Thomas Merton seems to suggest that for him it may only be possible to live the life of the true self in the monastic setting. My gut-reaction is to say, “That ain’t so,” but on further reflection that may just be the case.
What most encumbers our ability to find the true self and to live it is the false self. The false self is composed of all the parts our life in the world gives to it. Any atmosphere that we can be in that minimizes the need or desire to take on a false self makes it easier to find the true self – and I think this is what Merton means.
Within the daily routine of secular (or clerical) life in the world we are often strongly compelled within ourselves to assume modes of comfort, security, and advantage that have everything to do with nurturing our “successful” life in a world where everyone else is doing the same thing. This does not necessarily have anything to do with who or what we really are. Getting in touch with who and what we really are takes both an interior attitude and an exterior atmosphere. The atmosphere to acquire the essential interior attitude is not very well provided by the world on a day-to-day basis. I think, to varying degrees, it can be done but is monumentally more difficult than in an atmosphere given over to the very purpose of cultivating this interior attitude.
Conversely, I suppose it’s possible to become so attached to the monotonous security of the daily monastic routine of work and prayer that the attachment involved might be likened to the attachments of routine and security we seek in the world, thus also missing the point – but maybe less so.
A deep and serious consideration of the words Mary spoke to Elizabeth offers insight into touching the true self: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Somehow I’ve missed the fact that Mary might be the most profound contemplative that ever was, and that is because she understood her true self and lived it – and she did so within the context of a family.
What the monastery provides is a directed routine – a regimentation of one’s daily life with a single focus in a communal setting of like minds. In the world it is a war with battles on many fronts that consume much energy and regularly alter our focus.