Escaping the Ego: St. John of the Cross and an Anatomy of the Self

st-john-of-the-cross1The most brilliant and illuminating discussion of the human self that I have ever read is in a a book by Denys Turner, The Darkness of God:Negativity in Christian Mysticism.* He draws from Aristotle and adds a bit of his own humor to explain St. John of the Cross on the subject. I want to share highlights of that discussion here.

We begin the spiritual life by building up our “ascetical self.” The beginner works hard at fasting, keeping vigil, works of charity, and all his various labors for Christ. This is a necessary step. He learns self-control, self-denial, and gains strength of will. But this is not the end of the journey. As the beginner builds up his ascetic self, he is still unable to conquer the ego. He creates an ever more spiritual egoism, but can not overcome pride through his ascetic labors. He is caught: trapped in a precarious selfhood defined by three moral stereotypes that Turner has (delightfully) nicknamed “Feeble”, “Shameless”, and “Prig.” (Aristotle called them akrates, akolastos, and enkrates if any readers want to refer to Nichomachean Ethics— you know, just for fun.)

Feeble is the name for a person who knows what he ought to do, but does not do it. He feels shame and guilt for his failures to resist temptation.

Shameless is a person in a state of dissipation. Shameless does not see or care whether his actions are right or wrong and feels little or no guilt. “He pursues pleasure, but without any pleasure in the pursuit, out of an empty obsessiveness… Shameless seeks ever to squeeze decreasing amounts of pleasure out of an ever depleted source. In truth he is an addict.”

Prig is the morally “good” person who has conquered his own desires by sheer force of will. Prig feels no guilt because he can successfully control his desires. (For anyone unfamiliar with the British use of the word “prig,” just picture a person who is self-righteous and condescending.)

“All three are dominated by guilt: Feeble by its presence, Prig and Shameless by their need to be rid of it…but in all three cases, the ‘self’ dominates in the form of anxiety…What all three have in common is their egoism, their self-obsession. Feeble is obsessed by the ‘I’ he has failed to be, the same ‘I’ as Prig believes he has successfully constructed, and which Shameless flees.”

“This, then, is the ascetical self. It is a self trapped within the world marked out by these stereotypes… A more or less stable equilibrium of Feeble, Shameless, and Prig represents the best achievement of self which can be obtained by our own efforts…Within this moral world there are the alternatives only of egoism or masochism, self-obsession or self-annihilation.”

And so St. John of the Cross writes, first, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel that active ascetic labors are absolutely necessary. But then, as he begins The Dark Night of the Soul, he tersely dismisses them: “No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, he cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love.”

Why? Active ascetics are “well disposed, generously intentioned, heavily disguised, spiritual egoists.” St. John says that they are partly Prig: their motive that God remove their imperfections is personal peace and freedom from guilt, rather than union with God. Partly Shameless: even in prayer they can’t help seeking for sensory satisfaction and consolations. And partly Feeble: they grow angry with themselves in an “unhumble impatience, for they want to become saints in a day.”

These spiritual egoists, these beginners, have achieved an important step. In Turner’s words, the ego they have constructed is a “genuine moral advance over the dissipated pre-selfhood of the pre-ascetical person.” But they must not stop here in self-congratulation, thinking they have arrived. St. John’s contemporary St. Theresa of Avila comments that with humility present, this stage is a most excellent one. But “if humility is lacking, we will remain here our whole life” in a state of arrested development.

What comes next, then? A crisis of self-knowledge that looks very much like depression. St. John calls this the passive nights of the soul. “Depression is the revolt of this self in despair at its disintegration. The passive nights, on the other hand, are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.”

In depression, a person hopes to recover the lost sense of self and identity, or better yet, to construct a new self that is more stable and mature. On the other hand, the goal of the dark nights of the soul is not to recover the old, lost identity in any form. That self was always an illusion. Instead, we find that our true selfhood consists in our transformation in God, our total union with God in perfect love. Not that we are absorbed into God and cease to exist—love does not annihilate its beloved, and our loving Creator does not take away our personhood – but that we would be so filled with love that we no longer need our ego or care about having a separate identity from God.

*All quotes from Turner’s marvelous book are taken from chapter 10, pp. 226-251.

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Idolators Anonymous

Abraham_smashes_the_idolsHello. My name is Mary, and I am an idolator. But I’m willing to bet that you are, too.

Ask yourself this question, “Who is God?” and then see what you answer. Depending on how much you have thought about it, it might take you more or less time, but most people have an answer. It might look like a long list of qualities and theological statements. (My personal list begins with “God is love: unconditional, boundless, all-encompassing, mind-blowing, heart-crushing love…” I have a lot of other statements, too, but that one is at the top.) Theological statements about God are good, but they are only half of the answer, the part that comes from our head.

Now, what about the part of the definition that comes from your heart? Did your list include how you relate to God? Something like, “God is my king” or “God is my best friend”? Or if we’re very, very honest, maybe, “God is my Santa Claus” or “God is my plumber: I mostly think of him when something breaks!” There is some real soul-searching involved in answering, “Who is God to me?” in a 100% honest way. Once you have an answer, though, you can take a look and see what kind of a box you have asked God to occupy in your life. If He in the “best friend” box, for example, you may be expecting him to act like a best friend in being supportive, keeping you company, and lots of other ways. It is not a bad box, as boxes go, but let’s admit it: “divine and loving best friend” is an idol. It limits who God can be in your life.

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”  ― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

I love this quote from Thomas Merton. It is true when we apply it to other people, and even more true when we apply it to God. Learning to love God for who He is also means shattering all our idols, opening all our boxes and allowing God to be God.

When theologians try to answer the question, “Who is God?” without describing mere idols, they call their efforts apophatic theology. In one approach to doing apophatic theology, they heap so many attributes and metaphors together that the images begin to contradict each other. The reality that emerges from this ultimate paradox is beyond any one of the metaphors. God is mercy. God is judge. God is our father. God is a mother hen. God is greater than the entire created universe. God is in the tiniest grain of sand. God is both priest and sacrifice. If I select just one or even several images of God, then they will always be an idol. Any image can only be true when it is combined with so many others that language itself breaks down and we see how God is totally beyond any image that we can conceive.

Another apophatic approach to answering “Who is God?” is to begin by negating every possible statement about who God is. God is not a being. God is not even the greatest being. But saying that God is not the greatest being is also not true. God is beyond any category of being or non-being that we can make. The same thing applies to any quality we can think of. God is Truth, but not in the limited sense of a truth that I can prove using a series of logical statements. God is not a syllogism, and not even a non-syllogism. If I say, “God is love,” but I think of love in any merely human way– tainted by a desire to possess or control its object, for example– then God is not love. God’s love is so pure and so limitless that we cannot begin to fathom it. If I form any idea in my mind of what that kind of love might look like, it will always fail to grasp the real infinity of true divine love.

Of all possible metaphors, however, Love is the one that St. John, the apostle whom Jesus loved, chooses, and Love comes the closest that any metaphor can to describing God. This is because love takes us outside ourselves. Love helps us to get beyond our own ego and glimpse the unspeakably beautiful reality that is normally obscured by an idol.

What does it feel like when our idols of God are shattered? It often feels like being broken. The Biblical metaphor of the flawed clay pot that the Potter smashes in order to reshape it comes to mind. St. John of the Cross describes the process as the Dark Night of the Soul. Initially, God seems cold and distant, or even non-existent. This happens when we have realized that our old perception of God was actually a lifeless, mute idol, but we have not yet learned to recognize the voice of the true God who has been with us all along. A short, but powerful poem by Madeleine L’Engle expresses this process vividly:

“The Birth of Love”
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
because
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold and dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will not know
that you are wholly within love.

Smashing our personal idols of God feels intensely painful, but ultimately, it leads to a tremendous sense of relief and freedom. The reality will be very different from what we expected and imagined that we wanted, yes, but it will also be better, greater. Most importantly, it will be true. Santa Claus is a mere wraith in a red suit when compared to the reality beyond reality that is God. Santa would give us toys that, in time, always break or lose their appeal. But the real God would make us whole and give us eternal life.

**************

Bonus: links to two related blog posts by Fr. Aidan Kimel, who frequently seems to be thinking about the same topics that I am:

1. On how we tend to think of God as a mere god, but shouldn’t. http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/god-is-not-odin-god-is-not-zeus-god-is-not-marduk/

2. A little taste of apophatic theology, not difficult to read. http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/the-experience-of-god-part-3/ 

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A Universal Truth that Cannot Be Hidden

20131020-004734.jpgLove. “God is love,” the scripture says. “God is love,” the saints all tell us– not only in the Christian tradition, but in the mystical literature of Islam, Judaism, and even sometimes Hinduism. This is such a universal truth that it cannot be hidden from anyone who sincerely seeks to know God.

But God as Love is most perfectly revealed in Christianity, in the person of Jesus Christ, who is Divine Love incarnate. To say that the fullness of infinite, all-surpassing Divine Love became incarnate as an ordinary human being is an insane statement– truly mind-boggling– but that is precisely the core of Christian belief. No other religion claims this. All great religions and philosophies teach a version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but it is only Jesus Christ who takes it to its farthest extreme: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). It is Jesus Christ who says, “Father forgive them,” even as he is hanging on the cross.

But first, what is love? We apply this word so broadly. I love cookies. I love Ewan MacGregor. I love your dress. Sometimes we say “love” to mean “I approve of” or “I desire.” In the case of mere approval, we are sitting in judgment over something or someone, and this is not really love. In the case of desire, human love tends toward possessiveness, which is not perfect love either. There is a line at the end of a Pride and Prejudice movie adaptation where Lizzie Bennett says, “Now I shall no longer call him Mr. Darcy, but my Mr. Darcy.” Even in a Jane Austen film, we feel the need to insert a little sense of ownership into love. Lizzie’s statement was harmless enough, but human love can very easily degenerate into jealousy, greed, the need to control, and even to abuse. Divine love, however, is love without judgment or the desire to possess. God loves and gives us total freedom to hate him in return. He never forces himself on us.

Human love is very often one-sided (or at least lop-sided). What would be left of Shakespeare and classical literature without the theme of unrequited love? As an experiment, the next time you see a Hollywood film with a kissing scene, look closely at the actors’ body language: very frequently, one person is more demonstrative while the other is holding something back– allowing themselves to be kissed, but not fully reciprocating. How often does the same happen in real life? But with God, we never have to fear that He will hold anything back. God loves us infinitely and unconditionally.

The goal of Christianity is union with God. And what that looks like, of course, is that we too become filled with divine Love. To experience God means literally to love, and to love ever more perfectly– not to possess or control or to receive some personal gain from it, but simply to love, and to love divinely, without bounds or conditions. The saints tell us that God dwells in our hearts; we must not seek him outside ourselves but within– why? because he is Love.

When God created man in his own image, it means that he gave every person the capacity to love and be loved. It is our most natural instinct. From the moment we are born and take our first breath, babies seek comfort in the loving embrace of their mothers. Human parents always fall short, of course, but parenthood is meant to point the way to God’s even more perfect love. Romantic love and marriage are, likewise, meant to point the way to God’s love. This love comes so naturally to us, and though it, too, falls short, romantic love is also meant to point the way to God’s total and radical love. By learning to love another, we take our first steps towards learning God’s kind of love.

It is so difficult for us to love Love itself, to love God who is infinite and beyond all our ability to conceive. How can we love what we do not know? So He commands us to love Him through loving our neighbors, the people that cross our path each day. And then, he not only gives himself a name, but actually takes flesh and lives among men: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is astonishing to think about!

The mystery of the Trinity ceases to be an arcane Byzantine doctrine when seen in light of God as Love. God as only one would be selfish. God as only two would be unconcerned with the rest of creation, in the same way that two lovers can ignore the rest of the world and be consumed with adoring each other. But God as three is perfect love: overflowing to the whole world, creating new life, filling all things with his love.

Love is the heart and goal of all the trappings of religion: the forms of worship, the ascetic and spiritual disciplines, teaching the virtues, enduring sorrows and illnesses, practicing gratitude. The goal is to overcome our ego and allow us to love. So many obstacles prevent us from loving truly. We are afraid to risk pain and rejection. Or we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we cannot see others for who they are. Or we are not willing to let others be themselves, but want to make them an extension of our own self. It is a life’s work to learn to love. Humility, the most important of the virtues, does not mean learning to think that you are a worm. It means being able to think about others first, a precondition for love. Even prayer, the saints agree, becomes perfect prayer when all words finally cease and it becomes a silent expression of pure love and adoration.

The seeds of divine love have been sown in all our hearts. Tending them becomes a labor of joy as they begin to bear fruit. And the fruit of Love that they bear is God Himself.

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Love, the Star Which Always Shines: Symeon the New Theologian

Symeon the New Theologian

In their most profound and personal writings, saints and theologians speak mostly of love. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes the Spirit of God as “precisely Love.” Consequently, he writes that hell is the state of having a heart that does not love and so has cut itself off from God who is Love. But what does he say about God’s love for man and about his own heart? These spiritual gems are excerpted from Hymns of Divine Love, translated by George A. Maloney, S. J.

“We know the love that You gave us, boundless, indescribable, which nothing can contain, which is light…It is a sun…It is a star which always shines…It is opposed to grief, it drives hatred away…This is the star, which, by shining, draws people aside and creates the oblivion of all the anxieties of life, it usually nourishes and heals thirst…It calms anger and the turmoil of the heart.” (Hymn 18)

“Come, You the Lonely, to the lonely, since You see I am lonely. Come, You who have separated me from everything and made me solitary in this world. Come, You who have become Yourself desire in me, who have made me desire You, You, the absolutely inaccessible one. Come my breath and my life. Come, consolation of my poor soul. Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight.” (From a prayer)

“You are the sun who before all ages shone in the depths of hell and who then enlightened my soul enveloped in darkness and who have blessed me with the gift of endless light…” (Hymn 1)

Although God is beyond all things, God is also love. St. Symeon seeks “the inaccessible God” everywhere, but finds Him within, in the deepest center of his own heart.

“Where will I find the One whom I see each day; how will I lay hold of the One who is within me, and beyond the world, since He is completely invisible?” (Hymn 3)

“I am seated in my cell either by night or by day: love is invisibly with me and without my knowing it. As it is exterior to all creatures, it is also with them all; it is fire, it is also ray, it becomes a cloud of light, it perfects itself as the sun. Hence because it is fire, it warms the soul again and burns my heart and excites it towards desire and love, love of the Creator. And when I have been sufficiently inflamed and set aflame in my soul, like a ray carrier of light it flies around and surrounds me entirely casting its sparkling rays into my soul, illuminating my mind.” (Hymn 17)

“Love is in my heart, it exists in Heaven, it reveals the Scriptures to me and increases my knowledge, it teaches me mysteries that I cannot express; it shows me how it tore me away from the world and commands me to have mercy on all those who are in this world.” (Hymn 18)

“He [The Spirit] makes joy burst forth in the heart as a spring. It is from this spring that all compassion and mercy pours, flowing out from the soul to all men.” (Hymn 22)

“Love expelled cowardice, it aroused bravery. It granted me the grace to see the uncreated, and to rejoice…to have been united to the Uncreated, to the incorruptible, to the eternal, to what is invisible to all; for that is what love is…

“The first of all the virtues, the queen and the mistress, really is love….Without love the virtues are withered and useless…The Creator came on earth; He took on a soul and a body. He gave the Divine Spirit who is precisely Love.” (Hymn 17)

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) lived in Constantinople for most of his life. He was the abbot at the monastery of St. Mamas until he was exiled to a small town on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. Although he was eventually exonerated by the Patriarch and the Emperor, he chose to remain in the small monastery where he was until he died. His writings are considered classics of Christian mysticism.

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Bluejeans for the Virgin Mary

20130826-023030.jpg“Look Mama, I’m wearing my new bluejeans to church!” Immediately, the wheels in my mommy brain begin turning over the best way to explain to my five-year-old why he can’t wear his new and exciting pair of jeans to the Sunday church service. He is so proud of these pants! At last, he is big enough to manage the snap on his own. But I’d like him to wear a dressier pair of slacks to church, especially since he will be serving in the altar this week.

As I dive in to explanations of what constitutes dressing up, a concept that can be tough for any kid his age, I quickly see that he does actually understand the idea of being respectful and dressing up in God’s house– but he disagrees about what that looks like. And he has strong opinions about this, just as he does about everything else.

I finally think to ask him why he wants to wear the jeans so much.

“Because they are blue! Blue is the Virgin Mary’s favorite color! Please, please can I wear them for her?”

He wore them, of course. Why would any mother want to argue with that reasoning?

It was a good lesson for me: we never know what someone is thinking unless we ask. We should not assume that someone’s choice of clothes is disrespectful or inappropriate just because we might choose differently. Perhaps they are thinking of something quite different–like how to honor the Virgin Mary.

My son knows I don’t allow him to dress as a superhero in church because it distracts the other kids who are coming to pray and think about God. But I could not find a single good reason why he should not be allowed to wear his jeans today. His heart was in the right place.

Raising children is a continual learning experience. In some ways it is very humbling! What does your child like to wear to church? If it really matters to him or her, how do you handle this question in your family?

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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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St. John of the Cross: The Loss and Discovery of Our Identity in God

Jesus Christ Crucifix

All of us use labels to define ourselves. The fun uncle. The nurturing mother. The devoted husband. The good friend. The athlete. The nurse. The risk-taker. The talker. The intellectual. The beauty. The person with a particular movie-preference profile on Netflix. But the problem with using external qualities to define ourselves is that, sooner or later, we are all at risk of losing our identity. The frailty of the human condition means that tragedy strikes at everyone at some point in their lives. Serious illness, the death of a loved one, injury or disability, loss of a job, or the natural changes that come with aging– these life events happen to everyone, and the pain they can bring is twofold. A grieving parent, for example, has to mourn the loss of her children as well as her sense of self. Who am I now if I devoted my life to raising a child who is suddenly gone? For the injured athlete, who am I now if I can no longer control my body? Or for anyone who loses his job, who am I if not my profession? What now is the purpose of my life?

St. John of the Cross has good news for all of us. Those external labels were not the core, essential you. Inside you is your true self which rests in God and cannot be taken away or harmed by any possible hardship. However we come to it, an essential part of the Christian journey is passing through “the dark night of the soul,” in which we experience the pain of shedding all the baggage of our external, false selves in order, finally, to be perfectly one with God.

The “dark nights of the soul” is a term unique to St. John, but he uses it to describe a familiar process found in the New Testament as well as in many Church Fathers. In more familiar Biblical language, we might call it the “death of the old man.” St. Paul writes that our “old man” is crucified with Christ in order that we may be raised from the dead with Christ (Rom 6:6, Eph 4:22). So, while St. John does not seem to be describing a new phenomenon, he is giving it a new descriptive name, and he may be the earliest Christian writer to focus to such a great extent on how it feels for our old man to be crucified. If we had always thought of the death of our old man as purely symbolic, it may come as something of a shock to think of real pain being involved. But when our turn inevitably comes to go through pain or tragedy, then we may take comfort in knowing that many have travelled down this path before us.

The dark nights of St. John of the Cross are the stripping away of everything about the self that is false, secondary, non-essential. Denys Turner, in his discussion of the dark nights, calls it the loss of the ego: the narratives we create about our identity and our past, the images and goals we have of who we would like to become, all possessive loves, all the accomplishments of our own efforts and will, all our weaknesses, all fears, guilt, shame, and pride. (The Darkness of God, p. 238-241) And St. John describes the feeling of this deconstruction of the self in terms that closely mirror depression: “the distaste for food, the gnawings of anxiety in the pit of the stomach, the dulling of the eye and ear, the souring of taste, the rawness of touch, the rankness in the nose… the loss of the power of enjoyment, generalized and objectless fears, the evacuation of meaning, the collapse of memory into random associations, the sense of the pointlessness of any willed pursuit” (Ibid., p. 232). “The emotional crisis of the passive night of the senses is like the condition of total transparency, in which nothing can be seen because everything is seen through” (Ibid. p. 234).

But St. John does not propose to leave a suffering soul in such a state. On the other side of the dark nights, everything is transformed. “We discover in ourselves the presence of a purely passive power, a pure capacity to be attracted, a desire for God which, being no longer grounded in the need to possess, to dominate and destroy, can be the desire, as the Cloud author put it, for God ‘himself, & none of his goodes’… The dark nights are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.” (Ibid. 236, 243)

St. Paul himself makes a good example. Before he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a prominent and well-respected Jew, a pharisee. A major part of his identity was his zealous persecution of Christians. He famously held the coats for his colleagues while they stoned St. Stephen to death. After his conversion, he was literally struck blind for a time. And he lost everything.

Who was he now? He was no longer an authority-figure, but considered himself the least of the apostles. As a new follower of Christ, he would now be rejected by his old anti-Christian community, but that was no guarantee of acceptance by the Christians. Understandably, the other apostles initially feared and suspected him. In his conversion, St. Paul gave up his friends, his position in the synagogue, and also his home. He would spend most of the rest of his life travelling across the Mediterranean to preach the gospel and establish new churches. As time went on, St. Paul also lost his health, his freedom (in prison for his faith), and finally, his life. Layer by layer, everything he had that was false or non-essential was stripped away.

What, if anything, does St. Paul have to say about his experience of conversion and the crucifixion of his “old man”? It seems that, for St. Paul, the most painful aspect was the loss of his pride in believing himself to be blameless and of his pride in his identity as a Hebrew. “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him.”(Phil. 3: 4-8)

Ultimately, he was able to give up all these things because he found his true self in Christ. Through this gradual process of losing or transforming his sense of self, St. Paul was sustained by Christ’s love. The true, essential Paul remained always safe, resting in Christ. He writes eloquently of this in his letter to the Romans:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-38)

The inner, essential Paul he refers to as “the new man” is not dependent on possessions or health or honor or even the love of any other person. It is his true, authentic self, the part of him that is connected to God. While undergoing every kind of loss and hardship, St. Paul writes, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed… but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4: 8-9, 16).

Although St. Paul lost everything that he valued most about himself before his conversion, he discovered his true self, his “inward man” in God. This process only deepened through the rest of his life, as he bore with hardships in travelling, prison, illness, and ultimately was sentenced to death by the Roman government. Truly, nothing could separate him from the love of God. In the same way, the continuity and transformative power of the love of God is also the message of St. John of the Cross in his writings on the dark night of the soul.

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