I’ve noticed that many of our retreatants and visitors are very familiar with the idea of the True Self, versus the False Self as our awareness of spiritual realities develop over a lifetime. That category is probably most familiar to us from the later writings of Thomas Merton; from there the model has just proliferated through many–and now several generations–of spiritual writers. You’d probably not be surprised when I suggest that it grows out of the monastic tradition. The Cistercian Fathers of the twelfth century often described the monastic life as restoring to us the image and likeness of God, in which we were created but became distorted, or lost, through sin.
The two perspectives–True/False Self; the Restored/Distorted Image and likeness–are not identical but they speak of a similar contrast. We can run into trouble when we abstract either approach as a concept or as a “role model” or ideal pattern of conduct for all situations. I would do best with either when I concretely identify what is “false” in my actual conduct, choices, desires, motives–and so forth. Need I add that I am totally in left field when I analyze anyone else along these lines?
Listening to Abbot Joseph’s Chapter Talk this past Sunday, I found much that was helpful to myself–and to the monastic community–but also much that would benefit our friends and readers. So I asked Fr. Joseph if I might share what he told us in Chapter and he graciously offers this for your consideration.
Fr. Joseph has been giving a series of talks on the tension between “change and stability, variation and sameness” in the monastic life. Clearly, we aren’t antiquarians who simply attempt to reproduce what was done in the twelfth or the sixth century monasteries. On the other hand, we just don’t buy by the yard whatever is the current trend and paper over the Abbey with it to be up-to-date. The Abbot has pointed out, as has writers like the Australian monk, Michael Casey, or like our recent Abbots General, that accretions to monastic practices over the centuries can become distortions. There is a lot of discernment required here to sift out what stays and what goes. Of course there are clear essentials: silence, obedience, stability, accountability, community, liturgy, lectio divina and so forth. All the same, how they are practiced, so that they are alive and effective, can vary from epoch to epoch.
Significantly, Fr. Joseph has pointed out, as had Fr. Robert, in the past few years as we’ve worked on the environment we live in–everything from repainting the Abbey, to reassessing the liturgy, to tweaking the landscaping, to renovating the church, that all those changes can just be exterior. Rearranging the furniture won’t improve my life. I also have to attend to my inner state. What a loss if I get lost in these externals, ignoring my inner life!
Where do I need to look? I found this inventory from Sunday Chapter very helpful: “moodiness, emotional withdrawal, aggression (active and passive), irritability, and other less than pleasant states of mind and heart” that “inflict our negative and dark moods on others and undermine peace and concord in the community.”
“Conversely, stability and evenness of mood become hallmarks of the mature, sensitive and inwardly aware individual who is able to resist the pull towards inner negativity that external circumstances can exert on us…Absent this inner awareness, we aimlessly and mindlessly go through the motions of living the monastic life in the spiritual shallows that guarantee inner frustration, a generalized unhappiness and a pervasive spiritual lethargy” As uncomfortable as owning all that would be, I believe that last sentence is a wonderful description of the symptoms of the False Self having been given “permission” to take control of my life.
And the antidote? “…it’s not easily achieved because it requires withdrawing our projections and blaming the world out there, and turning the spotlight on our less attractive traits, thoughts, desires and motivations…Spiritual direction, the Sacrament of Penance, lectio divina, serious and challenging spiritual reading and, when indicated, counseling or psychotherapy, are all to be welcomed in this spiritual pursuit that lies at the heart of the vows we have professed.”
I believe that there is wider application here than just for the monastic life; the “vows we have professed” could include the marriage vows or the more basic baptismal vows. I believe this is what monasticism has to offer to the Church and to the human family.