I have been reading books on the true self and false self for decades—in part because of my interest in the places where the spiritual and psychological streams of human experience converge, and in part because of longings in the depths of my soul to be the authentic person that I know I am called in Christ to be. This book stands out from all others on the topic. It speaks with simplicity, elegance, and personal warmth. And it quickly demonstrates why uncovering our falsity and finding our true self-in-Christ plays such a vitally important role in Christian spiritual transformation.
Fr. Pennington is a Trappist monk who is best known for his many books on Centering Prayer. Although you do not need to know anything about this approach to prayer to appreciate the book, you will receive a wonderful introduction to it as a fringe benefit.
Questions such as “Who is my true self?” and “How can I get rid of my false ways of being?” might strike you as not very practical. Perhaps they are just the sort of things you might expect a monk to be concerned about, but too speculative for those of us who live our lives in the world. It is as if the author overhears your thoughts. On the first page of the book, he asserts that learning to live these questions of our identity has the potential to lead us into a joy and fulfillment that exceeds anything we have ever imagined. He says this has been his own experience. With a surge of hope, my ears perk up!
This, it turns out, was a rather helpful response because the first chapter introduces us to what he calls “The Listening That We Are.” I wonder what this has to do with the topic. But I quickly see the answer. Listening, he argues, is not simply something we do. “Our total being is a listening.” Everything we receive from outside us comes not simply through our senses but also through the filters of our perception—this including our prejudices. Rigid people hear little (or nothing) they do not already know. Open people hear things that continuously expand the self.
The point, he argues, is that “when I realize that I am a certain listening, I am taking the first step in the journey toward embracing my true self . . . My particular listening is necessarily partial. There are other listenings. And these can enrich me if I can add the richness of these other listenings to the listening that I am.”1
He has given me a starting point. He has already given me cause for reflection. He encourages me to rejoice in the uniqueness that I am—the uniqueness of my own vantage point on the world. But he challenges me to see the smallness of that vantage point when I think my way is God’s way. And without reference to the concept, he has given me a most helpful and eminently practical introduction to the false self.
Although only 127 pages long, the book is simply too rich for me to comment on chapter by chapter. Weaving seamlessly among such seemingly diverse ideas as the healing of memories, the transformation of consciousness through prayer, and lectio divina as a way to hear God’s Word freshly as direct personal revelation, the book centers on a profoundly simple and at the same time remarkably powerful framework for understanding both our falsity and the route to our truth in Christ.
Understanding the False Self
Let me start with his understanding of the false self. It contains the seeds of the truth of our self that is discovered by uncovering our falsity. In a sentence, “The false self is made up of what I have, what I do, and what people think of me.”2 It is, in short, an investment in a self that we assume will earn us love.
We clearly see the nature of the false self in the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11). Fr. Pennington suggests that these temptations are best understood as Christ’s struggles with three major potential false selves.
After forty days of fasting, Jesus would have been ravenous. The first attempted seduction by the tempter was to turn stones into bread—a temptation to power. But Jesus said no to the invitation to establish his identity on the basis of his doing, particularly doing something that was independent of submission to the authority of God. Jesus had “a better food”—the Word of God (Matthew 4:4).
Then the tempter invited him to throw himself from the top of the temple into the crowds below, so they would immediately recognize him as the Messiah. Again, Jesus rejected the temptation. He chose not to base his identity on prestige. And in so doing, he took a further step to anchor his identity in the Father, not in what people thought of him.
Finally, the tempter offered him all the kingdoms of the world. But once again Jesus rejected the offer, refusing to find his identity in possessions. He knew himself in terms of poverty of spirit and the loving will of the Father. He knew, therefore, that material possessions were a poor substitute for this.
The temptation of Jesus was to live out of his false self and reject his true identity. He was tempted to place his identity in what he did (power), had (possessions), or manipulated (prestige), instead of what he was.
Jesus fully knew who he was in God. He alone, therefore, can show us how to die to the false ways of being. This unpacking of the significance of the temptation of Christ speaks powerfully to me. It gives me hope. Jesus points the way to my moving through and out of my falsity. Seeing how he rejected the seductions of power, prestige, and possessions helps me see how I have succumbed to them. There is no freedom until I understand the nature and extent of my imprisonment. There can be no true self until I appreciate the extent of my bondage to my false ways of being.
Route to Our True Self
The route to our true self is, according to the author, to enter into the practice of pure prayer where we learn simply to be in God’s presence. “Or perhaps, more accurately,” he suggests, “it is not even being, but allowing God to be in us and express God’s being in us, in our being. We are no longer doing anything. Let it be done unto me according to your Word.”3 It is learning to let go, “to surrender to the Divine who alone creates the true self.”
Once I do this, I no longer identify with the concocted false self made up of what I do, what I have, and what others think of me. This is the place of freedom, joy, and peace described by Paul as “I live, but actually it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” Once again, the longings in the depth of my soul are stirred. This is the Spirit within—calling me home. This is the life I want. This is my calling. This is my true identity. I feel a fresh readiness to abandon the false places of illusory security and significance that I have created as I have sought to create a self, rather than receive the self that is given to me in Christ.
Let me point to just one more of the many gifts I have received from this book. Chapter Six discusses the contribution of Thomas Merton to this question of the true and false self—something that would be well worth the price of the book even if this chapter was its total substance. The reason this is so important is that Merton, widely recognized as one of the great spiritual masters of our century, has so much help to offer on this topic. And Pennington, a fellow Trappist, knew Merton and gives us an intimate and personal walk through his life and writings that makes Merton’s insights even more accessible and lively than they otherwise are. Listen in on just a bit of his summary of Merton’s understanding—focusing on Merton’s assertion that our true self is found in the personal experiential knowing of God’s love.
Self-realization in this true religious sense is less an awareness of ourselves than it is an awareness of the God to whom we are drawn in the depths of our own being. We become real…not when we pause to reflect upon our self as an isolated individual entity, but rather when, transcending ourselves and passing beyond reflection, we center our whole soul upon the God who is our life. That is to say we fully ‘realize’ ourselves when we cease to be conscious of ourselves in separateness and know nothing but the one God who is above all knowledge.4
Quoting Merton, he notes that the realization of the true self “means that we become transformed from within by God’s inner Presence in order to become like God, living in God, seeing as God sees, loving as God loves all creation—with compassion. God does it in us, not we.”5
Perhaps the most important thing I can say about this book is that it has helped ground me in the truth of my existence—my relationship to God and my identity in Christ. Some books give me ideas. I value ideas enough that I am seldom unhappy even if all I get is understanding. But this book has given me much, much more. It has put me more directly in touch with my life in Christ. For that, I thank Fr. Pennington. And I thank God.
Dialogue with the Author
DGB: One of the many things I appreciated about this book was its personal tone. But I’d love to hear even more about your own journey through your false ways of being toward your true self. Looking back, can you say anything more about what was most helpful to you in this?
MBP: Entering a monastery, one sells what he has, gives to the poor, and follows. You have nothing and expect everything from God through the community. But it was still possible to sustain a false self based on what I had, what I did, and what others thought of me. I did a lot—created Cistercian Publications and the Institute of Cistercian Studies, organized the Cistercian Symposia and Conferences, was a periti (advisor) at Vatican II, worked on the new Code of Canon Law and the Constitutions of my Order, and taught Centering Prayer all over the world, and published sixty books and a thousand articles.
The litany turns my stomach. I know it doesn’t change one bit who I am.
Only when I stop trying to make something of myself can I begin to perceive my true self and live out of that reality. It was the leveling grace of the Spirit, blowing powerfully through the Church at the Second Vatican Council that took care of the phoniness arising from what others thought of me. I was by the mercy of God just one of the pilgrim People of God.
DGB: Have there been any particular personal disciplines that have most helped you cooperate with this “leveling grace of the Spirit”?
MBP: It has been the daily encounter with our Master in lectio that has challenged me, made me honest, brought me face to face with my true self. And it continues to do this. And it needs to continue because the false self continues to rear its phony face. I am addicted to what others think of me. And only my Higher Power can liberate me from this addiction. One day at a time, the truth sets me free. I am a fruitless fig tree that deserves to wither, but he mercifully digs around it, manures it, and gives it yet another season of grace. As an old man, even as I can feel the pain and indignity of the digging and manuring, listening to our Master, I apprehend some perception of the mystery of the Cross.
DGB: I appreciate your imagery. “Digging and manuring” can be both hard work and unpleasant, and the struggle with the false self is certainly that. But can you say anything more about the freedom you refer to?
MBP: There is greater freedom on many levels. I no longer worry or even care unduly what others think. I am my own man. I no longer do things to prove to myself or others that I have worth, or to obtain things that will establish my worth. I am and I do what I want to do the way I want to do it and when I want to do it—of course, not callously but appropriately as love calls it forth. And I am free not to do but simply to be because I know my beauty and reality, created by God’s grace, draw down his divine favor upon the human family.
DGB: You mentioned the importance of lectio divina as a way of meeting our Master. Can you briefly describe what form this takes for you? How exactly does this help you meet your true self?
MBP: I see lectio as involving three steps—first a step in, then one of abiding, and finally a step out. Faith is of primal importance here. I believe the Scriptures are God’s Word; that God abides in them. I believe, too, what Jesus said at the Last Supper: The Advocate, Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. So I step into lectio by acknowledging and even rejoicing in the Presence and asking Holy Spirit to help me really to learn. I try to let go of my confining parameters and open myself to the expansive and expanding Word of God. Then I listen, letting the Lord speak through the words of the Sacred Text. I listen actively, letting the Word engage me, questioning, not like the incredulous Zachary but like the faithful Virgin, seeking information and direction. Sometimes as I listen a “word” really strikes me, breaking through the amor of my false self, illuminating new sectors of my being, now seen under the Divine Light. I have a “word” to take with me. Other days there is no theophany; no word seems to speak to me. In that case, before saying my thank you to the gracious Lord who has spoken to me, asking the help of Holy Spirit, I choose a “word”. In and through this “word” the Lord walks with me during the following hours as I let it resound in my mind and heart. As a part of the amazing grace’s bounty, this “word” will bring to my ongoing journey the presence and light of the Lord, exposing phoniness and enabling me to laugh at the false self and let go of its masquerading.
I might sum this up as follows: Come into the Presence and call upon Holy Spirit. Listen for some time. Thank the Lord and take a “word.”
DGB: You call yourself an old man. That makes me wonder about how the struggle to be one’s true self intersects with life stages. Any comments on this? What challenges does your present stage of life pose to living the truth of your being?
MBP: With a very broad brush I would paint life’s stages: (1) the years when we first create the false self with our initial efforts to establish the identity of our false self through doing things that impress; (2) the years we maintain the false self with all our doing and acquiring; and (3) the gradually overlapping years that lead to the terminal step where we have the wisdom not only to let off seeking to project a false self but begin to dismantling it under the light and with the assistance of Holy Spirit, finding joy in coming into the freedom of the truth.
I find that the habits of a lifetime constantly threaten this journey into Truth. It is dreadfully painful at times not only to peel off the veneer of phoniness but to have to admit to myself how phony it has been and face the reality that others will also discover this truth. Honest sharing with others, such as one finds in twelve-step meetings, is powerfully edifying. What others can do with the help of the Higher Power, I too can do. The challenge is to keep going, never saying “enough,” but relentlessly and joyfully continuing to seek to be who I am—nothing more and nothing less.
DGB: Thank you, my friend. I met you as a spiritual companion on the way through your books, and I thank God you have come to be a spiritual friend in the flesh. Your life—and your writings—encourage me to settle for nothing less than my true self-in-Christ. I am deeply thankful for this.