There is a chilling poem called 'Invictus' (unconquered) by a minor 19th-century poet Henley. It captures perfectly the desolate vanity of the ego. He writes of his "unconquerable soul", and throws out defiant phrases like "My head is bloody, but unbowed." Not surprisingly he expects nothing from beyond.
    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.
    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

When I first read that poem I wondered if he was married. I never found any information about him, but I hope for the sake of some woman that he remained a bachelor all his life! No softness, no openness, no love, no relationship to anyone or anything… nothing but that empty defiance. No one could live with that, not even he himself. The Oklahoma bomber quoted this poem on the eve of his execution for killing 168 people.
    The Christian faith is a way with heart. Not that the head hasn’t a part to play, but the heart is central. This may be why the Lord chose simple people as his apostles. St Augustine wrote, "He chose not kings, senators, philosophers, or orators, but he chose common, poor, and untaught fishermen." Elsewhere Augustine remarked, "Our Lord Jesus Christ did not use philosophers to win over fishermen, but he used a fisherman to win over an Emperor." All these people - kings, senators, philosophers - are perceived as self-sufficient, with a touch of Henley about them. But simple people know that they depend on many things and many people, and on God. Fishermen in particular depend on just about everything, even on the weather. And they cannot command the fish to get caught. They just have to wait. When you have to wait you know that your ego isn't the only thing in the world.
    What a real contemplative offers us is the polar opposite of the defiant ego. What a different world we enter when we read any of them! Compare Henley’s poem with the following brief passages from Thomas Merton.
    “The shallow ‘I’ of individualism can be possessed, developed, cultivated, pandered to, satisfied: it is the center of all our strivings for gain and for satisfaction, whether material or spiritual.  But the deep ‘I’ of the spirit, of solitude and of love, cannot be ‘had,’ possessed, developed, perfected.  It can only be, and act according to deep inner laws which are not of man’s contriving, but which come from God.  They are the Laws of the Spirit, who, like the wind, blows where He wills.  This inner ‘I’, who is always alone, is always universal: for in this inmost ‘I’ my own solitude meets the solitude of every other man and the solitude of God. ”
    "The message of hope the contemplative offers you…is…that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons.   The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit."

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.