Discovering Your True Self
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
And Jesus summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” - Mark 8:34-38
There is a saying that is attributed to the 4th century Church Father and Archbishop of the See of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom: “The road to hell is paved by the skulls of erring priests and monks, and skulls of bishops are the lampposts that light the path.” I am not sure in what context Saint John Chrysostom uttered these words. But I think it would be fair if he said “The road to hell is paved by erring Christians! Erring clergy and lay people alike! But what he said is sobering. It is a rather stark reminder that religious people, Christians included, could be led astray from the path of God. We must remind ourselves that we can cloak our sinful and unjust selves with lofty God talk, next to flawless liturgies, flowery prayers and devotions, and feats of self-denial. We can be good at self-deception by convincing ourselves that we are better than who we truly are at the core of our being. We can be good at excusing our sins. We can be good at minimizing the consequence of our harmful actions. Our hearts and minds could be good liars like that serpent in the Garden of Eden who deceived and led others astray by convincing them that wrong is right, that evil is good.
The great American Trappist monk, the late Thomas Merton once said, “Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person, a false self.” We are made for God, and we are made for love of our neighbor. When Merton spoke about the “false self” he meant that self “who wants to exists outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love.” The self that is false is the self that desires to be the center of life, the self to which “everything else in the universe is ordered.” In other words, the false self sets itself up as god instead of God as the center of existence. Conversely, the true self is the one that surrenders itself to God, the self that recognizes God as One who gives it its true life, focus, purpose and meaning, the self who also live for the love of others. I think there is both false and true self in us. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in various letters of his as the “Old Adam” and the “New Adam.” The “Old Adam” is the part of our self which rebels against God and acts unlovingly towards others. The “New Adam” is that part of us which was born in our baptism in Christ, and hence live for Christ and his Gospel, and which supplants the Old Adam.
The other day, as I was doing my taxes, my tax preparer told me that one of the incomes I received last year from a relative was not reported to the IRS, meaning the IRS didn’t know I got the money. The implication was that since the IRS didn’t know it, I didn’t have to declare it and pay the taxes on it. But I said that we need to declare it and I need to pay tax on it because even if the IRS didn’t know, God knows. But that is not really the interesting point I want to make. What is notable was that I could detect in myself the feeling and deep sentiment that I was resentful that I had to do the right thing. Meaning, there was a part of me that wish I could get away from doing the right thing. That feeling arises the false self. There is always a part of us that wants to do the wrong thing, and resentful in doing the right thing.
In the Gospel today, our Lord said that we must take up our Cross and follow him; he challenges us to lose our lives because the more we save our lives the more we lose. We can only have life if we are willing to lose it. Let’s unpack that for a moment. The life we are called to lose is the life of the “false self.” The self that rebels against God must be given up. The self that oppresses others must be surrendered to God. The self that is self-centered must be “die.” To take up one’s Cross is to crucify the “false self” and “put it to death” (so to speak) in order that the new and true self comes to life- the new self that is in Christ which is God centered and grounded in love. If we hold on to the “false self,” then we forfeit the life of our truer selves. If we hold onto our “false selves”, then we forgo the beauty of the new self in Christ. We can never know our true self unless the false self is given up.
In Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s version has Jesus say: “Take up your Cross daily.” This dying to false self is something we need to do daily. That is why we examine our actions and the motives behind them daily to see whether or not they are motivated by the “false self.” Sometimes, the good things we do are motivated by self-aggrandizement to soothe our egocentric desires, or for other reasons, like money, prestige and the like, rather than for the love of God.
There is a monastery that I go to from time to time. In it, one can find many crosses with the image of the crucified Christ. Yet, I was told that in the monastic cells (bedroom) of the nuns, one can only find crosses that have no image of the suffering Christ. Only an "untenanted" empty cross hangs on the wall. The empty cross invites the monastic to take up the cross daily and crucify her "false self, and daily rise to a new life in Christ.
© 2015 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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