Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

DSC_0493

St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

______________

Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.

 

 

 

The Three Stages of the Spiritual Journey

The canonical order of the Hebrew Bible mirrors it.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I believe the Christian life is a journey. It may start with a conversion experience, but it moves to its goal of spiritual maturity progressively, not instantaneously. This is not a new insight on my part. Here I follow in the broad tradition of Christian spiritual writing through the ages.

Two who believe this journey moves through three stages are Richard Rohr, a popular Franciscan writer on the contemplative tradition, and Walter Brueggeman, a Protestant scholar of Scripture. They label those three stages as order➔disorder➔re-order.

Brueggeman sees this progression mirrored in the canonical order of the Jewish Bible. Rohr released a short blog posting today sharing this insight. It’s titled Human Development in Scripture. I call your attention to it as worth your reading if you want to discern the wisdom of the wider structure of the Bible.

The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.

The Divine Breath of God

God is close and present to us in every breath we take.

I don’t read the Genesis creation accounts as history or as scientific descriptions. I regard them as myths. But when I use the word myth, the word does not mean for me something that is untrue. A myth does not provide a scientifically factual account. Instead it provides an insight into the truth by means of a story. That’s why myths are such potent vehicles of revelation.

Genesis 2:4b-3:24 provides the second of Genesis’ two creation accounts. In contrast to the majestic poetry of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3 provides a more homely tale, but a tale laced with some powerful insights into the nature of humanity. Let me highlight one.

Near the beginning of the account, we encounter this description of the creation of human beings: …then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [Genesis 2:7]

This statement does not envision God snapping his fingers and creating human beings out of thin air. This is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). God forms human beings out of the existing dust of the earth. The language suggests the work of a potter shaping a clay image. The image remains inert until God breathes the breath of life into it. Then the material image becomes a living being.

This sentence reveals a fundamental component of the Hebrew mindset that runs through all of the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. Human beings are fundamentally material bodies animated by the breath of life. This breath of life comes from God as a gift. Our lives are always a gift, whether in this life or in the life of the resurrection to come.

This mindset does not deny that human beings are a part of the natural, material world. They have material bodies just like the rest of the living creatures on the earth. And therefore they are subject to the many natural forces that drive the material world of nature.

What keeps them alive is their incessant breathing. They breathe air in and they breathe air out. When human beings exhale their last breath and do not take a new one, they die. This is real fact.

Human Beings as Integrated Persons

Two things move me about this account. First, it suggests an understanding of human beings not as bifurcated persons, but as integrated beings in which body and spirit combine to make a whole person. We have a bodily dimension to our lives, but we also have a spiritual dimension. The two cannot be easily separated. They are intertwined. This means our bodies contribute to our identity as individuals just as much as do our psyches. Truly we are psychosomatic beings.

This contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature that we inherit from Greco-Roman philosophy. For the Greek philosophers it was a pervasive belief that human beings consist of a divine, immortal soul imprisoned in a material, mortal body. The two are in constant tension, for the soul is the source of a human’s higher nature and the body the source of his or her lower nature.

This conflictive dualism runs as well through human culture and social relations. It has shaped our common attitudes about gender relations, the value of various occupations, and our bodily activities.

For myself, I find the Hebrew concept of human beings a healthier one. Yes, it can see body and spirit in conflict at times, but it does not see the solution as an eternal divorce between body and spirit, but rather their integration in a transforming union. The culmination of this vision is to be found in the Christian understanding of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ foresees the ultimate destiny of all human beings. As the ancient Orthodox fathers put it, “God became a human being so that human beings might become divine.”

God Present in Our Breath

There is a second reason why the Genesis account moves me. It identifies the life-giving force in human beings as the “breath of life” breathed into them by God. The Hebrew word for breath here is nishmat. We find it sometimes in parallel with the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, which is ruach. Both refer to something invisible that is life-giving, powerful, and ultimately beyond human control.

That power comes from God and as the thought of the Bible evolves it is named as the Spirit of God. The Spirit does many things in the thought world of the Bible, but one important function is to breathe the gift of life as we incessantly breathe in and out.

We find another expression of this insight in Psalm 104, where the psalmist expresses awe at the wisdom of God’s creative work as found in all living creatures. The psalmist says:

These all look to you

            to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

            when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

            when you take away their breath, they die

            and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

            and you renew the face of the ground. [Psalm 104:27-30]

All this suggests to me that the presence of God is always with us, though invisible, every time we take a breath. It is through the air we breathe in and breathe out that the Lord breathes the spark of life into our material bodies, and we live. We may feel God is absent from our lives. We may long constantly for a vivid sense of God’s presence with us, when all along God is as close to us as God can be every time we take a breath.

This suggests, says the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, why many prayer practices, especially in the contemplative prayer traditions, place so much emphasis on how we breathe. He writes, “When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly–breathe…And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing–and yet everything.”*

—————————————

* Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015. Page 26.