I get a really good feeling whenever I think that, with Your grace and inspiration, I am able to arrive at some spiritual insight that makes things clearer to me. A good example of this is my arrival at an understandable and embraceable answer to the question of what the true self really is. The false self never was that hard to comprehend because it is something of our own making, but the true self is always a little more mysterious. It comes from God. It is spiritual. It is illusive. However, with Your help, much thought and reading I came to a “light bulb moment” and concluded that the true self is the image and likeness of God in us. I can kind of wrap my comprehension around that except for the need for a more crystalline clarification of what is meant by “the image and likeness of God.” I had a dim recollection of that phrase popping up frequently in the rote memorization of catechism answers to early grade school religion class questions. So, I went to the old 1941 edition of The Baltimore Catechism #1 and found the following:
-Question 48 – What is Man?
-Answer- Man is a creature composed of body and soul made in the image and likeness of God… And God created man to His own image (Genesis 2:7)
-Question 49 – Is this likeness to God in the body or in the soul?
-Answer – This likeness to God is chiefly in the soul.
-Question 50 – How is the soul like God?
-Answer – The soul is like God because it is a spirit having
understanding and free will, and is destined to live forever….And the dust return to earth from whence it was, and the spirit return to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
The answers to these questions from the 1941 Baltimore Catechism #1 are the same in the Baltimore Catechism #4 of 2003. So the church’s conception of what man is has not changed. This conception, comprising a creature of body and an eternal, rational, and free spirit, describes, I think, the true self in us. The free, rational, and eternal spirit mirrors that of God. It is like Him; and that spirit He willingly and lovingly shares with His creatures. It is Himself in us! And how could He not love Himself? And how could we not love Him?
A great deal of spiritual writing has to do with the false self. What we have made of ourselves seems so real and present to us that we may indeed believe our false self is our true self. There is no question that the self of which we are most aware is the one we have fabricated. It seems that the false self is so strongly bonded to our being that only physical death can shed it.
However, before our mortal bodies expire another kind of death can free us from the epic facades we have constructed and maintained. The touch of heaven available on earth comes in each incident of our lives in which we die to those false selves and transcend them. The very knowledge that there is a deep inner self that is the truth of our eternal spirit urges us to seek it and follow it. Our true self, in every instance, is good, beautiful and holy. Our true self is our spirit – our soul. To die to the masks of our false selves is to reject their preeminence over the truth of our being.
So, if we have sought the truth of our lives we should not so much fear our mortal demise as we should welcome it because it will fully reveal to us that which we have sought. It is when we have spent our gift of life building and nurturing selves that oppose the truth of our being without ever having even considered it that we should fear death.
I don’t think most people (including me) completely understand their true selves. I guess it’s not only possible, but quite common, that a person can live his/her whole life and never grasp the concept of the true self. This is an important issue to me.
What we do know very well is our false selves – the facades of various personas we have fabricated to suit ourselves and others. One frightening element of this is that if we step back and look deeply at our false selves we will discover their phoniness. We will also discover that they have so buried our true self that it is very difficult to dig out.
If I was only able to sweep aside all the false selves I have developed and nurtured over my lifetime, what would I see? I think I would see what You see. But what is that? It is the me that You love and beckon – not the me of my own creation. It is the innocent me of my baptismal day – and I am at a loss to find it. But it is there! It is always there! My inability to get at it is my own fault.
I would like to get a handle on the me at my core. I would like to better know that me. Yet I fear that I may never be able to do that. Maybe it can be done at the end of the road when all that clutter I’ve piled on it becomes meaningless. The trick is to realize its meaninglessness now. I think to even have a chance of doing this one must shear away everything that has ever influenced us to create our false selves. Without reasons to be whom we wish, we are what we are! The monastery or, better yet, the hermitage seem like the only places for this. Alone with oneself, even though our minds and imaginations will still play tricks on us, we have a chance of better comprehending the naked self of our being. The self You beckon.
In life everything is exterior to our conscious selves. Everything is somehow outside the essence of our being – our true self – Your Spirit. Even our ideas about You are merely parts of the consciousness of our lives thus placing them outside the margins of our souls. The paradox continues in the concept that the nature of everything in our consciousness is exterior to it. At no time, from birth till death, are we ever capable of attaching completely anything to the essence of our being until we are dead. Only then, when everything changes, is it internalized. Only then does everything external vanish. Internal life is born and true life, true self, continues forever in that which is its Source.
Thus we may say that during the time between our birth and death we are absorbed by two divergent paths that frequently crisscross over each other. One is the exterior life of the false self that is an inevitable attachment to being physically alive on this planet. The other is the interior true self which is the purest essence of our being, the gift of the eternal life of the Spirit. The former is unable to fully penetrate the latter and the latter does not become fully apparent till death.
It occurs to me that the gap between the two is marked off by the cause of man’s fallen nature, for man was conceived only in his true self and it is to that to which he strives to return. Even feelings, though they may emanate from our spirit, are exterior to the pure reality of that spirit. People closest to us whom we love dearly, and for whom we show our care, responsibility and respect are all, nonetheless, exterior and apart from our primal reality. Thus we can be told, when we ask whether those we love will be with us in heaven, that we will be so rapt in our own Source of being that we won’t care. EVERYTHING, in fact, is outside of what we portray but deep inside who we really are.
St. Theresa of Avila speaks of having received the gift of being able to “dis-identify” herself. This might be characterized by the thinking of and referring to oneself in the third person. The practice of dropping forms of the pronouns “I” and “me” may help us see more clearly the line between the false self and true self. Because of habit, it’s a hard thing to do. We’re so accustomed to using “I” and “me” that to substitute our names , or use “he” or “she” to refer to ourselves is a challenge. But if we do, even if it’s only mentally, it will make clearer the complexity of the self we’ve created and the simplicity of the self that is our spirit.
When referring to oneself the difference between saying, “I need a vacation” and “Joe needs a vacation” becomes a marker of the way I see myself. Any criticisms or judgments of Joe become far more objective than those of “I.” To see this difference and be aware of it can lead us to reflect on the truer self of our spirit and how far it often lies from the machinations and facades of the “I” we construct. It’s sad but true that we so seldom really think about our true selves. Our false selves so powerfully rule us that we come to consider it our only self.
The thoughts we apply to the presentation to others of our persona center on the self we have made for ourselves; and the true self is buried somewhere beneath that. When we refer to ourselves in the third person – that is, “dis-identify” ourselves – we operate closer to the position of the true self. We at least attempt to perceive as extraneous all that we’ve used to build our selves. The necessary change in thought and speech patterns does not flow naturally, especially when spoken aloud. But with a willfully concerted effort, at least for short periods of time, we might occasionally be able to do it mentally. Such an exercise might move us a little closer to understanding the difference between the false self and the true self.
Writer, James Finley, says, “God’s enduring presence places the false self in blessed insecurity.” The insecurity is blessed because if we are aware of Your presence we will pursue it and the search we are compelled to conduct draws us closer to our true selves.
Learning to live in total awareness of Your presence and in total surrender to Your will, is to discern the true self. In my case such enlightenment comes in occasional flashes sandwiched between long periods of false self domination. You constantly knock at my door, but at the times my table is not set for You I don’t answer. I am too busy with my self. I am lacking awareness!
An aspect of my concept of Your presence is my understanding of the simplicity and intensity of Your love for me and how undeserving of it I am. Your love is beyond condition – even the condition of being undeserved. You love us more even than we are able to love each other: our spouses, our parents, our children, our dearest friends. You are the shepherd. We roam the fields of earth at will, often ignoring You. But in Your good time You gather us in. In fact, Your eyes are always upon us. That is Your presence!
Thomas Merton has said that it is the false self that drives us to seek to become contemplative. Because of the false self we make “contemplative faces” in the mirror to please ourselves. Meditating on the inner significance of one’s own posture is an attempt at fabricating a contemplative identity – yet all the time there is nobody there except a fictional “I” that seeks itself. Merton concludes then that the best way to be a contemplative is to desire with all one’s heart not to be a contemplative. Such contradictions and paradoxes surface at the point at which our false selves meet our true selves.
I have, at times, given some consideration to the psychological concept of “denial.” One of the things I think about is that just about everybody wallows in some form of it, thus working against an honest awareness of reality. The realities of things we don’t like are the things about which we are usually in denial.
Our denial often embraces a mental erasing of sickness and suffering in ourselves and those dear to us because dealing with their reality is too painful or embarrassing to admit to ourselves and certainly too painful and embarrassing to admit to others. Being honest with ourselves about ourselves and about those we love most is not easy. We would rather create imaginary conditions of comfort to absorb all that we lie to ourselves about – and, though false, we accept these as our reality.
There is also a form of this which applies to our spiritual lives. It can be a debilitating factor in at least a couple of ways. First, there is a subtle form of denial easily bought into that says I am not as guilty of hurting You or separating from You as I sometimes think I am. With this form of denial we begin to take God for granted. Then there is the living of the denial that God could see anything worthwhile in me. This leads to pessimism, despair, cynicism and lack of joy.
I am sure there are many more forms of denial in the spiritual life that deal with accountability for one’s words or actions.
The point is, we have to stop wallowing in the conditional comfort of denial. Nurturing it dulls awareness of our true selves. It is our true selves against which our various constructs of denial work.
Regarding absolute self-abandonment and surrender to You, Fenelon says, “…until you reach the point of surrender your life will be full of trouble and aggravation. Your talents will torment you. Your religious ideals will condemn you. The moment you stop wanting things to be your way you will be free from so much worry and concern…”
The rub for a person like me is that I may never reach a point of complete surrender in my life until I die; and that’s worrisome because as Fenelon says, I will have lived a whole life of my talents and religious ideals giving me troubles and aggravation – a whole life of wanting things to be “my way.”
Making life-changes due to insights such as this are strewn all along the path of my life’s journey, but every one of them pulls up short of complete surrender. I tend to think that surrender is connected in a positive way to Anthony DeMello’s concept of “awareness.” At the point at which we are able to genuinely awaken to our true selves, surrender becomes a logical segue.
Part of the barrier against surrender is the false self which we cling to and to which our talents, religious ideals, and our penchant for insisting on our own way contribute. Each of these causes us worry and anxiety that builds up our false selves and covers up our awareness of our true selves. The awareness of our true selves grows proportionately with the surrendering of our worries and anxieties about those things. It’s a disposition – a disposing of one’s attitude towards oneself! If, through practice, I am able to have and accept my talents and my religious ideals and pay no heed to the worries and anxieties attached to them, I will become more aware of my true self, and this awareness will at least dispose me to the beginnings of surrender.
We always tend to think we know ourselves better than anyone else – but You know us even better than that. Actually You are the foremost in authentically and completely comprehending us. So, we would probably say we are the next foremost in self-knowledge. But it’s amazing how much we hide from ourselves and how much we fabricate the self we’d like to present. Thus we often end up deceiving ourselves. Therefore maybe others who see more objectively might be the second best at comprehending us. That leaves us last! In other words we are, more often than not, the people who know ourselves least; and it’s our own fault!
We spend a lifetime of rationalizing and convincing ourselves that we are whom we are not. Over time we buy into this so thoroughly that the mask becomes whom we recognize as ourselves. There’s something to be considered in those funhouse mirrors with the signs that read: “See yourself as others see you.” If we truly could see ourselves as others see us we would probably be able to form a clearer image of how we actually come across and the guile involved in that image.
What God comprehends about us He has told us through You; and through You He told us how to take what we are and use it. If we accept that no one knows us better than God, and God, fully comprehending everything about us, has told us how to live, why would we pursue our own ideas of the image we want to present? It’s the difference between the false self and the true self – a difference that others may be better able to see than we.
I think it therefore behooves us, if we truly want to know ourselves, to try to look at our lives as if seeing through the eyes of different people as well as trying to see through the eyes of God as He may see us. We might just want to forget completely about presenting ourselves in any other way.
For decades in these letters I have continually explored the necessity of ridding one of “self” in seeking You. But my thoughts and reflections have seldom expanded beyond that mere statement to an explanation of “self.”
The self of which we should strive to be rid is the “false self.” At an age even preceding our ability to use language we learn the ability to assume certain postures of presenting ourselves that result in getting our needs met. With time these postures are refined into a catalog of pragmatic self-images at our disposal to serve us in certain situations and in interactions with various individuals. Those that are used most often mesh to portray our “personality” to others and our “image” to ourselves. Yet, when thoughtfully considered, they are all contrivances.
But what is left if we sweep away the guile we use to keep us near the front lines of everyday life? If we sweep all that away we discover a self with which we are seldom in touch, a self that we are for the most part unaware of because we spend most of our lives ignoring it. It is unfamiliar and seems foreign, but it is more who we are than any sum of what we have contrived to present as ourselves.
The bedrock truth of who we are is not contained essentially in the selves we have manufactured over the course of our lifetimes. Our true selves are incapable of being fabricated. The true self tries to touch us from birth to death but a person’s conscious ego rules him/herself. The ego is, in effect, one’s false self. But our unconscious self is something else. I sometimes wonder if our slim awareness of the dream-like, mystical nature of one’s unconscious self is not a channel through which one’s true self seeks to put a word in over the shouting of the ego. Regardless, the true self is the spirit of the divine in us. As little as our understanding of the divine is, so is our understanding of the true self. But the true self pervades the primal longing for union to the Source of our being. To live the life of the true self is to minimize ego and live without guile.