Dilatato Corde 5:2
July - December, 2015

Self-Fulfillment and the True Self

This was the keynote address given at a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue on spiritual maturation. The gathering was sponsored by the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and held at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, May 28-31, 2015
Some years ago I spent a couple of weeks at Our Lady of Mepkin Trappist Abbey in South Carolina as a guest of the late Abbot Francis Kline. While I was there I had a series of encounters with a young man named Chris, who was also staying there on a kind of observership program. Chris was on an alternative spiritual path and had studied some spirituality East and West, which was of course a fascination of mine. And so we had several really interesting animated conversations, and we also stayed in touch after our time at Mepkin.
A year or so later I was asked to be part of a meeting at the offices the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Washington DC. As it turned out, Chris and a friend of his were going to be driving through Washington DC on the very day that I was set to arrive there, and so we arranged for them to pick me up at the airport, take me to my hotel, and spend the evening together. So, I arrive, in the late afternoon, a hot steamy day, and they pick me up at curbside. I jump into the car and, after quick introductions, Chris’ friend Ed, who was driving, heads into rush hour traffic in Silver Spring, Maryland. A few minutes later, safely tucked in a traffic jam (I’m sitting in the back seat), Ed looks me directly in the eye in the rear view mirror and says to me, “So, Chris tells me that you’ve achieved cosmic consciousness. What was that like?”
Now I don’t remember ever having claimed to have achieved cosmic consciousness, but I must say that was quite an entree into a wonderful stimulating evening conversation (a lot more interesting than anything we spoke about the next day at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I assure you). I bring that up here, in this context, because I told a friend of mine that I was going to be offering a talk here at the Gethsemani Encounter, and he asked me what the topic was. I told him, “Spiritual Maturity.” And he must have remembered this story, because he said to me, “So, I hear you’ve achieved spiritual maturity. What was that like?”
Let me begin in earnest with this from the Tao te Ching.
To look for life is to find death.
The thirteen organs of our living
are the thirteen organs of our dying.
Why are the organs of our life where death enters us?
Because we hold too hard to living.
So I have heard if you live the right way,
when you cross the country
you need not fear to meet a mad bull or a tiger;
when you’re in battle you need not fear the weapons.
The bull would find nowhere to jab its horns,
the tiger nowhere to stick its claws,
the sword nowhere for its point to go. Why?
Because there’s nowhere in you for death to enter.
                                                            Tao te Ching #50
I want to start out with a framing device that I use often. (We also spoke of this a little at our last “Monks in the West” meeting.) I have found it useful to distinguish between the telos and the scopos, that is, the end and the goal of the spiritual life. This distinction is found in the writings of John Cassian, the great fourth-century chronicler of the desert monastic tradition. He and his friend Germanus are in the desert of Egypt to engage in a long series of conversations with the old men (gerens) of the desert, conversations which are passed down to us in a work called “The Conferences.” Their very first recorded conversation with “the most experienced of fathers of the monks” is with Abba Moses, who points out to them that every art and discipline has both a scopos and a telos, Greek words meaning “a goal” and “an end.” For farmers, for instance, the goal is to cultivate the land and till the soil toward the end of having a rich harvest. A good modern example might be any kind of sporting event: the goal is to score points (“to make a goal”), but the end is to win the game. And Abba Moses says the monastic profession has both a scopos and a telos, a goal and an end, as well. When he asks Cassian and Germanus, “What is your goal and what is your end?” they say that they “bear all things for the kingdom of God.” Indeed, Abba Moses says, that is the end, but you need a goal first. But Cassian and Germanus cannot figure out what the goal is. So he tells them: “The end (telos) of our profession . . . is the kingdom of God . . . but the goal (scopos) is purity of heart.”
Why I think this applies to interreligious dialogue is because in spite of that fact that a lot of my friends like to say, “It’s all the same!” my experience is that the more I study other traditions outside of my own, the more I realize that we actually describe the telos, the ultimate end, in different ways, with different poetry. I am going to oversimplify here just for the sake of brevity (and to avoid a deep scholarly discussion), but I think it is safe to summarize what I mean by using some of my favorite examples concerning the notion of the self.
Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism, for instance (which by the way does not necessarily agree even with the other darshanas of India), would have us believe that Ultimate Reality can be described as the ground of being–brahman; and Ultimate Reality is also the ground of consciousness–atman. This is the great discovery/realization of the Upanishads: that the ground of consciousness and the ground of being are “not two.” If we were to set out on this interior journey to the ground of our consciousness we would discover our identity with the ground of being and be able to say “Ayam atma Brahman! I am Brahman!” This is the great experience of sat-chit-ananda, the bliss of being in consciousness. But this does not mean that I (Cyprian) am God; it means that my self (jivatman) has disappeared into the Great Self (Paratman), like a drop disappears into the ocean, as the famous saying goes.
Now, I’m a fool going where angels fear to tread, but it seems to me you can hardly get around the fact that one of the marks of existence for the Buddha is an-atta, the Pali for “No atman!” No self! This is a departure from Hinduism, though just a step away from Advaita Vedanta.
Actually, I was confirmed in this by seeing a film of the Dalai Lama speaking to a gathering of Hindu monks. He said, “You say, atman, and we say, no atman!” But then he laughed and added, “It does not matter!” (He also spoke about this when I heard him in San Jose a few years back.) If there be a self, it is a process, made up of skandhas, heaps of aggregates, but they too are in a constant state of flux. There is no permanent abiding self of me or of God. I realize that Nagarjuna criticizes both extreme views––either to say that the self is a real, independent thing or that there is no self at all––and points beyond them to a middle way, that the self is “dependently arisen.”
I recently read Evan Thompson’s fascinating book Waking, Dreaming, Being. His concluding explanation is very much in this line: “the self isn’t an independent thing or entity; it’s a process,” which is “different from saying that there really is no self or that the appearance of there being a self is nothing but an illusion.”[1] Whereas some Buddhists tend to suggest that we can seek liberation from the ever-changing by finding the permanence of Buddha nature, for Dogen, for example—as I understand him—even that is a kind of Buddhist heresy. As the Buddhist scholar John Peacocke describes it, it’s like “smuggling atman in the back door.”[2] There are no eternal substances neither within us nor within the world. All there is, is impermanence. There’s no ground! There is no atman! So Dogen invents the phrase mujo-bussho–“impermanence-Buddha nature.” Buddha nature is impermanence.
Now, these are both beautiful poetic descriptions of a profound mystical experience, and when I have meditated on them, I have found them very moving, and I can see how someone would come to that conclusion. But this is not Christian language! In spite of the poetry of our mystics, we cannot get around this essential point of our faith: the moral of the story of the resurrection is that the self is not annihilated, even by the death experience! Actually, even further, the point of the story (which we can’t get into at length here, but is even more shocking in its implications) also seems to be that even the flesh shares in the glory in some marvelous way; hence all the stories of the glorified body of Jesus. As the great Scripture scholar N. T. Wright always insists, many Christians do not even realize that the end (the telos) according to Christian scriptures is not just for me to die and my soul to go to heaven.
The end, according to Scripture, is a new heaven and a new earth[3]; the end is eschatological re-integration. I think that a lot of Christians have been so entranced by the language of Asian philosophy that they are often tempted to dismiss their own/our own description of the telos, and casually assume that if our mystics really knew what they were talking about they might have said the same thing that Shankara or Dogen had said, but I must say that I have grown to resent that attitude. No, I think we need to trust the spiritual intuition of our own mystics. Even though our language gets so close to that, even in Scripture––Saint Paul says I, no longer I, who live but Christ who lives in me and You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God’[4]––there’s still a self there in a marvelous relationship with the Divine. Jesus woke up from the death experience in a whole new marvelous relationship with the One whom he called Abba, Father, and we are invited to share in that.
So we, between our traditions, describe the telos in different ways. But to my amazement, and relief, what we find out is that we describe the scopos, that proximate goal, in similar terms. Let me give you some examples of it. I ran into this beautiful phrase that I think is a wonderful, brief, and universal description of the goal (scopos) of the spiritual life: “To learn oneself is to forget oneself.” Before I tell you where that comes from (many of you will know already), let me give you some examples from various traditions. Jesus in Matthew 10:39 (among other places) says:
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life…will find it.
From the Tao Te Ching #7:
The self is realized through selflessness.
From the Katha Upanishad:
By study of the yoga of the self,
the wise know that which is hard to see,
that which is deeply hidden,
which lies in a cave of the heart
and rests in the depths, the ancient deity––
and pass beyond joy and sorrow.
From the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4:
All the actions get dissolved entirely
of those who are free from attachment
and have no identification and no sense of mine with the body,
whose minds are established in the knowledge of the Self…
From the writings of the Sufi mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:
You are created by two things.
One is your body and your zahir–your outer appearance,
which you can see with your eyes.
The other is your batin–your inner forces.
This is the part you cannot see,
but you can know with your insight.
The reality of your existence is in your inwardness.
Everything is a servant of your inward heart.
Or, better yet, the Sufi master al-Bistami’s pithy phrase:
Forgetfulness of self is remembrance of God.
And the first one I mentioned was from the master Dogen himself:
To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one’s self.
To learn one’s self is to forget one’s self.[5]
So, what our traditions seem to agree on is the goal, the necessity of going beyond the small self, what Islam calls the nafs. The great jihad is the jihad al-nafs, the conquering of the self, going beyond what we usually identify as the self, to experience this deeper reality, which perhaps we could call our true self, or our spirit, or Buddha nature. What we call that Reality that lies beyond the small self lies in the realm of the telos–the end, which we articulate in different ways. We do, however, recognize a common scopos, the necessity of going beyond the phenomenal self to whatever-that-is.
Because of our common scopus, we can also find common ground on a third element, what the ancients called praxis––practice, the practical exercises that lead us to that goal––however we describe the telos, the ultimate end. For that reason, I think we ought to spend a whole lot less time speaking about the telos and a whole lot more time comparing notes about the praxis and encouraging each other to the scopos. As a matter of fact, when monastics from various traditions get together I think that is actually what we mostly do, as we will this week in experiencing each other’s rituals. (Of course, I recognize that to some extent our understanding of the telos does influence our scopos and our praxis, but let us leave that off to the side for the moment.)
Perhaps you will already have noted that this scopos is what was at the heart of Father Louis/Thomas Merton’s spirituality: the distinction between our true self and our false self. Our false self is the identity that “we cultivate in order to function in society with pride and self-possession,” whereas our real self is a “deep religious mystery, known entirely only to God” (so we would say in our theistic vocabulary). Robert Inchausti summarizes Father Louis’ teaching succinctly: “The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist.”[6] In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton writes that this false self is an illusory person, the one “that I want to be but who cannot exist,” the one about whom “God does not know anything.” This true self, on the other hand, he describes in Contemplation in a World of Action as “our own inner ground . . . where I am mysteriously present at once to myself and to the freedoms of all [others. . . .”[7]
Our main issue at hand is spiritual maturity. To me, spiritual maturity—or at least the threshold of spiritual maturity—is to have not just intellectual certainty, but first, to have actual existential experiential certainty that there is something beyond this phenomenal entity that I identify as me; secondly, to realize how much I am conditioned, that is to say, limited, by this phenomenal self; and, thirdly, to long and strive to realize whatever-it-is that lies beyond it. By “realize,” I mean both becoming aware of it and making it real. For me, to have caught a glimpse of this “beyond,” to have had a taste of it—like the Beloved slipping behind the veil in the Song of Songs—and to long for that passing state to become a permanent trait is like a constant ache, or like being haunted, even taunted, in a sense, by the knowledge that for the most part I am not living, moving, and breathing from that deepest such-ness.
Since I am among friends, brother and sister monks, I want to be uncharacteristically and autobiographically anecdotal. After ten years with my monastic community, in 2002 I took what we call in our tradition an “exclaustration,” that is, I asked permission to live away from the community, which I did then for another ten years, almost to the day. To make a long story short, I could say that at that point in my vocation I had grown disillusioned with Christian Catholic religious life in general, and with Camaldolese Benedictine monastic life in particular. However, it was not just about “them,” that is, my brother and sister monks and nuns, priests and sisters; it was also about me. In that moment I felt as if I had hit a glass ceiling. I wanted to make a step forward spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally (all tied together), and I did not think I was going to be able to make it there in community. I thought I really needed to be out on my own to do that. It was not an easy decision to come to, nor was it an easy transition out, but I was intent on trying the whole enterprise––monasticism, priesthood––in a new way. I really wanted to immerse myself more deeply in Asian spirituality, for one thing, especially the Yoga tradition, and also to build a monastic container made out of materials from that forest. Inspired by the words of Father Bede Griffiths and Swami Abhishiktananda, I arranged my life around three poles, dreaming that a Christian monk could be a hermit, a preacher and a wanderer.
Again, making a long story short, I can safely say that well before the first three years of my exclaustration were up, I was writing to our Prior General in Italy saying, “I know that you all think that I am out here re-discerning my vocation. But I think that I have actually found my vocation.” I was so sure I was experiencing my “true self” that I reached the point where I was even willing to have the congregation “kick me out,” as it were, not allowing me to continue to live in that way while remaining in good standing with them. The congregation, happily, had both the generosity and the creativity to allow me to continue that experiment and kept extending the permission for me to do so. As the term of the former prior of my own community was coming to a close, though, there was more and more pressure on me to return to community, with the thought that I would, ironically, probably be asked to step in as the new prior.
Again, still not claiming to have reached spiritual maturity, I knew during that phase of my life (I want to say, “at that moment,” as if it was just one particular moment) that I was standing at the threshold of spiritual maturity, or at least another step into spiritual maturity, and that my next step was going to determine everything. I started to ponder the relationship and distinction between self-fulfillment and the true self, meaning I had the sense that if I were not careful, I could actually become a caricature of my “true self,” a whole new kind of false self. I’m reminded of one of Merton’s warnings in No Man is an Island: “The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am,” because my idea of what I am is often “falsified by my admiration for what I do.”[8] I often wonder how much of this he experienced himself.
There are two little pieces of wisdom that I learned from the Jesuits, who are brilliant at discernment. (My own spiritual director is a Jesuit.) One is that discernment is always a choice between two goods. After we have gone through what we call the purgative way, having rid ourselves of bad habits and freed ourselves somewhat from anxieties and compulsivities, then the choices in life are not so much between good and evil; they are between one good and another good. The second piece of wisdom flows right from that: what we are always looking for is not just the good, but the greatest good, the summum bonum. And here is where I was wrestling with spiritual maturity. Forgive me if I address this from the perspective of a male; I’m not sure if it is the same thing for a woman. But there at 50-something years old, I was asking myself, “What does a man do now?” By that I don’t mean a man as opposed to a woman, I mean a man as opposed to a boy. On the one hand (and I spoke to my best friends about this often) it seemed like a very mature thing to do to take the risk on this new form of my vocation, which was a way of insecurity and had no clear approbation from my family or the Church or other Benedictines, but felt creative and courageous, even prophetic, and to stay as far away from the institution as possible. On the other hand, was it actually the mature thing instead to do what my father might do, that is (if you’ll excuse the sports metaphor) to “step up to the plate” for my family––my monastic family––who really needed me. What was the greatest good?
I was recently given the distinction between a fortress and an ecosystem, which I really love. A fortress is in a hard, dry, high place, unchanging and strong. We can see our vocation or any institution or community as a fortress that needs shoring up. Or we can see our vocations and our institutions as ecosystems, like wetlands (swamps!) that are constantly growing, adapting, changing, fragile but creative. Now a swamp can look like a failed fortress because it is so unstable and always changing. But a fortress can look like a stagnant pond because it is stuck and dead! (As I heard a Benedictine nun say recently, “There are hundreds of empty fortresses all over the world.”) The same thing applies here: going back to the institution might be really stepping up to the plate like my father would do, or it could be being scared and insecure, wanting to be a “good boy” for the sake of Mother Church. At the same time, staying out on my own might look like a great adventure, but actually be an expression of the puer eternus, the monastic version of Peter Pan: “I won’t grow up.” I must say, for months the discernment dragged on, and it kept being 49/51, and then 52/48, sometimes 40/60. . . .
In our monastic congregation, instead of the summum bonum, we have what is known as the triplex bonum, the “three-fold good.” Though the Camaldolese are mainly known for the hermit tradition, actually most of our monks are regular cenobites. Those are two of the goods: community and solitude. But there is also a third good. Some of our early monks were missionaries and martyrs, and so the third good is called evangelium paganorum or simply martirium. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is missionary martyrdom. It sounds very heroic, but at its root that third good is really absolute availability, being absolutely available to the Spirit to go where we are needed, especially, I like to think, to the “soft spots,” where no one else wants to go.
There is a document from our Camaldolese tradition that was only unearthed in the late nineteenth-century. It is called The Life of the Five Brothers and contains two beautiful things. One is known as the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, the closest thing we have to our founder’s actual words, as recounted by one of his disciples named John. Whereas the venerable Rule of Benedict is the rule of our common life, this Brief Rule is a short rule for the cell, for the hermit. It’s just a paragraph long, and at one point toward the end it has the phrase that our Father Thomas Matus, a fine scholar, translates as “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” The Latin word is actually destrue, which the Italians translate as anientati––“annihilate yourself” and sit waiting! Another of our scholars, a former monk of our community, uses a stronger word in his translation: “Destroy yourself completely and sit waiting. . . .”[9] Father Thomas and I came up with a very un-poetic alternate translation that we think sums up the weight of the Latin best of all: destrue is the opposite of “construct,” and so “de-construct yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” That is what one is supposed to do in the hermit’s cell.
This same document also contains two beautiful descriptions of the third good I mentioned above, missionary martyrdom. It is associated with the great Pauline phrase but here rendered in Latin: cupientibus dissolvi et esse cum Christo. The third good is for those who are “eager to dissolve and be with Christ.”[10] Usually this phrase is translated as “I wish to depart and be with Christ,” but here there’s a beautiful poetry to “I wish to dissolve to be with Christ,” even in our faulty English. What is especially fascinating to me is that the advice to the missionary and the advice to the hermit are really the same thing: de-construct yourself and sit waiting; dissolve and be totally available.
My point is that when I was living out on my own as hermit-preacher-wanderer, I more or less fashioned myself as trying to live that third good. Though I would never have dared to say it, that was what I was pursuing, trying to find these great soft spots in Catholic monastic religious life. But going back to serve as prior suddenly seemed to be to me just as much, if not even more, the third good: being absolutely available, going beyond myself, even beyond what I think of as my true self. The end is not to be a hermit, a missionary, or a community member. The end (the telos) is to go beyond yourself, to empty yourself. The ultimate goal is for the self that we have constructed to dissolve. If I am a hermit, it is to dissolve through ascetical solitude in which I am called, in a sense, to die to my desire for human companionship and affirmation, to die to my desire for even legitimate pleasures in order to be alone with the Alone. If I am missionary, I put my comfort zone and perhaps even my very safety off to the side and make myself absolutely available to the Spirit. But even if I am “merely” living a simple life in community, my goal is also to go beyond our small self through humility and obedience, which, according to Saint Benedict, are the hallmark of monks. He does not speak about obedience only in reference to the abbot; Benedict lays a special stress on mutual obedience­­—always putting the needs of one’s sisters and brothers ahead of one’s own needs and desires in mutual obedience and service.[11]
People in this day and age speak rather cavalierly about “Christ-consciousness.” I often think it sounds suspiciously like a kind of self-aggrandizement. Be that as it may, my response or contribution to any such discussion is first of all to point to the great kenosis hymn in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, sung every Saturday evening at First Vespers of Sunday in the Roman Church’s liturgical tradition. It is devastating in its directness, especially when applied as a lesson about our own approach to scopos, the goal of the spiritual life. Paul says, Let the same mind––consciousness––be in you that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God
Jesus did not deem equality with God something to grasp at.
Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave . . .
He humbled himself and became obedient
even to the point of death––death on a cross.
Therefore [and I think that word is very important…]
God raised him on high…[12]

The only way to have Christ-consciousness––“the mind of Christ”––is total self-emptying––to dissolve, to de-construct the self. As a Sufi friend of mine says, “Empty yourself of yourself.”
My confrere, Father Bruno Barnhart, suggests that there are really two energies in Christianity: baptismal energy and eucharistic energy. (Since we are exploring each other’s rituals this week, this seems appropriate to bring up.) Kenosis is the baptismal energy. The ritual of Baptism and, even more, the life of self-emptying, can lead us to a total immersion into a death-kenosis-emptying like that of Jesus. It can lead us, as it led Jesus, to live a life of union with the divine and awaken us to recognize this union with the divine as our own identity. Maybe this is real self-fulfillment; but it is only the beginning, not the end, for there is also eucharistic energy, the action of Eucharist and the spirituality that is symbolized by this ritual if followed closely.
There are several important little movements within the greater ritual that is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. First of all there is simply the response to the Word that has been proclaimed. Having heard the Word, we go to the altar. But what do we do? A tiny rite at the beginning of the preparation of the gifts is highly symbolic of our ideology in action. It is very important that the bread and wine to be offered be brought up from of the assembly because, as I like to say, before they are the Real Presence of Christ, they represent the real presence of you and me and the whole assembly. This is the bread of our pain, the wine of our gladness, the bread of our work and the wine of our toil, “which earth has given and human hands have made.” That is what gets accepted and then blessed: not bread and wine, but us. Then the priest says one of the “secret” prayers when some water is poured into the wine: By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ. Following that, all gets lifted up, accepted and consecrated. Our lives, our loves, our toil, our pain is what we are gazing at, having been accepted, consecrated, brought into right relationship with the divine. But it does not end there, of course.
A next important moment is the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” the prayer that Jesus gave us, a moment of what we call realized eschatology, when for a moment we are gazing at a manifestation of the rest of the Body of Christ, all these individual souls gathered in peace for one brief shining moment before we hit the church doors and start elbowing each other again.
Another important moment follows. We call it the fraction rite, when we sing the ancient song to the Agnus Dei, the sacrificed Lamb of God, and the bread is broken and the wine poured out. In most cases, little cardboard-like hosts are used, making it difficult to grasp the full weight of the symbol of breaking and distributing a loaf of bread, which is made up of thousands of grains that have been gathered, crushed and made into one. This loaf is now broken and passed out, that is to say, we are now broken and passed out as a sacrifice, as a sacrificial meal. Remember that on Holy Thursday, the day we begin the high holy days leading to Easter, the day before we solemnly re-tell the story of Jesus’ laying his life down on the cross, the gospel story that is read is not the account of the “institution” of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but the washing of the feet, made even more famous in this day and age by the images of Pope Francis performing this ritual not for a group of well-groomed clerics in the Vatican but with inmates in a prison. By his action, it is as if he were saying, “Eucharist, washing of feet, same thing!” That is the bread being broken, that is the wine being poured out.
Finally, there is the moment at the end of the Mass itself when the priest says, “Go!” Go be broken, go be poured out, go be Eucharist. A former Benedictine monk named Nathan Mitchell, a brilliant theologian, philosopher, liturgist, put it this way:
If we come away from the table feeling fat, full, content, and satisfied––if we come away purring like cats, licking the last drop of cream from our whiskers––then we’ve missed the point. Because the point of the eucharistic meal is not to leave the table sleek, sassy, and satisfied; the point is to leave hungry, troubled, dissatisfied. The point is to leave with a burr under the saddle, with a tickle in the throat, with a heart broken by the passion of God.[13]
I am thinking again about the difference between self-fulfillment and our true self. Christian Wiman in a brilliant essay recently wrote this about kenosis:
The term kenosis refers to the kind of self-emptying that God performed in both the incarnation and the crucifixion. It is not a “sacrifice” but a complete erasure for the sake of something greater. It is not reality but relationship that is greater. That is to say, it is not reality as we now know it, but the [reality] we intuit at times by means of relationship—both with matter and with other minds.[14]
That is kenosis: the willingness to face complete erasure for the sake of something greater­—the reality that we intuit by means of relationship both with matter and other minds. I think this is another articulation of our common scopos, and very close to a description of the telos that we could agree on as well.
Self-fulfillment is a marvelous thing, and a necessary step. As has been said, “You have to have a self to give the self away.” But this is only a first step because, as has already been noted, “the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist.” I would hazard to say we only find our real self, when we realize—become aware of and make real––the fact that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Call it compassion, call it dependent co-arising, call it what you will. Remember Father Louis’ writing that our own inner ground is where we are “mysteriously present at once to [ourselves] and to the freedoms of all [others]. . . .” One of the reasons I love N. T. Wright’s descriptions of the telos of Christian life––a new heaven and a new earth––is because suddenly it’s not all about me! It’s not just about me dying and escaping my body and going to heaven. It’s about a new heaven and a new earth, and I am a part of a whole trajectory of all creation groaning and in agony.
How does Dogen put it? To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. The phrase from the Gita that I quoted above ends, All the actions get dissolved entirely of those who are free from attachment . . . and who work merely for the sake of sacrifice. The great lesson from the Gita is that even the doer at some point disappears! At some point we have to be willing to let even what we think of as our true self die for the sake of the greater whole.
When Jesus is comparing God to a vine grower, he says that the Father not only prunes away every barren branch, but he trims clean the fruitful ones to increase their yield.[15]In other words, sometimes the good branches get trimmed too, so they can bear more fruit. What we are always looking for is not just the good, but the greatest good, the summum bonum. There is another agricultural image from the Gospel of John that Pope Emeritus Benedict says sums up all of Jesus’ parables: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies it shall yield a rich harvest” (John 12:24).
I am not saying that I have reached it, but I am pretty sure that that is what spiritual maturity is––realizing that we are a part of something greater than us and being willing to face complete erasure for the sake of that something greater, to bear more fruit for the reality that we intuit only by means of relationship both with matter and other minds.
       Let me end with this from Rumi.
Every instant you are dying and returning.
‘This world is but a moment,’ said the Prophet.
Our thought is an arrow shot by God:
how should it stay in the air?
It flies back to God.
Every instant the world is being renewed,
and we are unaware of its perpetual change.
Though in the body it has the semblance of continuity
life is ever pouring in afresh.
From its swiftness it appears continuous,
like the spark you whirl with your hand.
Time and duration are phenomena produced
by the rapidity of divine action,
as a firebrand, dexterously whirled,
presents the appearance of a long line of fire.
Every instant you are dying and returning;
every instant the world is being renewed.[16]

[1] Evan Thomson, Waking, Dreaming, Being: self and consciousness in neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 319, 356.

[2] John Peacocke, (Tricycle, Fall 2008), 47.

[3] 2 Pt 3:13; Rev 21:1.

[4] Gal 2:20; Col 3:3.

[5] It goes on: To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things, when actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.

[6] The Pocket Merton, edited with an Introduction by Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2005), 1.

[7] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1962), 34; Contemplation in a World of Action (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 154-155.

[8] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Jovanovich Brace, 1995), 125-126.

[9] VF, 32.

[10] VF, 2. Phil 1:23; the Latin dissolvi means to “dissolve or break apart,” which the Italians translate as scioglersi–“to break apart or loosen.”

[11] RB 72, especially verse 7.

[12] Cf. Phil 2: 5-9.

[13]Nathan Mitchell, “Remembering Assembly,” Pastoral Music, Oct-Nov 2000, 16.

[14] Christian Wiman, “Kill the Creature,” in The American Scholar, Spring, 2015; https://theamericanscholar.org/kill-the-creature/

[15] John 15:2.

[16] “The World of Time,” based on the translation of Reynold A. Nicholson, in Rumi Poems: Selected and Edited by Peter Washington (New York, London, Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 2006), 160.

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