We Think Ourselves Kings, an image in Georges Roualt’s Miserere. Roualt’s point: we act more like circus clowns than dignity-bestowed kings, as we wear masks that conceal our real selves.
Lent invites us to join Christ on the way of the Cross. It’s an intentional season of reflection and meditation. Even more, we’re challenged to arrange our lives in such a way as to be daily frustrated. Let me explain.
As people addicted to comfort and convenience, we’re often unaware of how we live to feel good about ourselves, to gain a bit of affirmation, to exert influence, to maximize our own pleasure, to satisfy our immediate needs. Lent invites us to intentionally frustrate ourselves, to engage in a season of deprivation, which actually makes us more aware of the depth of our dependence on any number of things – a substance, our reputation, control, achievement, being right, being comfortable, being secure.
Lent is NOT a behavior modification program. It’s not about going off chocolate or caffeine or alcohol. It’s about frustrating what Thomas Merton calls our “false self,” our illusory self, the part of us addicted to living the lie, a life of hiding. As Merton writes, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.”
In this sense, Lent’s frustrating reality is an invitation to, once and for all, taste reality, our truest self, gifted to us by God as a pure act of grace. Beneath our illusory self is our real identity, who we were made to be. It is our true self, secure, beloved, held in the Father’s embrace. Lent strips us of everything that is not us. In that sense, Lent is not a chore. It is an opportunity for profound grace by a God who longs to love us at our core, not in our false projected self which desire influence and accolades, but in our truest, most humble and dependent self, once lost but now found in the wilderness of Lent.
Each of the resources below offers a trustworthy Lenten guide to this unique encounter. But no book can manufacture grace. It is most fundamentally about your willingness to surrender to the God who wants to invade your heart with disruptive love, who wants to stifle your exhausting attempts to manufacture love with unfathomable grace. Lent affords you this unique opportunity, by God’s grace. The way down is the way up. Through this Lenten journey, you might find yourself hidden in Christ, and revealed ultimately in the Easter reality of God’s resurrection life, stripped of pretension and falsehood, and revealed as a humble and dependent son or daughter. That’s my hope and prayer, and perhaps yours as well.
Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit
Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters
Henri Nouwen, Show Me the Way
NT Wright, Lent for Everyone (this is Year B)
Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (I like this one, as it features readings from Lewis, Nouwen, Buechner, Chesterton, and more…)
What is already in your client is far more powerful than anything you can give them.
Consider that for a moment.
We’ve made our words, our precise articulations, our interventions, our expertise far more important than the hidden treasure within.
In the last chapter of Leaving Egypt, I talk about theosis, the deepest truth about ourselves, that we exist in union with God. It’s the most central theological truth I believe there is.
St. Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) Or, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) We are the temple (1. Cor. 6:19), the paradise of God, called a “new creation” (2. Cor. 5:17).
So, counseling is easy. It’s what Michaelangelo said about David, among his greatest works – I kept chipping away everything that was not David.
Counseling chips away at everything that is not you. St. Paul calls this “not you” part of you the “flesh” (sarx), better understood as the false self, bearer of all of our selfish ambition, insecurity, manipulation, image-creating, and more. Or, as Thomas Merton says, “The self that begins is the self that we thought ourselves to be. It is this (false) self that dies along the way until in the end ‘no one’ is left. This ‘no one’ is our true self. It is the self that stands prior to all that is this or that. It is the self in God, the self bigger than death yet born of death. It is the self the Father forever loves.”
This ‘no one’, of course, is quite unappealing, and so clients often sabotage the counseling process before finding this core, true self. We’d rather live with the illusions. As Hezekiah’s misguided ambassador’s told the truth-tellers on their road back to Egypt, “Prophesy illusions. Tell us what we want to hear.” (from Isa. 30)
Listen counselors…you don’t need to convince your client. You don’t need to drop great theological truths on them. You don’t need to fight them. You need only call out what is already there, what is most deeply there. The Spirit living within is already praying (Rom. 8:26) in words your client cannot even articulate or perhaps even understand. This is why when they change, often in drastic ways, you stand in amazement, knowing it had little to do with you. After all, what could you do that Spirit could not do!?
A client once said to me, “You must work twice as hard with a client as difficult as me.” I said, “Oh no, all I can do is offer you a taste of life like anyone else I counsel. God’s doing the deep work already inside of you.” She began to cry. She said, “God cannot possibly be inside someone as disgusting as me.”
If she got this message from a pastor, she’s been lied to. Our deepest reality is union with God. It is a mystical union. Juridical theologizing often misses this, and we end up feeling separated from God, and very, very guilty. But this is “unio mystica,” as John Calvin calls it, whereby “his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together” made possible by the “secret energy of the Spirit.” Not your grandfather’s John Calvin, is it? This Calvin sounds more like a mystic in the tradition of Augustine, Bernard, even his contemporary St. John of the Cross, than a simple forensic-minded lawyer.
What is the secret? That our deepest reality is hidden in Christ. As a therapist, then, my work is to simply chip away everything that is not Christ, not the true self, not the self held safely in the Father’s hands.