Archive for June, 2012

The True Self and the Story of Me

June 5, 2012

At some point early in life, we begin to construct a narrative. Composed of memory and emotion, complete with  critical commentary, this narrative becomes what we consider to be the self. This narrative may be revised and reinterpreted any number of times across a lifetime. The great tragedy, from a Christian point-of-view, is that this carefully constructed and defended story is not the true self. At best, it could be termed the ego, but even that grants it a privilege to which it is not entitled. The true self is quite distinct. Distinguishing between the two is one of the most essential tasks of the spiritual life. It is also a task almost completely lost within modern Christian awareness.

Within certain strands of Orthodox Christian writing, the true self is seen as centered in the heart. Though the heart carries a variety of meanings (some contradictory) in both Scripture and spiritual writings – it is used in this article as shorthand for that place within us that it the true seat of the self – that place where we meet God and where we encounter paradise. This will be more clear as I write.

Fr. Meletios Webber, using this same understanding of the heart, states:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

This seat of the self is not a narrative construct. Being entirely in the present, it is decidedly not a construct of anything. It is not our self-image. It is not our projection of desires or fears. It is not in danger or need such that it needs defending. It is the true givenness of our existence (given by God) and is therefore not in need of our self-definition. It is not the product of our intelligence or our choice. It is not generated by our nationality, genetics or social position. In short, it is not any of the things that we use to construct the illusion of the ego.

Modern man looks with terror at the threat of the diseases of the mind (particularly dementia). It is certainly a great tragedy (my mother was suffering from dementia at the time of her death). But the threat it presents to us is the loss of the many things from which we construct the ego. We too easily jump to the conclusion that the “self” has been lost. There is indeed a great loss, but the self remains. Dignity and worth remain (when properly understood). By the same token, a person in a “persistent vegetative state” remains a person and the self, the heart, is intact. A great measure of our terror lies in the fact that we cannot imagine an existence that is not identical with the narrative construct of the mind.

One aspect of our fallen existence is that the mind (thoughts and emotions) has come to dominate the heart. Indeed, it dominates the heart to such an extent that most people have little to no awareness of the heart. In popular parlance, “heart” means “emotions.” Thoughts and emotions are not evil nor are they somehow opposed to the heart. However, we are disordered. The heart is the true seat of the self and is meant to be that place out of which we live. Thoughts and emotions are meant to serve the heart and are not meant to create a false self.

Were our thoughts and emotions simply “information” the problem they create would likely not exist. But there are often very dark sources for our thoughts and emotions. The memories that shape our narrative are also the stuff that creates our wounds. In deep places, even very secret places, the need for the “ego” to protect itself can be overwhelming. Much of the material that makes up the actions we confess as “sin” comes precisely from these dark wounds.

Perhaps the most common such place of darkness can be described under the heading of shame. In modern therapeutic language, shame is the sense we have of ourselves as damaged and worthless. Guilt is the term used to describe how we feel about something we’ve done wrong. Shame is the sense we have that we ourselves are wrong. In many people, this deep sense of self-loathing is extremely toxic. I offer a sample description by a contemporary therapist about shame-generated thoughts:

[One] result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private, secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense, which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks–like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable–that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything. Additionally, people who are always criticizing others are usually trying to give the shame away—-the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others. The critic may need to feel superior to avoid being submerged in feelings of inferiority. Rage disguises shame too. One way to fight against humiliation is to attack the perceived attacker. Shame and rage in combination can often result in verbal or physical abuse.

Compare this to Fr. Meletios’ description of the actions of the mind:

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right.

Our shame-based perception of the world is a deep distortion. The information we think to be true and the judgments we make miss the mark. Our problem is often more than the failure of the mind to be grounded in the heart. The mind (thoughts and emotions) is simply insane (insanis).

The fathers are quite clear about all of this. Before we begin the grace-filled work of illumination (knowing God and being conformed to His image), there is the work of purification. Most people engage the work of purification as though it were a stationary bicycle. We battle one disordered thought with another disordered thought, even turning on ourselves with more loathing. We not only judge others – we condemn ourselves for the act of judging. We echo St. Paul’s cry for help, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

The way forward begins with the recognition of our true predicament. The mind will not be taught to behave. The toxic sources within our inner selves need to be addressed. Confession – and even therapy in competent hands, are important. Spiritual direction with someone who understands the place of the heart and the means by which an individual finds it is essential. Refusing to accept the conclusions of our inner narrative and the ego that it generates is fundamental to Christian repentance. Concerning the mind (and thus the false self), St. Paul tells us:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast….

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. (Col. 1:21-23 and 3:1-4).

The Trees of Pentecost

June 2, 2012

My annual posting for the feast of Pentecost:

From the Feast

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.

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The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost focuses primarily on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting upon the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function.

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day.

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article, those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The multitude of tongues that came upon those men only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity.

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel.

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world to be so named was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom.

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new.

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

What Is the Post Man?

June 1, 2012

The pagans, by which I refer to pre-Christian Western man, may have been unwilling to accept that strange doctrine of the Son of Man, but they willingly accepted that they were sons of men. They may not have known how to be Christian, but they knew how to be human. The post-Christian, having left Christ, is in the busy process of altogether leaving Man. With respect to those delivering our daily mail, one might say we are moving increasingly to the Age of the Post-Man.

As [C.S.] Lewis says, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…” Indeed, and I would sum it so: The Pagans may have had false Gods, but they had real men. The post-Christian attempts to be God, and loses man in the process.

From a fine article on Bad Catholic

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It must be the week for thinking about man. It strikes me with deep interest that the conclusions of looking at our present world are so similar. It’s not just me…