Contemplation and the Vulgar "I"; According to Thomas Merton
It seems odd that we would find insight into the vehement rise of American authoritarianism in something as unassuming as the Christian contemplative tradition. But surprisingly, there is much to be gained from works like Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (TIE) to help guide us through our electoral predicament at hand.
Thomas Merton, the most notable American monk of the 20th century, reminds us that contemplation is not about “isolation and introversion,” but quite the opposite. Christian contemplation is the awakening of the inmost “I,” the reintegration of the person, and the labor of loving others.
“In a word,” Merton reflects, “the awakening of the inner self is purely the work of love, and there can be no love where there is not “another” to love (TIE, p.24).”
Thus, Christian contemplation is a “recovery of unity” of our whole selves–our experiences of the world, our “I” that others meet, and our inner most “I” in communion with all other “I’s” in the love of Christ.
But Merton also warned of the “neurotic and psychotic derangement” that can bewitch our “collective exterior self” in programs like “false mysticism,” “pseudo-religiosity,” and “political idols.”
“These are manifestations of a fake interiorization by which, instead of plunging into the depths of one’s true freedom and spirituality, one simply withdraws into the darker subterranean levels of the exterior self, which remains alienated and subject to powers from the outside. The relation between this false inner self and external reality is entirely colored and perverted by a heavy and quasi-magical compulsivity. Instead of the freedom and spontaneity of an inner self that is entirely unpreoccupied with itself and goes forth to meet the other lightly and trustfully, without afterthought of self-concern, we have here the ponderous and obsessive delusion of the paranoid who lays claim to the “magical” insight into others, and interprets the portentous “signs” he sees in external reality in favor of his own distended fears, lusts, and appetites for power. True Christian charity is stifled in such an atmosphere, and contemplation has no place in it (TIE, p.25).”
The “false inner self,” as opposed to the “true inner self,” can be identified in personality flaws such as selfishness, self-aggrandizement, antipathy for others, and greed. A false inner self can also manifest itself collectively, such as in war, cults, and other external “explosion[s] of psychic energy.”
One example Merton gives to help differentiate the false inner self and its retreat into “darker subterranean levels” is the warrior cult of the Aztecs.
“The Aztec sacrifice of the human heart to the sun suggests a kind of frightful parody of the pure and spiritual manifestation of the “inmost self.” Here, instead of a man offering to God the “sacrifice” of his exterior self, by self-forgetfulness and love, in order to release and manifest before the face of God the hidden face of his interior soul, a victim is seized by the hieratic representative of collective ferocity, and his heart, cut out with an obsidian knife, is held up bleeding to satisfy the hunger of the sun! This example offers us much food for meditation today, as we fall back into collective barbarism in which the individual and his freedom once again lose their meaning and each man is only an expendable unit ready to be immolated to the political idols on which the prosperity and power of the collectivity seem to depend (TIE, pp. 28–29).”
In American society today, we are witnessing a similar “frightful parody” in which a “collective exterior self”–false, ferocious, insatiable, and barbaric–has degraded our democracy in favor of it’s own “distended fears, lusts, and appetite for power.”
We are contending with the fury of a collective exterior self that has seized its victims–Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, women, and people of color–in order to cut out the pluralistic heart of American democracy to satisfy the hunger of wealth and white privilege.
We are observing the rise of a political idol who represents the profanity of a collective “I” that is ready to sacrifice the inclusion of us all for the exclusivity of a few.
Today, we are experiencing the politics of the Vulgar “I.”
Donald Trump is leading the way for the collective Vulgar “I” and it’s public policies that compete in human degradation–that is, a sacrifice of others’ civil rights to an anti-Christian and anti-democratic God of power and greed.
When we think about the rise of Trumpism in American politics today, we cannot do so without considering the “fears, lusts, and appetite for power” of his supporters and their collective barbarism born in the “darker subterranean levels” of their false inner selves.
Trump supporters are fully responsible for Trumpism and the creation of this 21st century political idol–the Vulgar “I”–and its “quasi-magical compulsivity” that has overwhelmed our 2016 election debate.
The solidarity of Trump supporters’ antipathy for others has created a political hostility that is threatening the very essence of our democracy and the meaning of our freedom.
The antidote to the Vulgar “I” and its “neurotic and psychotic derangement” is the art of contemplation.
Only through the awakening of our inner most “I” can we experience a “recovery of unity”–both internally and externally–and challenge the pseudo-religiosity of Trump supporters.
And only through a collective interiority of self–in communion with Christ, and therefore, in communion with all other innermost “I’s”–can we overwhelm the politics of hate and antipathy of neighbor.