Reflections on Identity

We desire a strong and enduring sense of identity, essentially stable amidst all the changing circumstances of existence. But self-knowledge is arduous and elusive. And so we turn instead to making pictures of ourselves.

Such pictures are not necessarily deceptive. But they typically leave a lot out, and what they include reflects a sense of priority, of what is important and what isn’t. In other words, one’s picture of oneself is usually a complex kind of construction. And we learn to guard such constructions, carefully maintaining the borders which shape and sustain the identity we have assembled.

Thereby we remove from view those dimensions of ourselves which seem incoherent with the pictures we construct. And we can say that the difficulty of self-knowledge consists in the challenge of handling this incoherence differently, in some other way than by merely repressing it.

For whatever is merely repressed, although it undergoes expulsion from our picture of ourselves, doesn’t thereby become inactive, but its potency may even increase because of the invisibility we have accorded it. This is the teaching of St John of the Cross, for example. He says that with the help of grace we can overcome those expressions of our vices which we allow ourselves to see and acknowledge, and thereby reassure ourselves that the vices themselves are done away with. But in fact we remain subject to them all the more profoundly because they continue to express themselves in ways we disable ourselves from recognizing or addressing. And, unnervingly, he tells us that religious people are especially prone to this kind of failure of self-knowledge, because it is in their practice of religion itself, precisely in their self-understanding as religious subjects, that their vices tenaciously persist.

Repression, then, is a strategy of untruth. A picture of ourselves persuades us, and real self-knowledge is put out of reach. At least, it becomes unreachable by us. Someone else, however, may be able to see what is really going on in us more clearly than we can see it ourselves. And it is this which can make the kinds of dialogue we call confession and spiritual direction important constituents of our growth in self-understanding.

What we need to do, then, is not repress the incoherence in ourselves, but instead we need to try facing it, acknowledging the desires which render our pictures of ourselves untruthful, holding on to what needs to be held on to, and surrendering whatever needs to be surrendered. But this of course is a lot messier than repression, and much less reassuring. What gets interrogated here is our almost endlessly resilient and resourceful impulse to picture ourselves in self-satisfying ways. We are always more ambiguous, more compromised, more divided, than we want to be.

But it is here and nowhere else—here, in the field of our almost pathological self-regard—that Christ sows His grain of mustard seed.

It is, as He tells us in the Gospel, the least of all seeds; and this is because we make it so, from the soil of our self-love, our determination to picture ourselves untruthfully. Because of this determination we can fashion a place so inhospitable to what Christ wishes to do and to say that it all but obscures His Presence and His meaning for us. We have uncountably many ways of accomplishing this, of bringing the infinitely unfolding implications of the Gospel into submission to the demands of our self-love. Rather than face ourselves as we are, we prefer simplifications which reassure and excite us.

There’s infidelity in this, because it denies that Christ, and Christ alone, can elucidate our incoherence, our divided hearts and our fragmented selves. Instead, we prefer to try to handle it ourselves. And this amounts to denying that Christ can take us just as we are and yet make us whole.

For there is nothing we have to repress before it makes sense to approach Him. To imagine that there is is to fail to grasp Who He is. Forsakenness on the Cross, and dying, and the mystery of descending into Hell – all this He has undergone, precisely because only in undergoing it could He encompass the whole of our self-love, everything that it can mean, and redeem it from within. It is this sinless solidarity with our sinfulness which enables Him to heal our brokenness, the far-flung fragments of our lives, bringing them together, transformed, as the birds of the air are drawn from wherever they are and gathered into the branches of the fully-grown mustard tree. It is this solidarity, again, which makes Him mysteriously present to human experience, whatever the experience might be, as the leaven by which everything in us, without exception, can be encountered, changed and raised up.

In coming to Christ, then, we have nothing to fear in being who we are, nothing to fear in acknowledging who we are, even if what we acknowledge ourselves to be isn’t very attractive or very coherent. What we should fear, instead, is limiting what we are prepared to acknowledge about ourselves, and thereby limiting what we are prepared to offer to Him.

Of course there will always be more: more than we grasp, more than we are able to grasp. The urgency of self-knowledge has to be balanced by keeping in mind that we are finite beings, subject to a thousand limitations and contingencies. We must do what we can. But everything we do must have the form of placing ourselves in God’s hands, not in our own. We must surrender the illusion that, one day, we will succeed in fashioning a version of ourselves that will please Him and win Him over. In Christ, the Father is already won over, the Spirit has already been given, and there is nothing we can do except allow ourselves to be loved.

But allowing ourselves to be loved isn’t easy. The struggle really to believe that God loves us involves the profoundest of all challenges to our love of ourselves. For in the degree to which we strive to establish our worthiness before God, as if that were the ground of His embrace of us, to that precise degree we refuse His love and constrain what He can do for us. We must let Him carry us as He desires, unreservedly, in the absolute confidence that, from the foundation of the world, He loves us as we are.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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