Monday, February 22, 2010

Know Thyself, Part III

I've suggested that the self is illuminated in relationship with a significant other. This could certainly be expanded to include all the diverse relationships we have in our lives. We learn who we are through all our family relationships and through friendships. And even our enemies teach us important things about ourselves that we can learn from nobody else. This is why I imagine that in the eternal worlds, we may actually be grateful to those who hated us or misunderstood us in this world. But I believe the most important form of self-knowledge that we achieve is the self-knowledge we achieve in relation to another Other -- in relation to God.

I'm not just talking about the self-knowledge that comes by absorbing Church doctrine that teaches us God is literally our Heavenly Parent, though that is important enough. That one little bit of knowledge ought to transform how we relate to everything under the sun. To live in accordance with that knowledge ought to become an unending wellspring of self-knowledge. But to know about our relationship with God is different from knowing God. So it's not enough simply to absorb or believe Church doctrine about God. There are things we can only learn about ourselves -- the most important things we can learn about ourselves -- by turning to God.

Some of the most important moments of revelation I've experienced in my life have often come, it seems, at the moments I feel most broken and most hopeless. I believe the reason for that is because in those moments the masks I usually wear to buttress my ego are no longer working for me. That's usually why I'm feeling broken; because my ego is most frail when my hopes and dreams are failing and my world is crashing down around me. Those are also the moments when the things that are truly most important to me come to the surface; I begin to learn what I really want and who I really am. Those are the moments when some of the most important things God has to teach me can actually penetrate; when the masks or the thick shells I've accumulated to protect myself are broken, and God can reach and teach the real me.

Of course I've learned that I don't need personal crisis to learn or be open to revelation. First of all, it is worth pointing out that these crises have almost always been -- I've learned in retrospect -- of my own creation. They were the result of me heading down a dead-end path, or were the result of my own faulty view of the world. In the case of the former, the crisis was my own mistakes finally catching up with me. In the case of the latter, the trauma was actually just disillusionment in the wake of unrealistic hopes or expectations. (Dis-illusion-ment is a good thing.) People might do terrible things to us, or we might have terribly bad luck, but it is how we respond to such situations that makes the difference between whether we perceive it as a crisis or not.

But to the extent that moments of personal crisis become moments of personal reorientation (or repentance), instead of forging a mask, what we do is we actually begin to create our own souls. We begin to move through the world in a way that God can reach us and teach us without our guts having to be spilled all over the place all the time. We begin to turn to God routinely, as part of the way we do business in the world.

It's worth pointing out that there's a lot of behavior that advertises itself as godliness that is nothing of the sort. Going around and bopping people on the head for being gay, for example, is a spectacular example of advertised godliness that is actually sort of the opposite of godliness. You can usually tell when you're in the presence of godliness because, well, it feels like Love.

When I've been doing this right, I've begun to yearn for quiet moments every day when I can present myself to God, and ask how I'm doing, and just listen. I have started to learn that sometimes you just have to check the notion that you're going to "say a prayer" before you get on your knees. When we start to pray a bunch of things that are just sort of the rote things that we pray because, well, we think it's what we're supposed to pray, that becomes part of the calcified mask that God eventually needs to break in order to get through to us. Sometimes I've literally had the Spirit just tell me to be quiet and listen. I certainly do pray words out loud; I frequently make very specific requests or express very specific thanks. But sometimes my prayer has to be just an attitude of thanksgiving, and silence, and listening openness.

Prayer can feel mighty silly when you're not sure if there's even anybody there to listen to what you have to say, much less talk back to you. I've been there at least twice in my life. What I can say about this is that some of the most sacred and powerful prayers I've ever uttered have been the ones that started, "I'm not even sure if you exist." For what it's worth, I've found that God richly rewards these kinds of acts of faith that come from the deepest parts of our soul, in the moments of our greatest need.

I think I've begun to catch some vision of the potential of this greatest form of self-knowledge, the kind that comes through our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It is that when God asks in relation to some task "Whom shall I send?" we can truthfully and without holding anything back reply, "Here am I, send me."


Frank Lee Scarlet said...

Thanks for yet another strengthening post. The idea of God needing to break through the masks we construct certainly rings true for me. I suppose we allow so many layers (of, say, cynicism, as in my case) to build up that He really does have to pierce us to get through. For me, it's difficult, but it leaves me humble -- and, therefore, more open to my Heavenly Father.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Frank.

Bravone said...

Sincere prayer was something I learned on my knees in a small closet in Torino, Italy. I learned what Mark Twain, said, "You can't pray a lie" is true. I began to tell God how I really felt and not what I thought he wanted me to say.

I have to keep reminding myself to be honest in prayer, even when it is Him that I am mad at.

J G-W said...

Bravone - yes, I've seen some of your posts along these lines, and have appreciated them.