On Being Self
自然 the natural self notion of Lao-Tze speaks to my longing in loneliness. Henri Nouwen writes of transforming loneliness into solitude. even at the sunset years, after half a century of pilgrimage in faith, i have not mastered the mastery of solitude. whether with people or with self, my loneliness never leaves. at sunset, in contemplation, i realize more the saving grace of God. i am learning to be alone with the alone * without be lonely. as loneliness slowly morphs into solitude, i am never more true to self. when in solitude, the natural true self Lao-Tze refers to is my real presence with my self.
This is only at kindergarten awareness of self discovery. i am but a novice in self awareness. many years of perpetrating a false self is difficult habit to break. before sunset, during those many years in community, i was never comfortable in my own skin. living a false self to others and with self was the only cope. it took a great intentionality to get through a day in falsehood. as a husband and as a father, as a pastor and a professor, i played a role, acted the part, pursued a purpose and fulfilled a task.
At sunset, perhaps for the first time, i experience a truer self, a natural truer self. this naturalism is freeing. when alone with the alone, i can truly be my self. more so, i can be comfortable with my true self. but there is danger here. when i am alone, my new found freedom can easily morph into reckless disregard for sobriety. my thoughts race wild in the muddy sludge of depravity. my thoughts easily submerge under unwholesome images. what Paul calls the works of the flesh: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing. my preoccupation transgresses this endless listing of the work of the flesh.
Lao-Tze believes that humanity is naturally good. my faith knows that he was wrong. his naturalism did not recognize original sin. this monk recognizes acutely how pervasive is sinful human nature. to experience a true presence is also to cope with the dark side of my true nature. You are a wild flower that never bloomed, a friend said to me in passing. little did he realize that his inadvertent observation defines my natural true self. his phrasing of who he thought i was emerged out of a twenty year friendship. he had engaged with me in every role i played everywhere – as son, as husband, as father, as pastor, and as his friend with others.
This comment over a drink was a profundity beyond our sensibility. he knew me more than i knew my self. little did we realize that this iconic image of a wild flower that never bloomed captures the essence of my truer self. this wasn’t the beginning of my self-recovery but it certainly lay the foundational idea for it. it becomes increasingly clear that in the three epochs of my journey – from adolescence to professional work, from church to denominational works, from seminary professor to a monk in retreat at sunset – i have always been a wild flower that never bloomed.
i lived for others; i acted for others. in the many guises of professional work and in the many performances of public holiness, i have perpetrated an image. this guarded image dictated almost everything i did and said in community. when in community, i was never in real presence. living a false self for so long, even in private, sometimes i forgot who i was and ignored what i had become. too many times, i actually believed that i was that person whom i was perpetrated.
This gift of insight from a friend provides light to see who i am and what i need to be. those four words – grace, righteous, winsome, rest – from God under the palm tree one summer day many years ago during the winter of my discontent – continues to speak to me daily. these four words massage meanings into my dailies: in all things, with all people, i need to live under God’s grace, it’s all you have; in all ways, with all people, do the right thing before God, it’s all you can do; in all means, with all people, be a winsome presence, it’s all you can be; in all circumstances, before all people, also retreat to solitude to rest in God.
These four words have been translated into Chinese calligraphy and are ever present in my living room. they are a consistent promise of the peace of God and a continuing invitation of the God of peace to practice his abiding presence. these words are a slow and certain light unto my inward path toward self discovery and self recovery. my contemplative life at sunset is to bloom a wild flower into a graceful, righteous, winsome and restful bouquet.
*the church ancients coined this interesting phrase to define solitude as a discipline of faith and of practicing the presence of God.