that so many human beings never get to express and to offer to the world the unique gift of Self that they are. For many, even the majority of human persons, this is because of the horrible injustice that impoverishes so many. For most, fasting is not a choice but a daily reality. All of their energy must be devoted to survival for themselves and their families. In our sustaining of structures that continue to impoverish so many persons, we are in turn impoverished by the lack of the giftedness, creativity, and genius that they are never able to express.
For those of us, however, who live in more affluent cultures, it is fear and refusal of responsibility that inhibit our becoming the person God has created us to be. We give over responsibility for our lives and work to others, either directly or indirectly through imitation and conformity. In a world and a society in which the group or class to which we belong constitutes our identity and way of responding to the world, personal integrity becomes meaningless. Recently we had 100 United State seniors take an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution. They swore this oath “before God.” Now there were, no doubt, rare exceptions, but for the most part the oath was meaningless. The taking of an oath requires that the person doing so know the meaning of Jesus’ words that “the Father who sees in secret will repay you.” That is, the person him or herself must have some comprehension of the “secret self” that the Father is seeing.
The image of that oath taking strikes terror in my heart. In the same essay from which we have been quoting, Merton writes: “In great saints you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide.” (p. 99) How is a truly human society possible when there is no ground under its feet? When the words of oaths are meaningless, is any kind of trust and so mutual communication even possible? At the point at which we cannot distinguish between the demands of the groups we participate in and the truth of our own person before God, our common life must inevitably descend into chaos.
Perhaps more significantly than ever before, we must ask ourselves this Lent if the truth matters. And that must begin with ourselves. It is time to go to the inner room, to close the door, and to pray to our Father in secret. We must have the “heroic humility” to confront our own pretenses and falseness. For, as Merton says, without doing so are bound to be other than the person God intended us to be. And, this is not merely a personal matter. For, without a certain critical mass of persons with this kind of integrity and humility, a community or a society cannot endure.
It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not. It is as much a saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another person’s city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life? The other’s sanctity will never be yours; you must have the humility to work out your own salvation in a darkness where you are absolutely alone. . . .
And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the person, or the artist, that God intended you to be.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 100