Chapter Talk – 32ndSunday of the Year – November 10, 2019 – cycle-C
For the solemnity of All Saints I referred to Thomas Merton who wrote: “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 discovering my true self” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.31). It is interesting that Merton says it is a ‘problem’ to find our true selves! Evidently, he is implying that the process of finding our true selves is difficult. To expand more on this, how do we discover our true self? This self-discovery is a life-time spiritual adventure. As we discover more and more of our true self, how do we live from that self that is centered in Christ? If we turn to Jesus, the ‘key’ to finding our true selves lies in this saying: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake,…will save it’ (Mk 8:34-35).
This saying is in all three synoptic gospels and it is not easy to understand if we try to understand it through rational categories alone. This saying is a paradox that turns our linear understanding upside down…It includes a cost…a cost that involves suffering. What is the ‘self’ that we are to die to? This question puts us on the long journey of self-discovery. This self that we are to die to brings forth the truer self, the self that is authentic, that manifests the Christ life in a truer, more authentic fuller way. And the outcome is that we feel better about ourselves and we feel close to God, we experience a true freedom of spirit.
Not leaving what I have said so far, have we considered this: when I am not with myself I am not with God? Being with God also means being with our true, authentic selves. Here is what William of St. Thierry says in Meditation #2: “As long as I am with you, I am also with myself; I am no longer myself when I am not with you” (On Contemplating God, p.96). William is meditating on this dialectic: ‘when I am not with God I am not with myself’, and ‘when I am not with myself I am not with God’.
What does it mean ‘to be with myself’? We find some light on this question from a conversation between Gregory the Great and Peter in his The Life of St. Benedict. Gregory tells this story of when Benedict was superior of a community that was living the total opposite of his uprightness. The brothers refused to change their bad habits and attitudes, so they plotted to kill him by poisoning his wine. When the glass of wine was brought to Benedict for the customary blessing, he blessed the wine with the sign of the cross and the glass broke. Benedict instantly knew what happened: he kept his calm and tranquil mind and after praying mercy upon the brothers, he said that his ways did not mesh with theirs and they needed to find another superior. He departed and continued to live alone with himself. Peter, in his dialogue with Gregory then says: “I don’t know what it means to live with oneself” (#4 & #5, p.22). Here is Gregory’s reply to Peter’s question: “If the holy man had wished to dominate long over those plotting against him, who had a very different way of life, it may have exceeded his strength…Worn out by the daily undiscipline, he would have neglected his own soul; he would have lost himself without finding them. For every time we are drawn outside of ourselves by too much mental agitation, we are not ‘with ourselves,’ even though we think we are. Because when we wander here and there, we do not see ourselves” (p.22).
The first thing that strikes me in this dialogue is that Gregory points to the ‘neglect of one’s soul’. And this can happen to any one of us when we place too much of our energy and focus outside of ourselves. We need time to be ‘alone with ourselves’, to nourish the inner life, to give attention to it for there we meet God in ways that renew us from within, that strengthen us, that expand our horizon and give us perspective to see as God sees…for there we find the true self, which becomes the foundation of all our outer activity, relationships, and choices. There are many indications that tell us when we are not with ourselves. Gregory states one general category: ‘mental agitation’!! I think we all experience this. So, what do we do when we ‘notice’ it? Often, we may not be aware of it and the awareness comes only later when we return to the solitude of the heart.
For the discovery of our true selves, to work out our salvation, it is to notice when I am with myself and when I am not. Grace will be present to help us in the discovery. In these moments we will have the choice to die to the agitation or to act out of it. In either case there is much to learn about ourselves, if we are open. To be with ourselves is to give space for God to be in our lives. There is nothing morally wrong when we find that we are not with ourselves or not living from our true self. This process of self-discovery is a process….we are never finished with it. And we must keep in our memory that to be myself is to be with God. What a gift, what a grace.
William of St. Thierry in Meditation #2 says: “I reckon myself blessed, Lord, and highly blessed, if I feel you with me; but I am wearisome and hateful to myself whenever I perceive that I am not with you” (On Contemplating God, p.89-90). Surely, we all can say these same words as William!