I’ve recently being reading Father Richard Rohr’s contemplations on the true self. In this time of great change and adaptation, Rohr’s words resonate with a reordering that is naturally happening as we adjust to living with the pandemic. Within this reordering, I’m sure you will agree, our sense of self is called into question. Who am I if I can’t go into my work space and mix with colleagues, if I can’t visit my family, if I can’t go to church, if I can’t shop and buy and socialise as I once did? And for anyone who was already experiencing loss or transition as a relationship ended, a loved one died or a stage of life as a parent or child or employee came to an end then this sense of self was already fairly vulnerable.
Rohr, I feel offers a very helpful model to help us reflect on different aspects of our self. Each of us has different “selfs” that we show to certain people. Sometimes we call them a “persona” – the person we show to those we don’t know so well or whom we have just met. We show another self to those we know and trust and then there are very few people who get to know our true self – warts, worries and all. Rohr describes how only the whole self is ever ready for the whole God. Therefore if we are reordering our lives – in such a time as this – then this will involves moving beyond our usual mindset toward a more spacious, contemplative knowing. In fact, if we are going to rebuild society, we first need to be rebuilt ourselves. Rohr suggest that good mental and spiritual health, a healthy psyche, lives within at least three levels of meaning. We might imagine three domes, or containers. The first and smallest dome is called My Story, the second larger dome is Our Story, and the third and largest dome is The Story.
In the first dome is our private life: those issues that make you special, inferior or superior, right or wrong, depending on how “I” see it. “I” and my feelings and opinions are the reference points for everything. Jesus teaches that we must let go of exactly this, and yet this is the very tiny and false self that contemporary people take as normative, and even sufficient.
The next realm of meaning is about Us. Our Story is the dome of our group, our community, our country, our church—perhaps our nationality or ethnic group. These groups are the necessary training grounds for belonging, attaching, trusting, and loving. Unfortunately, some people just spend their lives defending the boundaries and “glory” of their group. Group egocentricity is even more dangerous than personal egocentricity. It looks like greatness when it is often no more than disguised egotism. Loyalties at this level have driven most of human history—and most wars—up to now.
The third and largest dome of meaning is THE Story, the realm of universal meaning and the patterns that are always true in every culture. This level assures and insures the other two. It holds them together in sacred meaning. In fact, we could say that the greater the opposites we can hold together, the greater soul we usually have. Think of the moral and spiritual point of all good stories we are told and that we tell our children and you will find THE Story there.
Biblical religion, at its best, honours and combines all three levels: personal journey as raw material, communal identity as school and training ground, and an encounter with a sense of otherness, the Divine, as the integration and gathering place for all the parts together. True transcendence frees us from the tyranny of I Am and the idolatry of We Are. Still, when all three are taken seriously, as the Bible does very well, we have a full life—fully human and fully divine.
Throughout history we see that the person who lives most of their life grounded within THE Story is the mystic, the prophet, the universal human, the saint, the whole one. These are the people who look out at the smaller picture with eyes as wide as saucers because they observe from the utterly big picture—with love. If we hope for societal reconstruction, it will come from people who can see reality at all three levels simultaneously, honouring the divine level and ultimately living inside of the great story line.
This week’s prayer :
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. [Please add your own intentions.] . . . Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, amen. (by Father Richard Rohr).
This week’s music: