“There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish, and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men. When we give power to suffering and to the cause of suffering, we lose touch with the inner self that knows we are one with the Divine. The inner being knows that this sacred union can never be dissolved although it may be obscured. By trusting the illusion of suffering, we forget, and our spiritual wings are clipped. We are unable to lift off much less soar to the heights of ecstatic union with the Divine. To release ourselves from the bond of this illusion and the forgetfulness it causes, we must see suffering not as a destructive power but as a transcendent gift from the Divine. This shift in understanding releases us from disunity and separateness.” ………………..Thomas Merton
I thought I will write this short article on this subject because we tend to associate moving away from the world in a spiritual exercise as an escape from the living reality. Thomas Merton is very clear on this in his opening sentence in the quoted saying. Conflict, anguish and suffering are inherent to life and results from the ego self. The ego cannot be completely dispensed with as it is first level of personal identity. The role we allow ego to play is vital. A good example is salt in our food. Salt cannot be totally eliminated as it is vital not only for taste but also as an essential ingredient for good health as Sodium enables the transmission of nerve impulses around the body. It is an electrolyte, like Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium; it regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of the cells in the body.
All negative emotional reactions such as anger, conflict and hatred results when the ego stubbornly refuses to be expunged from the system as excess salt in the body has to be removed through the kidney for maintaining good health.
Human suffering, in this context, is not that which is caused by physical harm. This suffering which Thomas Merton is referring is the mental suffering due to our inability to detach ourselves from the promptings of the ego.
It is unfortunate that in Christianity the spiritual exercise of suffering is rooted in the physical modelled after the suffering of Christ on the cross. Mortification as a spiritual exercise is seen as causing discomfort or pain in the physical dimension of the individual. Early Christians took it to the extreme level of martyrdom or physical death.
The understanding of St. Paul regarding suffering is of great help to us. Paul says:
“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his suffering, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” ……………….Philippians 3:8-11
We must note that Paul talks of “suffering through loss of all things”. This is the deeper meaning and resonates with the Buddhist concept of “Dukkha” or suffering as a result of attachment. Every suffering is our stubborn adherence to the dictates of the ego and this must be eliminated, which is metaphorically identified with death, and must be followed by the resurrection of the spirit.
Another vital dimension of Paul’s take on the meaning of suffering is his deeper understanding of suffering as a means for sanctification, keeping the ego at a minimum and trust in God at a maximum. He says:
“And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’…For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak then I am strong” …….2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
Thomas Merton provides the methodology through which we can undertake this difficult task of detachment. When our understanding of our true nature transcends from disunity and separation to one of non-duality, we eradicate the very foundation on which the ego has placed its throne. Our true inner nature is elevated to its higher potential giving flight to ascend to an ecstatic union with the Divine.
Love to you all