Understandings of the Self

Stages of Spiritual Development

The reason why I couldn’t recreate my own transcendent awakening was that I was trying to return to it by the wrong road. If only I had been able to skip over the self, how much easier things would have seemed. Yet, surprisingly, God didn’t seem to want my self-obliteration. If myself, my personhood, was a gangrenous limb, God didn’t want to amputate it. Rather, God wanted to heal it. I could, and did, resist this healing. But God is a patient nurse, and was unwilling to let me lay in the sick bed of the soul forever.

The mystics all agree that the road to God leads through the self, but before we can set out on that road, let’s spend a moment considering what the self is. If we are created in the image of God, then the self is creative because God is creative, the self is active because God is active, the self is good because God is good, and the self is mysterious because God is mysterious. Yet we all know that there are many times when all of us are destructive, passive, evil, and certain that we know everything about God and God’s creation. Obviously, there is something that gets in the way of our being what God created us to be. This something has been given many names. The Apostle Paul called it the flesh. Thomas Merton called it the false self. Others have called it our sinful human nature, the small self, the ego, human brokenness. There are so many ways of talking about it. Basically, the thing that gets in the way is that part of ourselves that is fearful, is angry because of that fear, and decides to try to dominate and control other people and the world as a whole in response to that fear. Fortunately, even in the midst of this domination and control, we are still troubled by a sense of our created nature. We know that we weren’t meant for fear and dominance, but for love and beauty. The journey through the self involves release from smallness, brokenness, and falsity, and growth in largeness, health, and truth. In this journey, soullessness is abandoned beside the road, and soulfulness is found.

Teresa of Avila, of whom you’ll hear more in a little bit, wrote that “the fact that the soul is made in God’s image means that it is impossible for us to understand her sublime dignity and loveliness.” I find this deeply reassuring when I engage seriously in practices that lead me through my selfhood toward God. Yes, the self I find on that journey will be small and broken in some ways, but it’s created nature is sublimely dignified and lovely. But also as mysterious as God and impossible to entirely understand. So I will make many discoveries on this journey, but the great discovery of who I really am will only come when I have discovered who God really is, and that can only happen when God reaches out to me with grace and reveals divinity to me. My own effort on this journey will only get me so far, yet I will have to embark on it, and there will be many delights, and many moments of sorrow, along the way.

Let’s return for a moment to Howard Thurman. In 1980, when Thurman delivered the commencement address at Spelman College, he used a wonderful metaphor for soulfulness. He called it the “sound of the genuine” within oneself.

“There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself. . . . There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life. Because you will never be able to get a scent on who you are.

Do you remember in the Book, Jesus and his disciples were going through the hills and there appeared in the turn of the road a man who was possessed of devils as they thought. In the full moon when the great tidal waves of energy swept through his organism and he became as ten men . . . screaming through the hills like an animal in pain and then he met Jesus on the road. And Jesus asked him one question: “Who are you; what’s your name?” and for a moment his tilted mind righted itself and he said, “That’s it, I don’t know, there are legions of me. And they riot in my streets. If I only knew, then I would be whole.”  So the burden of what I have to say to you is, “What is your name— who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?” There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing of the rumble and the traffic, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.”

How do we get still enough to hear the sound of the genuine within ourselves? Well, if we have awakened into a sense of spiritual dissonance we will come to truly see God’s love for the world and understand the inadequacy, even the cruelty, of many of our responses to that love. We will understand that we have to change our ways of being in the world. Stillness isn’t just about sitting without moving. Our yearnings, our inordinate wants and desires, need to be stilled. And we learn this stillness through the practices of renunciation, purgation, purification. This is what purification is – learning how to hold certain habits at one remove so that we can consider what effects they’re having on our lives.

To read about another way of understanding the self, click this link.

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