In Susan Howatch’s great novel, Glittering Images, Charles Ashworth is an Anglican priest and canon who is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to do some investigate work on a controversial Bishop is suspected to be living a double life. His journey into the seductively powerful world of church politics, however, exposes a deeper seduction within – an inner conflict which prevents him from seeing his world clearly, and compels him to live out of a false self – a “glittering image” committed to protecting him not only from the pain of his external world, but his internal pain as well. In a moment of crisis, Ashworth meets Jon Darrow, a spiritual director who dares to ask about the self behind the glittering image. Darrow sees Ashworth for who he really is – a man burdened by the world’s demands and his own internal demand to be successful.
Speaking to Ashworth’s hidden, burdened self within, Darrow says, “He must be exhausted. Has he never been tempted to set down the burden by telling someone about it?”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Who’s ‘I’?” said Darrow.
“The glittering image.”
“Ah yes,” said Darrow, ” and of course that’s the only Charles Ashworth that the world’s allowed to see, but you’re out of the world now, aren’t you, and I’m different from everyone else because I know there are two of you. I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”
“He can’t come out.”
“You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”
“Charles, when a traveller’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is. He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load.”
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The words of Jesus I find more comforting than any others are these: Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. No words may better summarize his priestly mission. No words may better expose our self-righteous hearts.
Prone to manage our own burdens, we develop sophisticated strategies to cope. Our psyche is so wonderfully complex, and yet so quick to participate as an accomplice in our self-redemptive strategizing. Perhaps even more disturbing is that so much of this takes place subconsciously. Most of us don’t wake up one morning was a commitment to develop a sophisticated mask, a false self that rejects Christ’s invitation to give our burdens over, and stubbornly commits to managing life alone. I’ve never seen anyone for counseling who has confessed, “At age 7, I recognized that what people liked in me was ‘The Joker’, and that I’d be accepted if I was the funny guy for the rest of my life.” Yet, with some time and reflection, many people do remember a subtle shift, a pull from within to hide their baggage and show their best image.
I was a skinny kid with big ears, and a huge burden of fear within. No one knew of this fear, of course. My parents did their best to tell him the right things. But they, and everyone else, did what he all do as adults in a child’s world – accentuate the good, and deny the bad. I do it with my kids all the time.
“Daddy, I can’t wear these baggy pants to school, everyone will laugh,” my 7 year old says.
“No they won’t,” I say. “You look great. Just hang in there and it will be ok.”
Did I just set my child up for a lifetime of therapy? That’s a complicated answer. As a kid, what I learned was that my fear was never justified, that it was some silly thing that could be handled by just getting over it. In time, I learned more sophisticated ways of doing it. I became good at things – music and academics, and of course, people-pleasing and strategizing my life in such as a way as to maximize my feeling of achievement and minimize, even eradicate, the inner voice that said, “I’m scared.” Being fearful was not alright.
Like the Israelites on the first Exodus journey, we suspect that burying our burdens under a thousand different security-strategies will save us. We respond to Jesus like a Pharisee – “we’re managing our burdens just fine, Rabbi…in fact, we’ve created a whole system of security maintenance that we think you’d really appreciate.” Yet, like Jon Darrow to Charles Ashworth, Jesus says, “But you look exhausted. Let me carry the load. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
One of the difficult recognitions in my own life is that while I had an expansive theology that claimed that God was Sovereign, that Jesus was Lord, and that I was in need of grace, my life did not match my theology at all. In fact, I’d be lying if I said it does now. There are parts of me that refuse to relinquish control. In fact, they love control. They stand alongside me whispering, “All of this New Exodus talk about taking the wilderness way is fine, Chuck, but you’re not going to do it. It’s way too dangerous.”
Progress along the New Exodus way requires listening to that voice of Jesus, like the voice of Jon Darrow to Charles Ashworth, acknowledging your exhaustion and offering not a pat on the back, but a load off of your back. There will be many other voices within and without, however, fighting this, enraged that you’d trust anyone but yourself to navigate life’s rugged terrain. A spiritual discipline required for this stage of the journey, therefore, is listening. Through the noise, you’ll recognize the voice of Jesus, and it will slowly grow to become your own voice. From that new place, you’ll be able to speak again, not from the glittering image, but from the new self, emerging out of the wilderness of shame, venturing on to the promised rest for weary souls…
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When you read the dialogue between Darrow and Ashworth, do you recognize yourself in it?
What is your version of the “glittering image?”
What burdens does the “glittering image” refuse to let go of?