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Along the Way
The cost of finding your true self...
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Dietrich Bonhofer and Thomas Merton paid a terrible price to find their true selves.  Are we willing to pay the same price?

The Twentieth Century produced many men and women of heroic spiritual proportions. Among these great witnesses of faith two stand out as especially important in their impact on our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the world today. These two witnesses were Thomas Merton and Dietrich Bonhoffer. The two men were contemporaries, Bonhoffer only being about ten years older than Merton. A central issue for both men was the relationship of the Christian to the world around him.

Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in his mid-twenties. At the time he felt a strong attraction to prayer and to the monastic tradition within Christianity. This attraction was balanced by concern for justice and the horror of Nazi atrocities that were setting the stage for World War II and even more horrific atrocities. The setting for part of his internal struggle over how to follow God's will for him was a settlement house in Harlem, New York where he worked as a volunteer for six months. Ultimately, he reached the decision that his duty was to set himself apart from the world by taking up a life of monastic prayer that would allow him to become a spiritual leaven for the world.

Bonhoffer was a highly regarded young Lutheran pastor and theology professor at the time. A few years earlier Bonhoffer spent some time in New York doing post-doctoral work at Union Theological Seminary. He ministered at the time, assisting several pastors in Harlem churches. Prior to his time in Harlem Bonhoffer was a rather conventional young cleric. However, his experience in Harlem sensitized him to the reality of evil in the world. He saw this in the abuse Afro-Americans received from their white neighbors. He also discovered that real faith is not merely an intellectual assent but is a passionate commitment of the whole person. He saw this in his parishioners and experienced it in his own life as a result.

When he returned to Germany after his post-doctoral studies he found little interest in the dry theological disputes that occupied many of his colleagues. Rather, he focused on the cost of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He railed against "cheap grace". He argued that grace was not cheap because it cost God the life of Jesus. There is no greater price that could have been paid. He described cheap grace as preaching about forgiveness without also speaking of the need for repentance and turning from sin. He described cheap grace as speaking about God's love without speaking of the need for us to respond to that love with our whole lives. Cheap grace is speaking of discipleship without also speaking of discipline. He wrote a book on this theme during those first few years back in Germany entitled, The Cost of Discipleship, which was well received and has become a Christian classic over the years.

When Hitler came to power in Germany Bonhoffer attempted to rally the Lutheran Churches in Germany to oppose the man's more intolerant and hateful policies. He spoke out loudly on behalf of the Jews. As a result Bonhoffer was isolated from the mainline Lutheran Churches and affiliated himself with those Lutheran communities who continued to speak out against Hitler. These efforts were futile, as the Gestapo suppressed the dissident churches one by one and forced Bonhoffer into a self-imposed exile. He found exile an intolerant fate and decided to return to Germany no matter how dangerous it may be for him. Upon his return Bonhoffer's brother-in-law informed him of a conspiracy of high ranking government officials who were attempting to overthrow Hitler and return Germany to democratic government and sane leadership. He enlisted in the conspiracy with his brother-in-law and served as a courier for information between the group and supporting governments and organizations outside of Germany. He also helped a number of Jews to escape Germany as part of his responsibilities.

The conspirators grew increasingly frustrated as every attempt failed to maneuver Hitler into a position from which he could be deposed. In the meantime an ever increasing number of Jews were being killed by the Nazi death machine and the war front expanded all over Europe. Eventually the conspirators reached the decision that their only option was to assassinate Hitler.

It seems strange that a Lutheran pastor and theology professor would be involved in a plot to kill anyone. Yet, the logic is clear and time tested. It has been the long time teaching of most Christian communities that war is just under certain conditions. Among these conditions, it is argued that such a war must be a last resort to eliminate a real threat to the life of another. Every effort to neutralize the threat presented by Hitler had failed after repeated attempts. They saw Hitler as presenting a very real threat to the lives of thousands of people. After the war it was clear that Hitler had been a real threat to millions of people. If it is just to wage war against a real and imminent threat of life, then certainly it is just to carry out an act of war against the single most evil and dangerous person alive.

While Bonhoffer was not involved directly in any attempts on Hitler's life, he was arrested as a member of the conspiracy when some of the members were discovered after a botched attempt to kill Hitler. After two years in prison and a subsequent relocation to Buchenwald concentration camp, Bonhoffer was found guilty of conspiring against Hitler and sentenced to death. There was little credible evidence to support the decision but Hitler intervened in the case and issued the decision himself. A short time later Bonhoffer was executed by hanging.

In his letters to friends and family during his long incarceration, Bonhoffer described how prison was a direct result of his decision to follow Christ without compromise. If Jesus walked the path of suffering and death, any disciple of Jesus Christ could expect no less. He came to see his sufferings in the context of the cost of discipleship and a literal sharing with Christ in his passion and death.

On the other hand, Merton soon found that the monastery was no more sacred than any place else. It was filled with more than its share of difficulties, clashes, false information and related headaches. At one point while on an errand outside of the monastery, Merton experienced something of an epiphany when he was struck by the insight that the world was not something to be fled but transformed. There were about ten years remaining in his life at that point and he spent much of his remaining time desperately seeking to bring about the transformation of the world. This resulted in an active role both in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. His writings were strongly pacifist at this point of his life. In addition he worked tirelessly to bring about needed reform in the monastic and religious life, to explore religious expressions aside from Catholicism, and to function as spiritual director to the nation through his prolific writings.

Merton's time of testing and self-examination was not as spectacular as Bonhoffer but it was demanding none the less. After almost 25 years of monastery life and writing dozens of books on spirituality, Merton fell in love. He was in his late forties at the time when he fell head over heels in love with a young nurse who cared for him while he was in the hospital for back pain. The affection was mutual. This brought him to the point where he had to decide whether he would remain in the monastery or not. His natural inclination was to leave the monastery and marry the girl whom he loved. He presented this decision to the Abbot, who eventually got Merton to come to his senses and decide in the end to remain a monk.

Both Bonhoffer and Merton describe their final years as a stripping away of everything they thought was important to them. They lost their sense of identity as it was stripped away a little bit at a time. Bonhoffer, the successful pastor/author/professor was reduced to conspirator and misunderstood by his colleagues. Even this was lost as he was separated from his family and became only a number in a concentration camp. Eventually even his life was taken from him. Merton experienced this stripping away in his doubts regarding his vocation and his initial decision to loose everything for the sake of love, then in the second decision to remain a monk he lost even his beloved.

Fr. Adrian van Kaam is a psychologist and former member of the faculty of Desquenes University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is best remembered for his work in formulating Fundamental or Formational spirituality. He describes the "self" as the result of a complex interaction of four basic aspects of our life experience. Fr. Van Kaam presents a complex structure of psychological mechanisms that support these aspects of the self that are more open to our conscious awareness. However, for my purpose the following is adequate.

The first aspect is the spirit, as it is manifest in our lifes. This is the transcendent self. It draws us toward God and the realization of all the gifts and talents that God has given each of us. It is the voice of God speaking in our hearts, not a dististant voice but closer to us than anything else.

The complement to the transcendent self is our physical self. This is our biological nature. It is rooted in our physical needs and drives, leading us to the satisfaction of those needs.

The next aspect is our social self. This is a complex of all the roles and relationships that we have built up throughout our lives. This is the self that we present to the community in our daily interactions with one another. This is the self that our friends and coworkers know best.

The final aspect is the subjective self. This is our inner self, our own experience of who we are. This is the stream of thought that serves as the running commentary of our lives. When we think of who we are, the subjective self is the one who is doing the questioning and suggesting the answers.

With all due apologies to Fr. Van Kaam for the over simplification of the model of the self associated with his theories, the point I want to make is that both Merton and Bonhoffer experienced something of a stripping away of all the elements of who they were until only one was left.

In his Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoffer describes how his opposition to the Nazi evil isolated him from his professional colleagues, students and many friends. His involvement with the resistance movement lost him even those colleagues and friends that sided with him against the Nazis because they misunderstood his involvement in the resistance movement. When he was arrested and sent to prison, Nazi officials isolated him from family and the few friends that remained. Every thing of human origin that contributed to his understanding of himself was denied to him. A great professor and respected minister of God loved by everyone, he was reduced to a misunderstood and maltreated prisoner condemned to death. Yet, in his loss of everything that told him who he was one thing remained. His transcendent self, the spirit of God speaking in and threw him reminded him that he was a man of God, a Christian. It was this that allowed him to comfort and minister to the other prisoners waiting to die and to go to his death not fearful of his life's end but anticipating the beginning of life eternal.

While Merton wasn't condemned to death, the monastery itself served to strip him of any false identities that may have clung to him. Those who knew him considered him to be a humble man. Yet, when his world was turned upside down for a while by his infatuation with the nurse, he realized how fragile and contingent was his sense of self as a monk and certainly as a spiritual writer and respected moral leader in the Church. One gets a sense of his tentativeness and loss of self from reading his Asian Journal, which was compiled after his death from his trip diary. Yet, there is at least one entry in the diary that points to a profound experience of the transcendent while on that trip. That experience seemed to leave him at peace with the doubts and loss of any clear sense of who he might be apart from the one clear reality that he was rooted in God. A week or two after that experience Thomas Merton died by electrocution in an accident in his hotel room.

We are enfleshed spirit. Our spiritual nature is critical but we can not belittle or ignore the fact that we are creatures of flesh. We are social creatures. We are thinking beings. Each of these aspects we are important and play a significant role in shaping us. As we develop we must pay serious attention to each of these aspects and keep them in relative balance if we are to be spiritually, physically, psychologically, and mentally healthy. Our spiritual nature provides us guidance and helps enrich every aspect of our self. We see in Merton and Bonhoffer men who were extremely well balanced. Both were brilliant intellectually. Both enjoyed good health much of their lives. Both were loved and respected by many. Both contributed profoundly to their faith community, their culture and to the world. Their transcendent/spiritual nature served to integrate every aspect of themselves into human beings who changed the world because they lived as God meant them to live and allowed God to be clearly manifest in their lives.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.