“In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die. The reason for this is that I am born in selfishness and therefore my natural efforts to make myself more real and more myself, make me less real and less myself, because they revolve around a lie.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 47)
Ever since I can remember some adult was asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Doctor, lawyer, candle stick maker…ballerina, librarian, teacher…always “what”…never “who” or better yet, “whose.” It is only now, decades later that I begin to understand how wrong that question is, how misleading. The lie that Merton refers to in his writing is that in order to become “myself” I have to distance myself from those around me. I have to become better, faster, smarter to grab what is mine. I have to become independent. Having done this, I spend a lot of time, as Merton writes, “admiring the distance between you and me.”
And the truth…the truth is that we are “members of one another.” Merton goes on to warn us that, “The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream. And when he dies he will discover that he long ago ceased to exist because God, Who is infinite reality and in Whose sight is the being of everything that is, will say to him: ‘I know you not.” (p. 48)
Over the last couple of months I begin to understand this truth more and more. I think its message is constantly trying to penetrate my consciousness but the layers I have built up are sometimes impenetrable. In my reading, as I search for spiritual tools, I find this suggestion: as you go through your day encountering people, those you know and those who are strangers, repeat this mantra to yourself…I belong to you.
I do this for days. I belong to you…I belong to you…I belong to you. On my walks as someone approaches…I belong to you. On the phone with a customer representative…I belong to you. Having tea with a dear friend…I belong to you. In the car driving my daughter home from school…I belong to you. Being jostled by a fellow shopper at the mall…I belong to you. Being cut off in traffic…I belong to you. Stopping to talk to a homeless man…I belong to you.
Some interesting things happen. My orientation to those around me changes. It opens me up to them in a new way. It softens my heart and loosens my mind. When I don’t use the mantra I notice the difference. I am much more likely to judge and distance myself. I begin to understand that the boundaries are meant to be broken down.
And then I read some of St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography. She too struggles with who she is and the nature of her purpose. She writes, “I was still being tormented by this question of unfulfilled longings and it was a distraction to my prayer. I decided to consult St. Paul’s epistles in the hopes of getting an answer.” She turned to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapters 12 and 13. It was clear enough on the idea that there were many gifts and ways to manifest them in the community but what particularly struck Therese was this line: “Prize the best gifts of heaven. But I can show you a way better than any other.” Love, love is the straightest way to God. “Now was I at peace; charity–that was the key to my vocation…Beside myself with joy, I cried out: ‘Jesus, my Love! I’ve found my vocation, and my vocation is love.” (p.234-235)
I have read this before but this time, with the mantra in my heart, I get it anew and in a deeper way…my vocation is love…I belong to you. I belong to the “you” whoever it may be whom I encounter. I belong to the “you” right in front of me, literally. My vocation is to love you.