Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin

Summary: God has created you to be who you are, not to be like someone else.

I picked Becoming Who You Are up on a whim.  I had some promotional credits from Audible and needed to use them on something cheap.  It caught my eye because it was about Thomas Merton.  I read Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain in college or soon after and enjoyed it but I have not picked up anything else by him, although I keep meaning to.

James Martin, the author has been on my radar as well, but again, just not enough time to read everything that pricks my interest.

Becoming Who You Are is short (98 pages, just over 2 hours in audio) book is a meditation on Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jesus and a few others. But really it is Martin’s recounting of how these people helped Martin discover what it means to be himself.

Merton is known for his discussion of the True Self and the False Self.  The basic idea of the book is that to become the person that you want to be, you need to become the person that God made you to be.  Striving to become like Merton, or Nouwen or Mother Teresa will not make us a better Christian or more like what God wants for us, because God made us with a unique personality and purpose.

But Martin is not suggesting that we should just do what we want and feel good (that would be Epicurean as NT Wright suggested.)  Instead, we should be striving after a deeper understanding of ourselves by getting closer to God.

Martin I think is particularly helpful here, by pointing out the struggles of some of the 20th century’s most revered Christians.  Merton, Nouwen, and many other were far from perfect. And their struggles can help us gain insight into how we all struggle to seek after God.

Evangelicals, in particular, seem to have a problem with admitting that the desires that are inside us are at root from God.  Desires for sex, food, intimacy, friendship, meaning, etc. are there because God put them in us.  The way we try to fulfill those desires may not be as God intends (that is the root of sin), but it is not the desires of themselves that are sinful.   It is particularly helpful to see that both Nouwen and Merton tried to do what they thought was the best for their spiritual lives, but those desires did not always give them what they wanted.

For instance, Nouwen was always concerned about being too busy and took a year off to just study and write.  But he hated it. The intent was right, he needed to re-order his life to bring balance, but it was becoming pastor of a disabled community and working with disabled adults that really brought him the balance he was looking for.

Merton went into the monastery to get away from the world and his fame, but then when he was in, wanted out.  And then later wanted to move into a private hermitage on the grounds of the monastery.   Both Merton and Nouwen were far from perfect and were always striving.  But the idea that God can guide us, inspite of the fact that our desires are less than perfect guides is helpful. Martin is clear that in spite of the fact that we cannot become Merton or Nouwen or Martin, we should still attempt to learn from them how they discovered themselves and how they discovered God.

The center of this book is the chapter on Jesus.  Because in the end, Martin’s pointing us to Merton or Nouwen is just an intermediary step toward pointing us to Jesus.  It is Jesus that is the one we really want follow.  And Jesus was fully human.  That means he must have struggled as well.

I have seen this come up a couple times lately, some want to suggest that Jesus’ lack of sin means that Jesus was also without any struggle.  That idea wants to suggest that he never missed a ball when playing catch or tripped over a branch on a path, or accidentally spilled a cup as a child. This type of idea is really denying Christ’s humanity.  The intent of this idea is to preserve Jesus’ divinity. But we cannot preserve his divinity at the expensive of his humanity.

Martin is clear that we are just speculating when we think about what Jesus did or did not know about his mission or when he knew about being the Messiah or how much he chose to know about the future.  But the exploration does a good job at laying out the importance of Jesus’ humanity in helping us to understand that Jesus’ was tempted just as we are.  And Jesus can be a guide for use because he was fully human.

I am considering re-reading this very soon. (Second reading) It is not a difficult book.  You could easily read it in a single sitting if you wanted.  But it was very encouraging for me.  A good reminder that we have a particular place to play in the body of Christ.  But our striving after God is not new or unique and God desires to meet us.

Becoming Who You Are Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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