Facing the Intended Self
Kierkegaard defines the human condition as the struggle to become a true self. He claims that most humans never become true selves...hiding, shielding their soul from high calling. Kierkegaard roots the problem in despair, where sin reveals itself in self-abdication -- the silent refusal to become a real self in the eyes of God.
The human condition is a paradox of despair: We cannot cope with what we are intended to be, and so despair. Yet we cannot cope with despair, so we desperately try to convince the self that we are not really in despair. So we lead lives of distraction, luxury and success…
But something within us flees from the calling. And we can’t even understand why! All we know is that our daily life builds barriers and defenses against the true self, choosing rather to mimic the life patterns and apparent happiness of others: It is the path of despair, the "sickness unto death." In following this path, we live a packed and titillated life, but never become our intended self.
What a convicting analysis of human reality! It holds up a mirror to our soul, measuring the weight of despair. But for this paradox of despair, Kierkegaard offers a paradox of grace: despair is the human condition, but it can also be the very thing God uses to bring us to our true self.
Here, in despair, we turn toward God, learning to relate to our true self by relation to God: abandoning and embracing self in God. In grace, we “transparently rest in the Power that established us.”
There is sure hope here, but such a conceptual answer leaves us hanging. What does it mean for our spiritual practice? What changes for daily life? Is there a practical path that leads from the despair of self to realization of self?
The Path of Contemplative Prayer
Thomas Merton offers an answer.
Like Kierkegaard, Merton analyzes the problem in terms of the illusory [false] self vs. the true self. The illusory self wars against the true self, much like a baby wars against the good things that take away its ‘comfort,’ or, as an unborn child would deny birth if given the choice.
An unborn baby that could think and have its way might choose not to be born. The violent wrenching from its dark, warm world into a horizon beyond its fingertips might seem like a transformation too great to bear. Yet, mercifully, there is no choice given. The child finds itself, screaming in protest, flung by the heels into an unfamiliar world.
This harsh, cold new world is the real world where real dreams must come…but one that every sense of the child screams against. Such is our spiritual life, where we war against ourselves when faced with the good, the true, the real calling that demands new birth.
When God calls us to our true intended self, at first it is a hard path, one that is less comfortable than our current desires would have it. So, we erect all kinds of barriers against that true self! “Oh! Give me the comfortable, the known, illusory self made happy by lesser things!” we cry.
Most people live their entire lives here: making empirical identity into the false self. “My own self then becomes the obstacle to realizing my true self.”
And, like Kierkegaard, Merton realizes that religion can be a drug used by the false self – a powerful barrier placed against the true self.
In Jesus’ day it was the religious people, the Pharisees, and not the prostitutes and tax collectors, to whom Jesus directed His most caustic accusations. It was the whited sepulchers, the religious people, who had Jesus put to death. Of course, being religious, they felt no guilt for what they did because they did it in the name of God.
In our day, nothing enables the false self as much as that ‘good feeling’ that comes from religious observance. Following Sunday worship, we immediately re-saturate and re-define self in relationships, activities, positions, control and cosseted ego -- yet feel *good* about it because we 'went to church.' Sunday is not nearly over before we slide [or leap!] back into full illusory-self mode. Ah, but we are religious! And this is how other Christians do it!
Such despair -- which we justify with religious language!
Is there help, a practical path out of this trap?
Both Kierkegaard and Merton say “Yes!” Kierkegaard answers with a philosophy of abandonment to God [transparent resting in God], and Merton answers with a practice of abandonment to God: transparent prayer with God.
Merton’s simple answer to the illusory self [despair] is a path of prayer. By this he refers not to perfunctory or rote prayers, but a commitment to know and encounter God in continued relational, contemplative prayer.
He says that the self that prays truly is the true self. “It is in prayer that we discover our deepest reality from which we have strayed like runaway children becoming strangers to ourselves.”
This prayer is an utter relation, where we dare to see and receive ourselves in God. In this kind of prayer we open up to the pruning of the Vineyard Keeper, not hiding our eyes, but unveiling our heart ‘allowing it to be cut by God’s delicate touch.’ “This communion is the…fruition of our deepest self.”
In this kind of prayer we “journey forward into our origin.”
This kind of prayer takes as much energy, thought and time as our most valued relationship.
The journey into this prayer is a “return to the heart, finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God who is the source of our being and our life.”
Our false self is exposed, gradually cut away; we are pruned by fire, and so discover true identity in fire: contemplative prayer relation, self before the holy Other.
If you hear the calling in these words, this is for you!
The commitment to this kind of prayer might be painful at first [all spiritual births are], but it is here you will find yourself!
Journey to the place of fire, to consuming, contemplative prayer, with these promises on your lips:
- The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.
- The place of my communion with God is the place where my identity will become real.
- Serious prayer will excise my false self, and reveal my true self, my high calling in Christ.
- Prayer is a journey forward, a response to the call of the Father to become perfectly like His Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- God calls human persons to union with Himself, then with one another, in Christ Jesus.
This is Merton's answer to Kierkegaard's despair -- that lurking darkness which appears as an angel of light...that blight [false light] which creeps around the edges of our spirit and defends the illusory self. The first answer: contemplative prayer: prayer as work, prayer as life, prayer as relation.
It is a simple answer: practical, and true. A good answer!
So, friend, let us meet in this place of Holy fire, and discover our true self...and then one another!
Note: Thanks to Christopher for pointing me to Merton's thoughts on this. Good call, Christopher!
Also: Some of the quotes here are from Merton, and others from James Finley, a disciple who explicates Merton's thought.
And: There is always danger in writing truths such as this, that one comes across as having 'arrived' spiritually. Please! I do not write as one who has 'arrived,' but rather as one of the afflicted writing to my culture of affliction. I do not claim 'true self' -- only that perhaps I've been given a vision of what that means, and it is that toward which I strive with all my heart, for myself and those I love. 'Brothers and sisters, I do not count myself as already having apprehended, but this one thing I do...I press toward the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus!'