03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tiger Woods, Thomas Merton, and the Consequences of Wearing a Mask

Poor Tiger Woods. All he had was a million dollar reputation, a multi-million dollar bank account, a multi-multi-million dollar Florida mansion, and more important, a beautiful, loving wife and two young children by his side. He was hailed as the greatest golfer in the world, one who loved the game so much he gave millions to a foundation supporting youths who could not otherwise afford to play the game. Talk about a "goodie-two-shoes," Tiger was the poster boy for clean living, for being a devoted husband and father, and for being "Mr. Nice Guy" to all who knew him.

Woods became simply the latest celebrity to fall, the latest one who was discovered to be wearing a mask concealing a dark side consumed with sex and adultery. Like his most recent predecessors, the two cheating governors -- New York's Eliot Spitzer, and South Carolina's Mark Sanford -- Woods had projected a false self, a charade, when instead of dearly loving his wife and children; he carried on sexual affairs, one apparently while his wife was pregnant with their first child.

This contradiction is perhaps the most compelling element of BENEATH THE MASK OF HOLINESS. The wise sage and spiritual writer Thomas Merton knew all about masks and warned those who wore them of the dire consequences. In New Seeds of Contemplation, he wrote that people were "at liberty to be real or unreal . . . be true or false, the choice is ours." Merton believed that we may wear "one mask and now another and never if we so desire to appear with our own true face." Later, he added, "We have a choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthy existence." Merton noted the danger of taking one's "vulnerable shell" as his true identity, taking the mask as one's own true face, and protecting "it with fabrication even at the cost of violating one's own truths." Sin, Merton asserted, was the result when the false self existed because of ego-perpetuated desires and false motives. This sheds light on Woods' secret life, where his inability to resist temptation of the flesh resulted in adultery, and his admission this week that he had lost sight of certain "values" important to any true existence.

The title of my book touches on this "double" self--something that Merton believed in. Merton believed the origin of man's alienation could be attributed to how a culture divided a person against himself, threw a mask on him, and presented him with a role he may not have wanted to play. But this was no excuse, and alienation was complete when the person identified with the role and thus the mask, and finally determined that any other role or identity was impossible. These words of wisdom are so relevant to today's world, where confusion and despair run rampant and a celebrity like Woods forgets who he really is, falls to temptation, and the projects himself as something he is not. But, like Merton, a celebrity himself who suffered beneath his mask of holiness through guilt and having never learned how to love and be loved, Woods suffered, and will suffer until he can discard his mask, admit his transgressions, and resort to a true self through forgiveness and the devoted love of his wife and children.

If Woods needed a sign from above that he must stop his sinful deeds, the automobile accident where he was knocked unconscious served as the thunderbolt, the sledgehammer, to wake him up. Woods has a chance to redeem himself and show the world -- and especially young people that idolize him -- that he no longer wears a mask but is the role model everyone believed him to be. Let's hope the wake-up call works, and like Merton, who finally shed his mask through the love of a woman he called "a miracle in my life," Woods may free himself of the heavy yoke of sin that has beat against his brain more than any five iron could ever do.

-- Mark Shaw is the author of Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free (Palgrave Macmillan).