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Persona gets the jitters: Is God alone enough?

Persona gets the jitters: Is God alone enough?


Persona gets the jitters

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26, NRSV).

How does Persona fare as we seek to deepen our faith quest and to open more of our person to relational encounters with God? Persona, who works so hard to cobble together an identity and construction of self—a mask often referred to as the “false self”—which is most acceptable to ourselves, to others, and to cultural norms, would take little or no comfort in the stillness and silence of our prayerful solitude. Persona’s unsettlement must surely amplify as this relational engagement invites us beyond the safer regions of mind and will to embrace our affectivity, our body, our emotions, our imagination, along with our wonderment; regions previously held in check under Persona’s ever vigilant eye. And yet, what will be completely destabilising will be how the rich metaphoric and parabolic language of Christian spirituality—nakedness before God, rebirth in Spirit, springs of living water, abandonment, boundless unknowing, living flames of love, dark night, and divine union—slips beneath the radar to catch Persona unawares. One might imagine the much depleted Persona sulking along the edges of consciousness, struggling to contain its rage, desperately gathering-up any disaffected emotions, whilst keeping its disruptive and undermining tactics as subtle as possible. “Subtle” would have to be Persona’s catchcry!

With the gospels giving considerable space to the counter-movements, resistances, and negative spirits that undermine  the “good news”, it could be useful to incline our inner ear to the persistent though muffled voice of Persona—the same false-self building entity which: feels duty-bound to subvert our most feeble attempts at loving to ensure that there is sufficient love for us; knocks unrelentingly on the doors we try to close against it for our solitude our silence and our prayer for fear of us proceeding without it; and, nurtures seeds of doubt that anything larger than its closest colleague Ego would ever be enough for our survival in a dangerous and complex world. God’s love alone will never be enough for Persona! But if your task is constructing acceptable masks, you would never admit this, not even in a letter to Self.    

Dear Self,

I write from the recovery ward of the hospital as I slowly edge towards my rehabilitation. There has been much misunderstanding, even treachery, with those underhand efforts to dislodge me, along with other of our esteemed colleagues. Your disapproval of my role and your suggestion that I had been self-absorbed, negligent in my care, and highly secretive, deeply saddens me. My background work in your life has been quiet, steady, tireless and mostly unacknowledged. But I now must take pen and paper to set the record straight for myself and also for of our closest friend and colleague, the recently maligned Ego. Ego, as we all know, has led us to where we are today, even convincing us of the need to deepen our spirituality; a choice which, as Ego’s most fervent convert, has put me in hospital recovery awaiting my rehabilitation.   

Where would you be without this silent custodian of things past, the one who slaved on your behalf to ensure that your traumas, wounds, neglect and unmet needs remain exactly where they belong; in the past and behind us. How hard I worked with Ego and Fear to protect you from the impact of your deep and potentially debilitating childhood wounds and their afflictive emotions. You know it took a team of us to fill the huge breaches that occurred in the supposed unconditional love of your parents? How do you think you continued to operate so well as supposedly responsible adults neglected of your most basic needs for safety and security, for affection and esteem and for the power and control,? (Father Thomas Keating opened my eyes to this). It was with our help and on our invisible crutches, that you continued to do what you as a child needed to do; to keep out of the road, not to fuss, build your school grades, keep that smile on your face, and act as if you had no care in the world! Could you even imagine the energy and vigilance involved in enabling you to function well in order to keep the love, affection and approval of the same adults who had, often unbeknown to them, hurt and neglected you?  

Psychologists and mystics would agree that pain, of the kind we kept hidden from you, doesn’t simply evaporate with our good and holy intentions. Rather, we had to find internal hiding places to prevent your pain becoming manifest and doing you great and lasting damage. Fear, whom you are tempted to demote and relegate to a minor alarm function akin to scanning for snakes and spiders, proved to be a most diligent and committed sentry. If, as you claim, Brother David Steindl-Rast has been teaching you gratitude of heart, you might at least extend to those who brought you through those dark and dangerous times relatively unscathed.

In spite of your negativity towards us, and in our real desire for clarity, confession and reconciliation—significant aspects of your present spiritual vision—I would like to confess some of the difficulties that arose in protecting you. Pain containment escalated over time. Events analogous to early trauma continued to occur, threatening to trigger bad memories, nightmares and floods of afflictive emotions. Ego would convene emergency meetings to consider how best to enlarge the original containment structures; hiding places that gradually grew into large yet invisible storage silos. Fear, a loose cannon at times, could be over-zealous and unsettle some of our more emotional colleagues, causing you unwarranted alarm. Ego would then activate states of inner emergency, which unfortunately could mean numbing you for short periods—manifest in temporary bouts of feeling down and indecisiveness—to ensure you would not act without constraint, while I worked hard to minimise collateral damage and avoid any public exposure.

I have to confess to you that our internal work is not getting easier as we get older. In our youth there were plenty of things into which we could channel your negative energy. Some distractions were absolutely necessary. There was always the lurking danger that your shame, grief, anger and angst could breach the surface. We would bear the full brunt of such incursions, returning all we could behind protective barriers, whilst finding legitimate external targets for any overflow. The most creative of such channelling was how we morphed your righteous indignation into your pursuit of social justice, bringing you much acclamation. Internally managing your shame and guilt, especially when your anger and angst would latch onto the weakness, cowardice, treachery, and hate in others, was challenging. There was no way we would envisage your falling into despair about your own condition. Grief’s best outlet was in your weeping over the injustice of others, rather than any public expression of your own personal losses. Dr. Carl Jung would have been most satisfied with our care of your shadow parts.  In the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount we took your poverty of spirit firmly in hand, contained your mourning and brought you meekly and humbly to where you are today.

There are some regrets and now, as part of my recovery, would be a good time for confession. Just a few of our orchestrated distractions stayed on to become slightly addictive. There was no desire for you to pay any long-term price for keeping your pain hidden. I may have overplayed the capacity of your own will power to keep you on track, but am left to appeal to it more and more to stop you falling right into more addictive patterns. On the plus side I have been encouraging you in more positive pursuits, such as giving your ever inquiring mind to your spiritual exploration. Such projects are sometimes called, “positive addictions”!  

This writing has been cathartic for me, bringing me closer to my rehabilitation and to realising how I now need to get ready to come right on board your spiritual quest. I have even begun to dip into some of your newer books, even about the ancients. Of course it is about your wholehearted love of God! St. Bernard of Clairvaux has been teaching me that we must help you step beyond your love of God for your own sake. We are most happy to love you for God’s sake. What a wonderful motive! With St. Augustine, we know what is “restless”, and with teachers of silent prayer we are experts on the monkey mind. I am on Thomas Merton’s page regarding the true and false self, and even consider this my territory; my expertise! There is much for you to devour and to understand. This is a whole new venture, something, as these writers say, “to fall into”, or to “fall upwards” with Father Richard Rohr! Take courage, my dear Self. Know that we are always around to support you whatever happens!

Do I have reservations? Perhaps there is a little uncertainty and the risk that you might be captured by something more than you can handle. I would encourage you to walk on well made pathways, to add firm principles to those you already have, and to always look for ways of being a good example to others. I have looked briefly at some of the new prayer practices. I would like to see you doing these to the best of your ability. I believe that I, along with some of our colleagues, can help you master all of these methods. Could I respectfully suggest you begin by ordering a proper prayer stool, a Rublev icon to be hung in your exact line of vision, and a decorative candle in which to harbour the Living Flame of Love? If this is the path you have chosen then we are here to support you, to encourage you to do it well, and to assist you to quickly become a shining example to others. With your support team beside you in this venture, then in the words of Mother Julian, “all shall be well.”

With your best interest at heart and warm wishes for our continuing and much more spiritual collaboration,