“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.” (Pg 36)
I first heard the terms “false-self” and “True Self” in Thomas Merton’s book, New Seeds of Contemplation. But it was in a Spiritual Direction conversation during our sabbatical that I first began to see my “pastor” identity as a false-self.
Merton defines the false-self as an “illusory person.” The identity we wish for others to see. The false-self is an identity that only exists in our imagination. Our imagined “person” is unknowable, un-affirmable, and unloveable…simply because it doesn’t exist. It is an imagined person…a false-self. Most often this false-self is defended and presented with the constructs of materialism, positions/titles, and projected reputation.
Everyone has a false self. And at the root of our spiritual formation is the unlearning of this false-self in order to discover our True-Self. This is the salvation journey: a dying of the false-self and a revealing of who we truly are as God’s beloved.
There was initially shock and then an overwhelming sense of relief when confronted with these words from my Spiritual Director (this is my best paraphrase): “Shane, perhaps you are discovering your identity as pastor is rooted in a false-self. If being pastor is an effort to gain familial and spiritual approval, it will never be found. Perhaps your True Self will only be discovered when you stop pursuing your identity in being a pastor.”
It’s not possible to offer here all the stories and experiences that led to this moment of clarity. In hindsight, it was a salvation-kind-of-experience…both a death and a new awakening in the same moment. It became clear that my spiritual journey would require a leaving. A leaving behind of the false-self of “pastor.”
Merton continues: “We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish most about ourselves—the ones we are born and raised with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to maintaining and expanding this false self, this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.
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 around 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, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
To be a saint means to be my true self. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I truly am and of discovering my true self, my essence or core.” (Pg 37).
I doubt I am alone in hiding my True Self behind the position of pastor. The pull of celebrity, the power of “pastoral influence,” the heroics of sacrifice, the accolades of attention…all feeds the false self. If not grounded in humility and under the authority of others…perhaps “pastor” is the most dangerous of titles a false-self can be built upon.
A year later, I now look back upon that awakening conversation and receive it as a gift. A gift of freedom from dread. A gift of grace. A release to pursue and be pursued by Love.
– Quotes from Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Shambhala: 2003), 36-37.