Dearest monks and artists,
One of my favorite lines from the Rule of Benedict is “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (RB 53:1). The heart of hospitality is to welcome in that which is most unknown, most strange, most discomfiting, as the very face of the divine into our lives.
To take this invitation even a step further, it isn’t just the strangers that arrive at our outer doors who call us to this hospitality. Perhaps an even greater call is to welcome in the parts of ourselves we feel embarrassed by, ashamed of, angry at, or afraid of, as the very image of God.
The Psalms as Inner Mirror
My husband and I pray lectio divina every morning together, that ancient monastic practice of contemplative reading of the scriptures. We also pray what is known as lectio continua, or the ancient practice of choosing a book of the scriptures and then praying through a couple of verses each day until we reach the end. This is one version of monastic stability, of staying with something through all of its ups and downs. We pray texts we might otherwise avoid. Last year we worked through the Song of Songs in this way, and now we are praying the Psalms one by one.
We recently found ourselves in the midst of Psalm 10, a difficult psalm of lament. Instead of reading all the way through to the end and finding immediate resolution in the psalmist's cry of hope to God in the closing lines, we have been sitting each day with two verses at a time, with haunting questions about God's presence echoing through the text.
Even more disturbing are the images of the "enemies," the ones whose "mouths are filled with cursing, deceit, and opposition." Or those who "murder the innocent" and "stealthily watch for the helpless." The psalmist later calls out to God to "break the arm of the wicked." As I sit with these images I want to turn away and say these have nothing to do with me and my peaceful life.
Yet, in prayer the invitation arises: What are the ways I deceive myself? What are the places of opposition within my own heart? How do I "murder" my own innocence? Or take advantage of that which feels helpless within? How do I fuel my own self-destruction?
I am discovering the psalms as a beautiful gateway of awareness into my own inner multitude.
Our heads and hearts are full of crazy, often self-defeating, competing voices. We are each a multitude of differing energies and personalities. We contain within the parts that feel tender and ashamed, alongside the courageous and fierce, the joyful and giddy. It often feels easier to simply push the voices away, but it is exhausting.
A lot of our inner conflict comes from our stubborn refusal to make space for the multiplicity we contain. But as Benedict reminds us, we are Beloved. Even the shadowed, rejected parts of ourselves offer us a window to the divine. We each have parts of ourselves we try to push away.
These voices often fight within us for primacy. They each want to define who we are. Especially loud can be the inner judge, who thinks she knows everything. She sounds very authoritative.
There is a deeper and wiser voice, which is the Self, or sometimes called the Inner Witness. It is the calm and compassionate part that can sit in the center of all this chaos and behold it all. It is the part we develop through meditation and is not carried away by conflicting inner demands. This is the voice of the Soul.
When we continue to follow the judge, or the inner critic, or any of the especially loud and forceful voices inside of us, without recourse to the whole range of who we are, we often find ourselves full of self-doubt, insecurity, and become depleted.
These voices often originated as a way of protecting ourselves. The judge can help us to discern what is true and good. The critic can help cut away the excess. Through loving attention we can start to unravel some of the fierceness we feel within and discover care there at the root.
Not all of the voices within us are "negative." Many of these energies can offer us tremendous resources for living in an empowered way. Some of my favorites are the inner warrior, who helps me to set healthy boundaries. My inner orphan reminds me that I have a lot of tenderness within, which just wants to be seen and not fixed. My inner lover calls me to follow my passions in life, to remember that what I am in love with—whether ideas or communities or people—will ignite vitality in my work.
These have their shadow elements too. An overeager warrior can become destructive or set boundaries that don't let anyone in. An orphan who feels completely abandoned can continue the cycle by cutting off relationships out of fear of being hurt. And the lover who is out of balance may find him or herself envious of the others who follow what lights them on fire.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
In our longing for new life and vision, we may be tempted to run away from ourselves by moving to a new physical location, or internally cutting ourselves off from things that feel painful or shameful about ourselves. We deny the existence of parts of ourselves we feel ashamed of.
The desert monks were brilliant at confronting this human pattern and knew the fundamental truth that no matter where you go, you always carry yourself with you. Seems like an obvious truth on one level, and yet it is human nature to desire to flee at times.
Abba Matrona said “we carry ourselves wherever we go.” An anonymous desert source tells us “Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you.”
The desert monks knew that we are an inner multitude. They knew the deep desire to run away from our angry selves, our selves which don’t conform to what we think a holy person should look like, our selves which embarrass us or want to rebel against the status quo. We carry all the parts with us.
Our temptation is to believe that this relationship is too challenging, this job is too difficult, this place I live is too boring, or whatever our inner chatter may tell us. The greatest pilgrimage is within, where we learn to welcome in the wholeness of who we are. If we are always feeling a gnawing dissatisfaction, the solution is not to find the next right book or program to fulfill us.
This does not mean we are never to leave a relationship, or job, or home that aren’t life-giving (or even worse, actively destructive). What it does mean is that over time we become aware of our patterns of responding and relating. We notice what situations “push our buttons” and cause us to have a strong energetic response. These always point to some place within ourselves that is struggling for freedom, that is limited by judgment or wounding.
When we feel tempted to run away to a cave in imitation of the desert elders, we might ask ourselves if we are fleeing responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. We might observe the ways what we are trying to flee travels right alongside of us the whole way.
The passions, for the desert monks, were the inner wounds and places within that required healing. They are part of this inner multitude. One perspective on the passions was to view them as something positive, as natural impulses, rather than originating from a more sinful source.
In fact, many of the desert elders believed that the source of the passions is from God and when they are directed toward their purpose, only then we are free from their tyranny. In this view, theologian John Chryssavgis writes, “the aim is to illumine them, not eliminate them; they are not to be destroyed but mastered and even transfigured.” Our passions are simply our energies misdirected. When our passions are distorted then we feel divided. When we are able to realign ourselves with God, we become integrated and whole again. Our true passion is an energy that can direct us back to the sacred source of our being.
Chryssavgis refers to a powerful passage from Abba Isaiah in his Ascetic Discourses, where he claims that all of the passions including anger and jealousy, are actually bestowed by God with a sacred purpose and direction. Because we have misdirected the passions, they have become distorted. Anger was originally for the purpose of fighting injustice, jealousy for the purpose of imitating the behavior of the saints.
In more contemporary language, we might consider the passions as distorted when the ego is in control of their direction. Then we desire what fills the ego, whether praise, or power, or what we crave. When we feel enslaved by what we desire, then we know we have gone down the wrong path. The spiritual journey is always one toward freedom, and an essential aspect is to direct the passions and desire toward God. The more we become clear about our places of wounding, the more free we can become because we are no longer controlled by unconscious impulses.
Gregory Mayers describes it this way in Listen to the Desert:
“The task, then, is not to avoid what makes me fearful, ashamed, or angry, or to entertain it, or even to act the emotions out. Both efforts, repression and expression, can lead to an emotional trap that bogs one down in the anger, shame, or fear. The task is to attend to them, acknowledge them, give them their full and rightful place in the community of the self.”
When the passions are healed and integrated they become the source for tremendous energy for good in the world and our ability to be a healing presence to others. But first we must reclaim all that has been discarded, all that has been denied. When we are unaware of or are in denial of our own shadow we become dangerous. The goal of the spiritual life is in part to recognize both the joy and sorrow at the heart of human existence.
The Self knows us as Beloved
The Self or Witness within us always speaks with tremendous compassion, always invites us to begin again. This voice can behold and welcome in all of the parts who want to speak, and not be overwhelmed by the demands of a single one. The Self can see where the shadowed and hurting places are and respond with gentleness and kindness, and yet also can call in a powerful fierceness when needed. The Self knows all of ourselves as Beloved.
We cultivate the inner Witness or Self through practices of meditation, mindfulness, and noticing. As we give ourselves time and attention to the inner movements of our heart we can begin to see the patterns, and we can practice responding to ourselves with love.
Monastic wisdom tells us that hospitality is key. Welcoming in the stranger, even if that stranger is me, or at least parts of me. The psalms can become a mirror to the shadow places within me. But other verses can also call forth the beauty and longings of my heart. They can remind me of the grace found in boundaries, in tenderness, in passion. They help to remind me that I am Beloved.
(This reflection first appeared in an issue of Weavings journal)
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner