Love and Wonder: More on the Authentic Self

A hovering Rufous Hummingbird on Saltspring Island

This post is a continuation of the discussion in St. John of the Cross: The Loss and Discovery of Our Identity in God.

In the previous post, I wrote about St. John of the Cross and his assurance that we have an authentic, inner self that can never be lost even if every exterior aspect of the self, (the ego in Denys Turner‘s term,) is stripped away. I compared St. Paul’s description of the “crucifixion of his outer man” to the transformation of the self through what St. John also calls the “dark night of the soul.”

There are plenty of other Biblical examples of this process: Abraham and Moses both come to mind. But perhaps the most classic example is St. Job. Job loses everything all at once. All of his children are killed, he is afflicted with leprosy, all of his thousands of servants and sheep are lost, and he loses his reputation and respect in society. Everything that had defined Job vanished in a moment. But though he finds himself groping in the dark, searching for God and wondering who he is now, still there is an inner Job that always remains, resting safely in God. This inner authentic Job is not dependent on anything exterior; it is the part of him that is connected to God, says St. John of the Cross.

What else can be said about the authentic self? Sometimes a poem can convey an idea in a direct and powerful way that prose cannot. I recently came across a poem by Mary Oliver that illuminates the question in an unexpected way. Our authentic self is also the part of us that can love and feel empathy, joy, peace, and gratitude. In her poem “Summer Story,” Mary Oliver describes a moment when she is simply observing a hummingbird. In this moment, she is not actively doing anything besides watching, not trying to impress anyone, not thinking about herself at all. It is a quiet moment of wonder. Even as she observes the bird so closely that she identifies with it and even with the flower next to it, Oliver remains herself. There is no danger of losing our true selves through love. Paradoxically, love is the gospel’s way of finding ourselves. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt 10: 39)

St. John of the Cross wrote that the spirit is “a land without ways.” For anyone who is wandering through the uncharted territory of the dark nights, adapting to the loss of an exterior self, perhaps it may provide some small comfort to remember these very quiet, private moments that we all have when we are simply being ourselves. The story in the poem is unique, but familiar to all. In it, Oliver is able to simply be— to be her authentic self– by being taken out of herself through her sense of wonder.

“Summer Story,” by Mary Oliver

When the hummingbird
sinks its face
into the trumpet vine,
into the funnels

of the blossoms,
and the tongue
leaps out
and throbs,

I am scorched
to realize once again
how many small, available things
are in the world

that aren’t
pieces of gold
or power–
that nobody owns

or could buy even
for a hillside of money–
that just
float about the world,

or drift over the fields,
or into the gardens,
and into the tents of the vines,
and now here I am

spending my time,
as the saying goes,
watching until the watching turns into feeling,
so that I feel I am myself

a small bird
with a terrible hunger,
with a thin beak probing and dipping
and a heart that races so fast

it is only a heartbeat ahead of breaking–
and I am the hunger and the assuagement,
and also I am the leaves and the blossoms,
and, like them, I am full of delight, and shaking.

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3 Responses to Love and Wonder: More on the Authentic Self

  1. Marie says:

    Truly touching. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: The Madness of Love: Spiritual Parables Where You Least Expect Them | A Wider Sunrise

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