Merton wanted to "stay in the fire that burns me" because, in that fire, "me" gets burned away. This is very good. Love then gets released to move outward towards God and others.
Jesus said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it." Self-denial is equivalent to Merton's self-immolation. This is needed. I know, personally, that every day the self will rise up and try to assert itself against the ways of God. But when I have entered God's fire and allowed God to search me and know my heart, he has pointed out my emphasis on myself for the sake of purging me of self. Among other things this is important because obsession with one’s self is the enemy of all spiritual renewal and transformation.
What is this fire? One way to view this concerns entering into times of solitude with God. Henri Nouwen has called solitude “the furnace of spiritual transformation." This is what Merton meant when he wrote, "I want to be solitary." Solitude is a furnace that burns away the negative aspects of "me."
More specifically, what are these negative aspects of "me?"
1. Self-love. Self-love, writes Merton, "is the source of all boredom and all restlessness and all unquiet and all misery and all unhappiness - ultimately, it is hell." How much easier is it to love the self before loving others and living sacrificially in relationship to them. One British politician's actions were once described as "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his friends for his life." I discover in my heart a deep-rooted propensity to love “me” as my first priority. God desires to burn this away. I want it burned away in me, too. Self-love is a heavy burden.
2. Self-hatred. Self-hatred is as self-obsessively sinful as self-love. Merton writes: "How are we going to recover the ability to love ourselves and to love one another? The reason why we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly, or openly, hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God." Self-hatred is punishing. God doesn't hate us. Why wouldn't we want this burned away?
3. Self-pity. Self-pity is one of the more punishing kinds of self-obsession. It is the bitter fruit of deprivation. Henri Nouwen asks, what else is anger but the response to the sense of being deprived? Consider this amazing description of the self-pity of Ivan Ilych, written by Tolstoy:
"What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result… The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position… [W]hat most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted.”
The ruling emotion of pity is bitterness. All who tire of a life that leaves a bitter taste will want this burned away.
4. Self-hiding/kosmeo. Being a fake or a phony requires a self-willful act of transformation into a false presence before others. The false persona is erected and one hides behind it. Self-hiding is untruth. Truth, on the other hand, is "unhiddenness" (Greek aletheia, borrowing some from Heidegger). Truth is out in the open and can be seen. To walk in truth requires an appropriate transparency. This is important because, spiritually, God is a God of truth, works in truth, and rejoices in truth. I want to ttay in the fiery presence of God that burns hiding away.
5. Self-justification. To be haunted and consumed by what others think of us is self-obsessive. All leaders receive criticism. Not all of it will be kind. There have been times when I’ve gone to prayer and my mind has wandered to what someone else thinks of me. I have argued, in my mind, against my accuser. I have mentally presented myself as superior and constructed a wall of justification and defense. My own experience is that this sort of self-justification never feels renewing and transforming. And, what arrogance to assume these people are thinking about me. The truth is that we would worry less about what other people think of us if we would realize how little they do.
Merton writes: "A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them. For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God, before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle."
I want my meagre reputation burned away so the reputation of God can come forth through me.
6. Self-righteousness. It seems ludicrous to posture oneself, pharisaically, as morally and spiritually superior to others. Sadly, I have in the past mocked certain Christian leaders simply on the basis of their ministry style and personal appearance. God has clearly told me this is wrong. God has pointed out to me that I have not been divinely appointed the judge of all that is right and wrong in others. The deep, dark thing that wants to do this is still to some degree within me. I want to stay in the fire that burns this thing away.
7. Self-will. Michael Grant writes that, to Martin Luther, it seems God and Satan are locked in a struggle to mount the same horse: the human will. Self-will deludes me to believe that I don't need help from anyone and can help myself, thank you. But I surely will help you. Here is the Christian leader who, like a Clint Eastwood western, rides into town to help others but doesn’t need assistance himself. This is, I think, one of the most spiritually dangerous ideas we can model for others. Because the ideal shifts from trusting in the Lord to trusting in self, while counseling others to trust in God. That is hypocrisy. Be purged of self-will in the fiery presence of God.
8. Self-centeredness. A self-centered person makes choices in light of their effect on the self. Merton wrote: "To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell." Ipso facto, may this be burned away in me.
9. Self-seriousness. Henri Nouwen writes: "The fact that I get so easily upset because of a disappointment, so easily angered because of a slight criticism, and so easily depressed because of a slight rejection, shows that Your love does not yet fill me. What does a small - or even a great - failure mean, when I know that You are with me in all my sorrows and turmoil?" To take myself with all my ideas and concerns too seriously feels like a heavy burden. As I think of those Christian leaders who have influenced me I see they all had the ability to laugh at themselves.
And Merton said: "I think the chief reason why we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously. Joy can only be real if it is based on truth, and since the fall of Adam all man's life is shot through with falsehood and illusion. That is why… Bernard [of Clairvaux] is right in leading us back to joy by the love of truth. His starting-point is the truth of our own insignificance in comparison with God. To penetrate the truth of how utterly unimportant we are is the only thing that can set us free to enjoy true happiness."
And Nouwen adds: "Maybe I do have to become a little more indifferent towards all these ups and downs, ins and outs, of personal relationships and learn to rest more deeply in him who knows and loves me more than I know and love myself."
10. Self-ignorance. The psalmist prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart." Merton writes: "He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas." (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 164)
There is a fire that burns up the negative aspects of the self. Tend this fire. Stay in it.