In his classic book New Seeds of Contemplation (NY: New Directions, 1961), Thomas Merton describes a profound distinction between two dimensions of the human condition.

Merton writes,

There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ‘empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead. Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual. Far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent. Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really ‘not I’ and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself.

It would appear that, by his own testimony. Paul experienced precisely the tension in his own life that Merton describes.

In Romans 7:15, Paul wrote,

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul sees two “I’s” at work in himself. There is the “I” that performs actions that “I do not understand.” And there is an “I” that hates these actions.

If we take seriously the temptations of Jesus at the beginning of the three Synoptic Gospels, it would appear that, even Jesus experienced this tension between an “I” that is driven to pursue power, prestige and privilege, and an “I” that knows that

One does not live by bread alone. (Matthew 4:4)

Certainly near the end of his physical life, Jesus expressed clearly the human tension between a higher and a lower self when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane saying,

‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42)

So, what am I to do with this small self? How am I to deal this self that is determined to assert “my will” over all of life?

Jesus did not teach “self-care” for the small self. Jesus taught that death is the only way to deal with the small self.

Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

When I am carrying my cross, I do not get to carry anything else along for the journey. There is no room for my status, my accomplishments, achievements, or for all my grand schemes about how the universe ought to operate. When I pick up my cross I surrender my determination to be in charge of life. I let go of my need to have things turn out a certain way. On the way of the cross I am stripped of all my needs, wants and demands. I lay down my expectations that life should be different than it is. I let go of my determination that you should conform to my personal plans and schemes.

Jesus’ instruction for self care is to die before you die. This does not mean I become simply a passive doormat, the victim of every breeze that blows in my life.

Paul said it is for,

freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.(Galatians 5:1)

To die before I die, means I am no longer controlled by any external situation, force, or power. I have moved beyond likes and dislikes; my chain is not yanked by every irritation and discomfort that enters into my life. This is the beginning of that “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free.”

I am only free when I have given up all my little programs to force the world to conform to my wishes, needs, wants and demands. As long as my small self continues to try to assert its power in a vain attempt to control life, I will always resort to the violent tools of manipulation, pressure, shame, guilt, and abuse in an attempt to get the world to conform to my wishes. True life-giving ministry is only possible when I am living from the place of freedom within myself to which I gain access when I am no longer the centre of my little universe.

How do I find my way to this essential place of freedom? This is another fundamental question of the spiritual life.

 

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