Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places

A few years ago, a major American magazine dubbed a particular age-group as the “me generation.” It would have been more accurate to describe the whole of modernity as a “me generation.” For it has been a hallmark of our age to fashion a particular understanding of what we mean when we say “me.” It would come as a shock to many, but human beings have not always defined the self in the manner of modern man. Modern man is just that: modern.

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity is probably the single most complete study of the topic. Not only how we perceive ourselves but what part of our experience we consider important and defining are significant elements of this identity. Orthodox theology has often offered criticism of modernity’s over-emphasis on the self-as-individual, preferring instead to emphasize our identity as found within the communion of persons (the Church).

Foundational questions for the self can be found in statements such as this of St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet, not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

What does St. Paul mean by the word, “I,” in this statement? It is clear that the identity shifts over the course of the two sentences. “I live, yet not I.”

The same thought resides in Christ’s commandment, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

The question “Who are you?” or even “What are you?” is not quite as obvious as it would seem. The fathers of the Church who write on prayer and the inner life, speak about the problem of the logismoi, the little thoughts that sound constantly in our minds. The modern ego is described by Archimandrite Meletios Webber as a sort of false construct, a narrative of the logismoi which we often struggle to maintain and defend, projecting it backwards and forwards through time. The identity that exists only in the present remains virtually unknown to most.

It is understood as well that the identity that is so fiercely defended in our acts of pride and the like is not the self at all. In Christian teaching the true self is only found in “emptying ourselves” in the likeness of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). We create a false self not only in defending our false positions, but also in creating a life of opinion and judging where thoughts and feelings, particularly those that give us a sense of belonging to a particular group, become of paramount importance. Thus to say, “I am an Orthodox Christian,” can, in some cases, mean little more than “I am a fan of such-and-such a football team.” Our identity becomes marked by arguments and positions – but not marked by prayer and communion with God. Holding Orthodox opinions is not the same thing as the life of the Orthodox faith.

But this only becomes clear as we are freed from false identifications of the self. The modern world tends to smash communal identities: the culture views us and wants us to view ourselves purely as individuals. All identity of the self beyond personal desire and opinion are seen merely as the choices and proclivities of individuals. Communal identity becomes a function of individual loyalties. It is this that reduces religious identity to the level of a sports fan.

St. Paul points the way forward towards our true self:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” gives the identity of the true self. Interestingly, this true self is spoken of as “hidden,” thus indicating that even our own identity is “apophatic” in character: our true self is not obvious but is instead a mystery in Christ. The ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting also direct us to struggle against the logismoi, the constant flow of thoughts that are not our true self.

I was interested last week to hear Archimandrite Meletios speak of the logismoi and particularly identify them with that flow of thoughts that arise as we lie in bed nearing the waking state. He stated that he asks his monks to stop and think of 5 things for which they are grateful before getting out of bed. “I would prefer not to encounter anyone in the morning who has just arisen from the logismoi,” he said with some humor. I could well imagine that it is a matter of survival within a monastery.

Much of our anxiety and regret (maybe all of it) are the sounds of this voice of the false self. Hidden with Christ in God, the true self sings praises and rejoices in all things. The true self does not dwell in the past or worry about the future: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

A friend recently sent me a link to a letter written by a contemporary monk who is slowly passing into deeper stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. The words of the monk are an amazing testimony of faith, but also a reminder that much that is considered the “self” in our modern world is not the true self. There is a self that transcends even the ravages that assault our brain. I found this to be deeply comforting. The letter may be read here.

May God keep us all.

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36 Responses to “Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places”

  1. Meg Says:

    I read that letter from Fr. Ambrose, and it is indeed food for deep thought — startling in its message to a contemporary society that so fears Alzheimer’s. I pray that our Lord will bless his final journey, and welcome him into the Kingdom.

  2. Damaris Says:

    Thank you for this post and the link to the letter. My mother is deteriorating rapidly from Alzheimer’s. I will send this letter to her although she wouldn’t say she was a Christian. My sister, in thinking of our mother, commented that as we get older and fail, the most-used pathways or habits in our life are all that are left. If prayer is our deepest habit, she said, it would survive in some form; if we had spent our energy on anxiety, that would survive. I know that some forms of Alzheimer’s rob us even of these core aspects of our personalities, but I still think my sister is right. It’s an encouragement to me to develop the right pathways now.

    There’s a poem by Yeats concerning this, called “The Coming of Wisdom with Time.”

    Though leaves are many, the root is one;
    Through all the lying days of my youth
    I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
    Now I may wither into the truth.

  3. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for another very fine post. I, too, had recently read and was convicted and encouraged by the letter from Fr. Ambrose. Then, last night, my family and I watched a recent Hallmark film, “Front of the Class,” the true story of a Tourette’s sufferer, Brad Cohen, who becomes an outstanding elementary school teacher against all the odds. I highly recommend it also as a contemporary illustration of God’s grace at work through the love of family and friends and through a very painful and difficult disorder, one also well tailored to thwarting all of the desires of this false self and stripping it away so true personhood and true communion can emerge.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen and Damaris,
    Thank you. I believe that the tissue of illusions of which the modern self is constructed are perhaps most easily exposed at the edges – in the self that is a child (including the unborn) – in the self of the mentally handicapped for many of whom no market matters – in the self of the aging and impaired who are being placed beyond the reach of modernity’s delusion. Of course, the danger is that these whose self is most hidden are those whose lives are most easily forgotten by the rest of us. We not only do not pursue the true self, but we draw away from those who can only be approached through that great mystery.

    I once had a parishioner with multiple infarct dementia, which ravaged his brain. To his dying day he could respond to prayer (usually with the grunt of ‘Amen’) though he could respond to nothing else. He also responded to hymns for most of that time. I understand that this was largely a function of areas of the brain yet to be affected by the multiple infarcts. But it was still a great witness that there was “something there” stored up by his pious life. They were “sacramental” reminders of the wealth and depth of his true self, deeply hidden in Christ, and a reminder to sinners like myself that he was fully human, fully part of the community, and participating in the life of my own self.

  5. Dymphna Says:

    This is a very timely post for me and, I think, for our entire western society. Our culture of death tells us that the self is productivity, both outer and inner and if we cannot have this, we are not to live.

    My own mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and I have been searching for a “self” in the midst of many life changes

    Your blog is a light in the darkness.

  6. Alexej Says:

    Father thank you so much for this post.
    I recognise myself, sadly, in the aspect of a false, fake self, and defining my identity not by communion with Christ, but rather as belonging to the orthodox group. Which is nothing as long as I dont have the life in Christ. And thank you for the link to the letter, it is so relevant in so many ways in terms of identity and * core *, what remains, what passes.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Evangelical perspective is interesting. From Orthodox perspective – much of it is indeed delusional. Delusion is a manifestation of sin in our lives. Not to confess that we are ourselves in a significant measure of delusion is itself delusional. Forgive me, but I’m not very interested in arguing the point.

  8. Mandrivnyk Says:

    Thank you, Father, for another very insightful post. I can’t remember where I read it, but I heard once that becoming a Christian is, in a sense, the process of becoming more and more who we really are, and that’s always more or less been my perspective. It really is too easy to define ourselves in the terms of the world, and a million little things that have so very little to do with who, and what, we are.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Atlas,
    Everything is apophatic – it is the character of all revelation. Were it not so, revelation would be subject to unaided reason and this is simply not the case. Thus men may see our good deeds, but some “hate the light” (because their deeds are evil). The heart determines just how much we can see, no matter how the light shines. Christ was hated by some – how can I expect anything better? Yes, indeed, the Church is the true Epistle. But there are very few, it appears, who are able to read that epistle. St. Paul’s statement clearly should not be treated literally (everybody – the pagans who hate God?). No everybody here means the faithful. Even an Apostle is allowed a little room in his use of language.

    The idea that the Scriptures are not “apophatic” entirely contradicts the quote you used earlier by St. Paul concerning the “veil” that lies upon revelation. And the “veil” is not just lifted because someone is Baptized. It comes progressively, with time, maturity, purity of heart. I do not perceive even a fraction of say, an elder such as Paisios of the Holy Mountain. And I’d be a fool (or worse) if I thought I did. Neither do I have any reader who sees more than a fraction. If he did – he certainly wouldn’t be reading this miserable excuse for a blog.

  10. Karen Says:

    “I once had a parishioner with multiple infarct dementia, which ravaged his brain. To his dying day he could respond to prayer (usually with the grunt of ‘Amen’) though he could respond to nothing else. He also responded to hymns for most of that time. I understand that this was largely a function of areas of the brain yet to be affected by the multiple infarcts. But it was still a great witness that there was “something there” stored up by his pious life.”

    I think I commented before about the experience I had visiting my grandmother, who also had dementia and was in a nursing home, two weeks before she passed away. It was the only time I went without my family (I was following a strong inner compulsion to see her and speak about the Lord to her). When I got to her room, she was asleep and looked very close to death. She roused a little when I greeted her, but to my dismay, she kept nodding off as I tried to engage her. I took a break to gather my wits a little and decided I would go back and merely read some Scriptures to her by the side of her bed. I began with John 1. When I paused to look up before going on to other passages, I was startled to see that she was wide awake and fully attending to me and even becoming somewhat agitated in her attempts to communicate with me. I read some more passages, and she asked me if I could “help her.” It was never clear what she wanted help for, but after reading more Scriptures, I thanked her for the grandmotherly things she had done for me and the good memories I had, and I reassured her as best I could of the truth of God’s forgiveness and love in the gospel in which we both trusted. She passed away, as I said two weeks later, and virtually every passage I had read reappeared in the funeral service at her Episcopal church. It was a great comfort to me that the Lord had, of course, had her soul and mine in His care in a special way through that experience.

  11. James the Brother Says:

    Atlas,

    With respect, your comments remind me of when I was but a wee lad and came to think that my parents owned a pony. Later I began to realize not only did they not own a pony, but in fact there never was a pony. I guess it was all in my head, wispy at best.

  12. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Atlas,

    even the apostles saw Scripture as in some sense difficult to understand–2 Peter 3–15 “just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand…”

    and in one of the Epistles of John it says, “Beloved, we are now the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when we shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is.”

    So right now, we only know dimly who He is and who we are. Maybe it’s “inasmuch as we can bear it,” like with the disciples at the Transfiguration.

    There is that other side of things in the passages you quoted, too. BOTH sides are true.

    Orthodoxy is full of paradox. Makes me crazy, but it’s the way it is, and there’s no escape from it.

    Blessings to you,
    Anonymous God Blogger

  13. Mihály Vajda Says:

    Dear Father Stephen!

    I’ve just discovered today your blog. I’m greek catholic and I’d like to know much more about the eastern christianity, as it could change our life.

    All the best from Hungary,

    Misi

  14. asinusspinasmasticans Says:

    Father, bless

    At the present I am reading Iconostasis by Fr. Pavel Florovsky. For the most part, it is pretty tough sledding. He was a subtle man and a subtle thinker. I loved what he said about icons, though. Understanding icons as art, even as liturgical art, emptied them of their purpose. After all, why write an icon of, say, St. John the Wonderworker if we had photographs readily available of him.

    Florovsky pointed out, correctly I believe, that all of us are, or should be, in the process of moving from being a photograph to being an icon, of moving from mere “faces” to “countenances”. The alternative, he says, is to become a “mask”, something that deflects and deceives rather than reveals.

    I think that the same sort of understanding obtains with the Scriptures. There is a “face” to the Scriptures, and this “face” is easy to discern. It is what all the logomachia is about. The “countenance” of the Scriptures is harder to discern. It requires effort, long acquaintance with the Scriptures, patience, self-emptying, and humility; things which I especially am not good at.

    My wife recently decided to revert to Evangelicalism after following me into Orthodoxy, so the issue of Evangelicalism is a sore spot with me. the most difficult thing about Evangelicalism for me is that the focus of their salvific attention is this false-me, as if that was needed saving.

    This false-me, the creature of the logismoi, needs to die.

    What I find salutatory in Evangelicalism I experience as a subset of Orthodoxy. They don’t impress me much with their handling of Scripture.

  15. Fr Mark in Baton Rouge Says:

    At one point during the conference, I recall Abbot Meletios describing the modern ego as the “coagulation of thoughts.”

    A rich, albeit disturbing, description. Lord have mercy!

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Very good application of Fr. Pavel Florensky. I couldn’t have blogged it any better. I will pray for your wife. The journey is difficult.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Very disturbing – but I find it strangely comforting.

  18. Micah Says:

    A thought just came to me Fr. Stephen: Are you writing icons again?🙂

  19. Steve Says:

    O Lord our God,
    From Your throne of glory
    You look down in Your compassion
    Through the heights that divide us
    To watch over our wretched condition:
    bless us all
    Who bow down in Your presence
    and in Your goodness raise us up.

    With hymns of blessing and glory
    may Your holy and merciful Name
    be praised,
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
    now and forever,
    to the ages of ages. Amen

    (Afternoon prayers from the Barberini Codex 336)

  20. Mihály Vajda Says:

    Burnind Hearts,

    Thank you!

    Mihály

  21. Mihály Vajda Says:

    Sorry, Burning…

  22. uberVU - social comments Says:

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  23. Dean Arnold Says:

    Good stuff.

    Can you direct us to other places where we can read or pray through these issues about the true and false self?

    Regarding our true self not being known ultimately even by ourselves but only in Christ, I’ve always been intrigued by I Cor. 4 where Paul says his conscience is clear, but even that doesn’t mean much. It only matters what the Lord thinks.

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    Dean,
    A good book is Arch. Meletios Webber’s Bread and Water, Wine and Oil published by conciliar.

  25. Jane Says:

    Greetings with the Feast!

    This post brought to mind what is written on my son’s baptismal certificate (from an Anglican church in British Columbia, 1964:
    In Baptism you became
    A Child of God
    A Member of Christ
    An Inheritor of the Kingdom.

    and also a quote from eecummings on my cousin’s mails:

    “to be nobody but yourself, in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you feel like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight…” e.e.cummings

    I thank Damaris for the beautiful and very apt quote from Yeats.

    To Atlas: In 2 Cor 4, St Paul is talking about the Gospel being veiled – not the believers.

    To Asinuspinasmaticus: I too am finding Iconostasis tough going but worth while. I’m stil stuck half awy through!

  26. Steve Says:

    Dean,

    How right you are. Salvation cannot be reduced to an objectivized abstraction (“the fourth person” in the Trinity or “the garment” in the analogy of St. John the Damascene; or even Paul’s “clear” conscience in his letter to the Corinthians).

    Salvation cannot be defined as anything less than full Eucharistic union with God, the planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor (Isaiah 61:3).

  27. Who Are You, Really? « Stuck In The World, Making The Most Of It! Says:

    […] Continue reading HERE….. […]

  28. fatherstephen Says:

    Jane,
    There are many who read a good part of Iconostasis but do not finish. I’m not sure I ever finished it. Florensky was as very odd writer. Brilliant, but odd.

  29. To Be or Not To Be Says:

    Catchin up on a few days of your blog. So telling to read this today, as last night our study group started our discussion of Bread and Water, Wine and Oil. What a lively interesting discussion we had-much food for thought.
    As I was reading the comments above, it struck me how little I know of other religions, and how glad I really am about that. When reading the Bible, it always helps me to remember that the Church was here first, not the other way around. Also, there are so many ways scripture COULD be interpreted that I am grateful that I don’t have to, and in fact SHOULDN’T do it myself. That’s what the holy people (ie priests, and just people smarter and more spiritual than me) are for!

  30. Karen Says:

    “Also, there are so many ways scripture COULD be interpreted that I am grateful that I don’t have to, and in fact SHOULDN’T do it myself.”

    To Be . . .,
    I’ll give that a big second! On my way to the dentist yesterday, I tuned in a religious radio station I hadn’t heard before, and a pastor was preaching about “the Rapture” as taught by many modern Protestant “Premillenialists.” I would have thought he was pretty much a run-of-the-mill conservative Evangelical following in the anabaptist tradition until he began calmly explaining how Scriptural numerology confirms that, the Lord Jesus, having been born April 1, AD 33, will return to “rapture” all true believers on May 21, 2011! I admit to what is undoubtedly a disordered curiosity to observe his state of confusion when that date comes (assuming the real Second Advent has not yet occurred by that time). . . and goes. The mind boggles, but I’ve seen variations of this sort of thing many times before. Lord, have mercy!

  31. Is anyone out there? Says:

    What man ought to have attained by raising himself up to God, God achieved by descending to man. This is why the triple barrier which separates us from God — death, sin and nature — impassable for men is broken through by God in the inverse order, beginning with the union of the separated natures and ending with the victory over death. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Byzantine theologian of the fourteenth century, said on this subject “The Lord allowed men, separated from God by the triple barrier of death, sin and nature, to be fully possessed of Him and to be directly united to Him by the fact that He has set aside each barrier in turn: that of nature by His incarnation, of sin by His death and of death by His resurrection. This is the reason why St. Paul writes ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’.” (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 136).

  32. Tweets that mention Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places « Glory to God for All Things -- Topsy.com Says:

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  33. Is anyone out there? Says:

    The early Church Fathers viewed the salvation of man as taking place entirely in the person of Christ. Just as the Son was begotten by the Father, so too is fallen man made fully alive in God when he is reunited in the Son.

    Fr. Hainsworth, speaking on Ancient Faith radio tells us that Christ did not become a spaceman upon His ascension. Nor will man.

  34. Is anyone out there? Says:

    Please excuse the typo two posts up, should read Nicholas Cabasilas.

  35. Micah Says:

    A wonderful set of posts Father Stephen, thank you.

    St. Paul was an educated man, well able to articulate all kinds of ideas to people and from all walks of life.

    If he wore different hats (to use that phrase beloved of modernity) it was because he recognized the divinity of Christ’s Person — and that the hope of his redemption and the redemption of the world was contained squarely within the identity of Christ’s Person:

    “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Col. 3:4)

    Paul was drawing on sacred experiences relevant “only” to an ecclesial community seeking eternal union with God. It just didn’t fit in with anything the linear-world could ever know.

    Christ is Risen!

  36. Micah Says:

    Much of our anxiety and regret (maybe all of it) are the sounds of this voice of the false self. Hidden with Christ in God, the true self sings praises and rejoices in all things.

    Well worth reminding ourselves of this one. Thank you yet again dear Father Stephen, for your clear thinking here.

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