On the way home from giving a day of prayer in Jacksonville, Sister Elizabeth and I pass a church. A sign outside exhorts:
Get away from yourself.
Come to church.
“Why would I want to get away from myself?” I think. “I’m the only self I have.”
Then I remember what Huston Smith says about the early Christians. He reflects that in spite of the danger they often found themselves in, they seemed happy. They had about them a radiance that was puzzling to others. The explanation, he says, lies in the fact that “three intolerable burdens had suddenly and dramatically been lifted from believers’ shoulders”:
- “The first of these was fear, including the fear of death…”
- “The second burden they had been released from was guilt…”
- “The third release the early Christians experienced was from the cramping confines of the ego.” *
The “cramping confines of the ego”
The ego can not only cramp us, it can also be a tyrant. We may find ourselves trapped in a false self that is hungry for more of everything—more power, more esteem, more money, more diversion, more accomplishments, a more beautiful body, more, more, more… We can be deceived into thinking these are the things that give us joy. And no matter how much we acquire or accomplish, the tyrant is never satisfied.
Any of these “mores” can usurp the place of God in our lives. Or we can yield to the “more” of trying to make of ourselves little gods — which in reality is a twisted temptation, because as it turns out, our Christian call is already to be “participants in the divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1:3-4).
Participants in the divine nature
What an amazing thought! The false self, however, is not crazy about the idea of our being participants in the divine nature, for this wondrous gift must be accepted in a way that is alien to societal norms.
The seductive and absurd premise of the wildly popular book, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, is one that flatters the false self. There we are told, “You are the master of the Universe… You are the perfection of Life… your whole life and everything in it has been created by You.” (Notice the capital Y.)
Unlike The Secret, the Bible calls us to take on the mind of Jesus, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). Jesus, who would have had reason, we might think, to cling to equality with God, was free from the “cramping confines of the ego.”
The paradox is that the false self tries to be God, while our true self, found in God and participating in the divine nature, is the very soul of humility.
Continually turned toward God
In 1864, Saint Therese Couderc, the co-founder of the Cenacle, pondered the key to peace and joy, which she saw as surrendering oneself totally to God, as Jesus did. “In a word,” she wrote, “to surrender oneself is to die to everything and to self, to be no longer concerned with self except to keep it continually turned toward God.”
Of course being “no longer concerned with self” does not mean neglecting either our bodies or our spirits, both so precious to God. We are to nourish our bodies with wholesome food and nourish our minds and our souls with knowledge and prayer. But even as we care for ourselves, we are to be “continually turned toward God,” allowing God to transform us, so that our whole being, growing in the divine compassion and mercy, reflects our union with God. This is the only way to be happy and to be free of the domination of that perfidious false self.
For freedom Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
* Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 79-81.