Posts Tagged ‘true self’

Like a Barb in the Soul



I’ve been thinking about this tree for months.  The first time I saw it I was shocked and horrified, and yet, I found something beautiful and inspiring about it as well.  It has part of a barbed wire fence running right through the middle of its trunk.


There’s a spot on one side of a pond that I like to walk around where there is a barbed wire fence.  The trees that grow along it remind me of the Ents who go to war against Isengard and the machine of industry, marching on the front lines to their “doom”. There is even one tree that seems to have actually broken part of the barbed wire, but still has it hanging out the other side.


For a long time I thought about the way that barb entered right into the heart of that tree: slowly, dully, imperceptibly.  And then one day it’s just there, it’s part of the tree.  Like so many of the wounds that we carry around, they’re just there, and we wonder in vain where they came from.


I wanted so badly for those trees to be whole.  I had the urge to yank that barbed wire right out, to tug at it with all my might.  In my frenzy, I could imagine even chiseling at the tree itself, performing a sort of hack-job surgery.


It wasn’t until much later that I realized that any effort to relieve the tree of those barbs would surely kill it.  It had learned to grow around and live with the barbs that had intruded on its life.  And it still sprouted branches and leaves and for all the world was still doing exactly what it should, still able to be a tree in all its tree-ness.




(My friend Erin and I paid a visit to these trees the other day.  For another perspective – and a profound one at that – read her blog post here.)





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Dark Night

One of the things about a leafless tree that is so striking to me is how much sunlight makes it through to places that likely haven’t seen the sun, or at least not much of it, for months.

A while back I wrote about leaves gathering energy from the sun, which at the time had turned my thoughts toward being still in the presence of God.  The felt presence of God feels so good.  It’s life-giving and affirming.  It encourages us when we’ve lost heart.  It eases our troubled minds.

But what about when we can’t feel the presence of God?  We may have become accustomed to knowing God in a particular way – and then suddenly, it doesn’t work anymore.  What does this mean?  Have we made God angry?  Does God not care about us anymore?  Have we been forgotten or abandoned?

Contemplatives like St. John of the Cross have written about these experiences, calling them the Dark Night of Sense, which Thomas Keating defines as a “period of spiritual dryness and purification of one’s motivation initiated by the Holy Spirit, hence also called passive purification.” (Intimacy with God, 191).  In other words, our motivation toward spiritual exercises or experiences can often be clouded or mixed.  Sometimes we may desire “a touch” from God, not out of a desire for a deeper connection or relationship, but simply to feel better.  The same need to feel good might just as well be met by a compliment from someone or a by bowl of ice cream.

But what do we do if our go-to praise song or prayer routine doesn’t work?  What if it doesn’t make us feel good?  Will we keep on singing?  Will we keep on praying?  The decision to keep going even without the reward of feeling good is part of the process of purification.

In the spiritual life, as in the created and natural world, there are seasons.  And what is good and fitting in one season, might not always carry over into the next season.  Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a period of dryness and darkness, we might consider what we’re being invited to shed, to prune, and to leave behind.  The irony is that in these times that seem so dark, the most light is able to shine through.

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Lectio THEN Psalm 11 (June 11, 2009) New Jerusalem Bible

the honest will ever see his face

I almost missed it – I thought at first that my phrase for this lectio would be “In Yahweh I have found refuge,” because that’s been such a prominent image for the past few days.  When I am most honest with myself, I can see God’s face, unobscured by the clouds of deceit.  But then I start swirling around in a whirlpool of self-deceit, and I find myself in that place where I allow myself no grace, and no excuses.

I think about areas of my life where I feel like I’ve been a failure, like I could have and should have tried harder.  And then I tell myself that there’s been an awful lot going on, several huge life changes, and it’s just been really hard.  And I come back with “don’t be such a wimp.  You’re supposed to sacrifice for God”, and stuff like that.  And I know I shouldn’t do that but I can’t stop, and everything gets so cloudy and murky and I get so dizzy I can’t see or think straight.

And then I remembered something about false humility, and how it is really another form of pride – and I wonder how what I do is like that.  I think I start with the premise that I’m supposed to do everything and do it perfectly – like God.  But I don’t allow for what my gifts are and aren’t, who I am as a unique creation.  I tell myself I have to get out of my “comfort zone.”  Maybe.  But maybe comfort zone is different than area of giftedness.

Along with that premise is also that I have to do it alone.  Which leaves no room for God, and that’s clearly not okay.  And so I have to relinquish that fatally independent attitude.  And I have to be still and accept grace.  And when I am still, those murky, scary dark waters settle down, and there’s God’s face – she’s always there, but I guess I can’t see her when I’ve got everything all churned up.

Be still – and steep deeply in God’s grace.


Lectio NOW Psalm 11 (November 7, 2010) NJB

the honest will ever see his face

What does it mean for me to be honest?  I suspect it’s more than just not telling lies.  I have a hunch that for me the answer lies more in the order of living authentically.  And I wonder about ways in which I am not doing that very well, ways that I’m living as a false version of myself.

A lot of writing on contemplative spirituality talks about the “true self”.  Thomas Keating, in Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer defines the true self as: “The image of God in which every human being is created; our participation in the divine life manifested in our uniqueness.”  (196)

By contrast, Keating defines the false self thusly: “The self developed in our own likeness rather than the likeness of God; the self-image developed to cope with the emotional trauma of early childhood.  It seeks happiness in satisfying the instinctual needs of survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control, and bases its self-worth on cultural or group identification.” (192)

In the writings of Thomas Keating, the false self is an attempt to create an image of myself in order to avoid or deal with pain.  This false self tells lies about what I must do or be to be accepted and loved.  Before long, I have created me in the image of myself, and my true self lies imprisoned.

As a sensitive child, the image I created was that of a tomboy, a tough girl who was a force to be reckoned with.  If someone hurt my feelings, I would get angry.  Because I was sensitive and compassionate, I didn’t really want to physically hurt someone, so I would make a good show of threatening them so I didn’t have to.

Over time, this image of me solidified itself not only in my own sense of self, but in others’ impressions and understandings of me, and especially in the way they interacted with me.  This dynamic continued to escalate until the sense of dissonance between how I truly felt inside and how I was forced (by my own doing) act became too much to bear.  And so began the “dismantling of the false self.”  This is just one example of how one emotion affected one facet of my being.  Of course, there is an array of emotions within each of us, leading to very complex versions of our false selves.

When I think about what it means to be honest, it means that I need to look carefully at how the affective emotions (i.e., anger, fear, and discouragement) are at work within me, and what they’re trying to protect.  By looking carefully at these motivations, and finding ways to act against these emotional programs for happiness, I recover and uncover more and more of my true self.  That true self, without all the muck clouding my vision, is most clearly able to see God.

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