17 June 2014

On Thinking About the True or Inner Self

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you referred recently to the "true self" and I have seen references to this in other writers dealing with spirituality. Keating and others in the Centering Prayer movement refer to this and I have the sense it is a monastic way of speaking. My problem is I have never found a good presentation of what it is or is not. I know that the false self is the ego self but is the true self our soul or our heart or what exactly is it? Is there someone I can read on this?]]

This is a great question because defining the true self is difficult and treating it as a kind of "little person," homunculus, or piece of ourselves somewhere inside us is a real danger. I tend to think of my true self as that self God envisions and calls me to be. If I need something a little more tangible (or that at least feels more tangible!) I think of it as the Name by which God knows and calls me. It is as much potential as it is real(ized).This emphatically does not mean that there is a kind of template, much less an invisible person hidden deep within us. The true self is not our soul nor perhaps even our "heart" (though as I understand "heart" the two are profoundly related). In any case, the true self is a dialogical event which comes to be in the very moment of obedient response to the Word and Summons of God. In a sense when we speak of the true self we are talking about a reality in the mind or heart of God as well as an event which is the result and embodiment of his love as it is received at any given moment in our own lives. It is that person we are when we are most truly alive, most truly ourselves, most truly living from and in God. Merton refers to it as "a spontaneity," and finds it in every deeply spiritual experience, "whether religious, moral, or even artistic." In The Inner Experience he writes:

[[The inner self [another term for the true self] is not part of our being, like a motor in a car. It is our entire substantial reality itself, on its highest and most existential level. It is like life, and it is life: it is our spiritual life when it is most alive. It is the life by which everything else in us lives and moves. . . .The inner self is as secret as God and, like Him, it evades every concept that tries to seize hold of it with full possession. It is a life that cannot be held and studied as object, because it is not "a thing." It is not reached and coaxed forth from hiding by any process under the sun, including meditation. All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence. the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart, and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his (its) presence.]]

One of the difficulties in speaking of the true self is our failure to understand it in terms of its dynamic and dialogical quality. We think of it as "already there" waiting passively --- apart in some sense from active participation in our relationship with God, apart, that is, from our participation in God's ongoing and eternal creative activity. But this, I think, is not the case. The true self is what exists to the extent and at the very moment we are in dialogue with God. It is that Self which is actively involved in the I-Thou relationship with God. In a sense it IS this I-Thou relationship embodied in space and time, this God-speaking-human being-hearkening Event we know as "incarnated Word". I have written before that God is eternal because God is always new (kainotes) and is eternal only to the extent that God is always new. I think we have to understand that the true self has a similar kind of existence. Merton's use of the term "a spontaneity" is especially apt --- but we must understand that because the true self always and only exists in and from God there is an eternity to it as well. Still, this eternity is not so much one of persistence (which is a temporal reality) as it is of an eternal now --- a moment by moment giveness and receivedness. My own use of the term Event is an attempt to do justice to the paradox of newness (spontaneity)  and eternity in God and in myself as well.

Similarly, I speak and think of true self in relation to the Name by which God calls me because it helps me remember that the true self is not a template or pattern of characteristics I must somehow embody or live up to. It wholly transcends this just as any Name does. I think it also allows us to speak here of the secret name by which God knows and calls us because often (always?) this is very different from the more usual name by which the whole world knows us or, even more emphatically so from the name we try to make for ourselves. At the same time focusing on Name immediately causes me to understand that existence is a gift I cannot give myself and that the true self is the result of God's own speech as hearkened to by the me it makes more real.

Finally, Name points to the embodiment of true freedom we are called to be and become. There is no pre-conceived "person" or "plan" attached to a name. Instead the bestowal of a name gives us a dignity, a capacity and even a commission which we ourselves will "fill" with content --- and yet, above all, that content is who we are in our relatedness with God and all that is from and of God. If one were to try to capture or define the content of a personal Name one would fail as surely as they would fail trying to capture a living brook or flowing river in a bucket. So too with the true self that, like Godself, is really more verb than noun. All of these things are sort of the counterpart to apophatic ways of knowing God. We know God only to the extent we are known by God and any worthwhile attempt to speak positively about the reality of God must center on saying clearly what God is not. Where finally we come to know God as (an) ultimate freedom so too do we come to know the true self as a contingent freedom --- that is, ourselves as we truly (and "spontaneously") exist in and from God.


One other way the true or inner self is often referred to is with the term "deep self." It is not a term I usually use personally but I was reminded of it and reflected on how it might illustrate what I wrote yesterday. Theologians like Paul Tillich (who was influential in Merton's own thought) refer to God and too, to the literally spiritual as the depth dimension of all reality. When, with Tillich, we refer to God as the ground of being and meaning we are referring to this same depth dimension -- a dimension which grounds and can penetrate and take hold of every aspect of our existences, a dimension of depth which is manifest in our religious, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic lives whenever we are grasped by meaning, truth, beauty, or future, etc --- that is, whenever we are grasped by (an ultimate) concern expressed by or through these.

The depth dimension in all of these human endeavors or functions is their participation in ultimacy and the transcendent. My sense is the "deep self" is that self which is grasped by this depth dimension whenever this occurs; this means it is real in the event of our everyday selves being grasped, shaken, and transformed by depth or Spirit. (Remember that because of Jesus' Ascension the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of authentic humanity!) It is, in other words, all of ourselves taken hold of and shaken by ultimacy (and thus, by an ultimate concern), whether that occurs (as Merton pointed out as well) in the intellectual, the moral, religious, or the artistic realms of our lives. If this seems a bit too abstract or the language feels too foreign, notice how it continues the theme of spontaneity or reprises comments on the event nature of the true self. Because for Tillich faith is "the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern" the true self can be called that self which is taken hold of by faith -- not as believing in x or y, but in the sense of allowing ourselves to trustingly fall into the hands of the living God who, at that moment, makes all things new.

For a very accessible introduction to this notion of "depth dimension" cf Paul Tillich's sermon, "The Depth of Existence" in his book, The Shaking of the Foundations. Also helpful would be his sermon, "Our Ultimate Concern" in The New Being.