By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity. (St. Augustine)
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I used to think that spiritual progress looked like a straight line, aiming upward and onward, reaching toward a state of perpetual contentedness.
But then, life happened.
We’ve talked about the division within ourselves, and on those parts that are not often easy to face. We’ve talked about the big bag we carry behind us, filled with parts of ourselves that no friend, nor Savior, could ever look upon (…or so we think.) We’d rather not look at those parts, either. Like a dark shadow, however, they seem to follow us. And when the light shines, these shadow parts are particularly visible, haunting us with the memories of evil thoughts and cruel intentions. Many of us, including me, would rather live in a fantasy where this shadow does not exist, where our quiet times and noble moments out-shine the shadow.
But then, life happens…
We see ourselves playing out a scene that we vowed would never happen again – a binge and purge episode, or a night of pornographic indulgence, or a bath in corporate greed, or an episode of self-righteous contempt upon our spouse. And we see ourselves as the divided self we are – desiring faithfulness, but living conflicted lives.
How do we achieve what St. Augustine ponders upon? How do we experience a unity amidst the inner divisions and utter contradictions that our lives present?
It is interesting to me that St. Paul defines unity with Jesus in the context of participation in both His death and His resurrection, in suffering and in Spirit. The shadow has a place in God’s economy. Maturity requires a descent into the furnace of struggle. It does not come through a naive refusal to acknowledge our darkness, but emerges through the deliberate work of self-examination. As we peer beneath the surface, we see darkness greater than our capacity to fathom. And we find ourselves at the place of our deepest need, yearning to dive into the fearsome chaos waters in order to emerge cleansed, participants in the death and life of Christ Himself.
While we’d prefer a kind of unity with Christ that emphasizes the power of resurrection, the reality is that a fellowship in His sufferings can be a great encouragement, too. It was Jesus who announced His Kingdom as the domain of the broken, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the mourner, the persecuted, and the prostitute. It was Jesus, seeing how the Essenes, Pharisees, and Zealots had shaped the Abrahamic faith, who re-wrote the books and re-drew the lines, drawing in the shadow-members of the community. Pretenders who acted as if the shadow didn’t exist would find themselves marginalized now, condemned under the very system they had erected, but saved if they could courageously admit the plank in their eyes.
Truth is, God didn’t send Jesus to save half of us. He wants us whole, and saves all of us…those parts of us we present to the world, and those parts that we’d rather others not see, both the Elder Brother and the Prodigal Son. Disowning the shadow amounts to discounting our need – our need for one another, and our need for a Savior. We might as well say to God, “There are some burdens too scary to admit, and too great to be healed. I’d prefer to carry this one myself.” The world is full of strategies for fixing ourselves. We’re a self-help culture with bookshelves filled with self-help wisdom as old as the Greek philosophers. Yet, St. Augustine says, “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”
It is in choosing the wilderness that God is able to be who He is – Savior – and deliver us up into the Promised Land.
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What are parts of your self and your story that you’d prefer to edit out?
Imagine that these shadow parts of you are like little ‘selves’, exiles quarantined to a distant country yet in need a Savior to lead them Home. Pick one exiled part of yourself. Imagine having a conversation with it. What are its fears? What burden is it carrying? How does it need Jesus?