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A Tale of Two Selves and introducing Solitude

So, the weeks drag on as we must stay in our homes and practice physical distance – we have become all too familiar with our living spaces.  I wonder, though, how familiar we are with the person we have to live with all the time……ourselves?

In this particular time, one thing we could do well to attend to is soul work/care……it is not easy, but the rewards cannot be adequately expressed in mere words.  Those of you acquainted with the work of Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton will be familiar with the idea of the ‘false self’ and the ‘true self’. 

Merton gives what can only be called his testimony, describing a revelation of the True Self in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God 's eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

By contrast, the False self is a fabrication driven by social compulsions, which needs ongoing (and increasing?) affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised and admired (or disliked, hated, or despised!).  We take our cue from how we are seen or understood by those around us (physically or online) rather than by our life in Christ.

So we can spend a huge amount of energy nurturing and attending to the needs of the False Self and yet knowing that there is more to life than this. Truly, the words of Saint Augustine ring true -  

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Until we can silence the voices of compulsion telling us we need to be, do or be seen to be or do then we can never enter into that peace or abundance that we are called into.  So this is where I want to introduce the spiritual practice of solitude.  This is rather more than just being on your own…as I hope you will see.

There are many writers on this subject, but there is a section in Henri Nouwen’s book, The Ways of the Heart, that speaks more powerfully than anything else I have read or I myself could say, so I simply offer the text and pose some questions for reflection at the end.  

"Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace in the wilderness. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (” I will give you all these kingdoms”). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self. This might sound rather forbidding. It might even evoke images of medieval ascetical pursuits from which Luther and Calvin have happily saved us. But once we have given these fantasies their due and let them wander off, we will see that we are dealing here with that holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace each other. It is the place called solitude... We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us, solitude most often means privacy… In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life… [Yet] solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs…    

 In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding. I have no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions, so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long and hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus, I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vain glory.      

[Yet] the task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone… The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness. Yet Jesus “did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).

That is the struggle. It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool. The wisdom of the desert fathers is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ. Alone, we cannot face “the mystery of iniquity” with impunity. Only Christ can overcome the powers of evil. Only in and through him can we survive the trials of our solitude… Only in the context of the great encounter with Jesus Christ himself can a real authentic struggle take place…  

Ok, this all might sound heavy, but take some time to reflect on this text and see if it might speak to you.  Some questions to aid your reflection:

Q. Nouwen says, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation” – do you agree?

Q. Do you agree with Nouwen’s view there are three compulsions of the world (relevant, spectacular and powerful)?

Q. “For us, solitude most often means privacy… In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life…

[Yet] solitude is not a private therapeutic place.”  Is that what you thought?  Is Nouwen offering you a different insight now? Q. Does the idea of solitude terrify you?  What particularly worries you about solitude?

Q. Does the idea of discovering your true self and the prospect of finding congruence with who you are and who’s you are intrigue and excite?  If so, in what way?  If not, why not?

Q. What further help do you need to take the next step into this spiritual practice? (Email: [email protected] to let me know)   Next week……Silence!  

With love, Philip