Sixteen years ago I took a world lit class taught by a professor who opened my eyes, not only to the relevance of myth and classical literature, but to contemplative spirituality as well.
Dr. Thorpe opened the class with a simple statement “We’re lost. We’re trying to get home. That’s the story at the heart of Western literature and it’s the story at the start of the spiritual journey.” With that framework in mind we read Homer, Dante, and Dostoevsky. We read the stories like maps of the soul’s journey home.
As a kid who had grown up overseas and suffered from reverse culture shock, it was like being handed a golden key. I might not have been home yet, but I had a way to get there. It felt like hope.
But the references this teacher was steeped in were mostly lost on me at the time: hesychasm, The Jesus Prayer, St. Symeon, The Way of the Pilgrim, The Desert Fathers, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, via negativa, apophatic theology. What did it all mean? I’d have to find out.
Intuitively, I knew behind this man’s wisdom and humility lay a great deal of pain. But I also knew here was a very different, grace-filled understanding of Christ whose offer of transformation went far beyond the conservative God I’d grown up with, a God of moral standards whose holiness required us to stay in line. It took more than a decade to resolve the internal tension brought about by this shift in understanding.
I’ve since come to embrace this conservatism as part of an intermediate stage along the spiritual journey. As we grow we’re invited to transcend and include its positive elements as we progress, such as commitment, community, and self-discipline. It’s when these become over-emphasized, or ends in themselves, that they can become toxic. We trade authentic spirituality for religion, try as we might to sugar coat it with the language of “personal relationship.”
What conservative communities of faith often miss is an understanding of this very process of growth, which leads down before it leads up, much like Dante’s journey. If we are to imitate Christ, there’s a death before the resurrection.
But even if we fully understand there is no maturity without suffering, it’s one thing to know it, and quite another to walk through it.
Since that time, I went to Seminary and studied deeply in the mystics, but also taught high school in the inner city, struggled deeply to adjust to married life, went through my own road to recovery from sexual addiction and depression, and the recognition of the deep need for daily letting go of the False Self, or as Eckhart Tolle puts it “the needy little me whose needs are not being met.”
But once the seed of transformation takes root and begins to sprout, as Tolle describes in his own story of transformation, the process of waking up to the ultimate reality of a creation saturated in light and love is like being reborn.
At the heart of this process is what the Christian tradition calls “the Paschal mystery.” It’s the downward way into one’s own ego mechanisms. It’s our naked confrontation with our shadow or False Self. Symbolically, this is what dies on the cross in the image of the crucifixion. Our neediness, our desires, our attachment.
So often growing up, I would hear of the need to die to ourselves. This was usually assumed to refer to the exercise of moral will, to conform to the expectations of church leaders and their emphasis of Scripture (Mark 7:20; Gal 5:19; 1 Cor 6:9). Righteousness, not letting go of judgment. Holiness, not transformation. Purity, not the utter humility of self-awareness.
Dying to self meant not giving in to the moral laxity and seduction of the surrounding culture. This invariably leads to outer performance vs. inner transformation. What often happens is we get the morality message before having undergone our own inner death, before walking the downward journey, before experiencing the paschal mystery. When that happens, the healthy message of morality devolves into moralism. We get judgment before engagement. We get rules before communion.
What we learn on the spiritual path, or the mythical journey, is that the process of transformation, of dying to self, is far more profound than increasing our capacity to live moral lives. That’s essentially a Pharisaical misunderstanding of the whole idea, and in fact limits our ability to experience transformation, and to move toward wholeness. Moral capacity may come about as a byproduct of the journey, but it is never the main focus.
Dying to self means letting go of trying to bend the world to the shape our ego thinks it should be. It is a profound acceptance of what is. The paradox is, it’s that acceptance that enables the change.
We don’t get to the truth through effort, but through letting go. We don’t get to the truth through imposing our moral will on the world. We get there by allowing our suffering to connect to that of others. We get there through engaging. Through dying to the ego’s desires for affection, for status, for security, all illusory and temporary.
As Father Rohr puts it, this ongoing process of letting go at ever deeper levels allows us to be born again, and again, and again, and again.