Tell all the truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind—
—Emily DickinsonEmily Dickenson, in Good Poems by Garrison Keiller (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002) 230.
The true self is something we best notice with a sideways glance—out of the corner of our eye. It can be like observing our reflection as we pass a store window and being surprised by what we see. It is hard to perceive accurately when we look directly at ourselves. Our defensiveness may be high even when we desire transformation—and maybe then most of all. The false self is so loud and sure, blatantly shaping our thoughts, words, and ways that we wonder at the true self’s more modest sensibilities. And yet we yearn to live out of an authenticity where God and we are deepest friends—not blurred by our enculturation and not fearful how we’ll appear to anyone, even ourselves.
One of the gifts of spiritual direction is that it enables us to present ourselves willingly to God and to God’s dreams for us. We enter spiritual direction, often hoping to give up illusory facades, to let go of judging and be willing to notice whatever arises. We realize how mixed we are inside and out, but we desire to be open to grace. We even acknowledge our fears that some of the “real truth” could leak out past our best efforts to appear wise, decent, loving, kind—even godly.
Let’s listen in on a spiritual direction conversation:
Directee: It was one of those days. Busyness from leaping out of bed until the end. And it felt good. Everything hummed. Efficiency, competency, accomplishment. It felt as if everything was under control—like I had it all and was flying. Yes! God and I were in full swing. I got a lot done. I received terrific feedback from my coworkers and learned that I’ll get a bonus, so we can buy the DVD player we’ve been considering.
Two days later, I awakened with a different sort of awareness.
I found myself singing, worshiping, quiet, grateful, actually resting in God. It was so complete—nothing I brought about. It seemed that it was gently given, and I moved through the day with a freedom that surprised me. Comparing the two days and how they began and developed, I asked myself, “Who lives in this body anyway? Will the real me please stand up? What do I think is important? What does God value in this life?”
Director: Sounds fascinating. Could you say more?
Directee: Maybe. I’m not sure. I can try…but I think I’d have a better chance at it from a different place.
Director: What do you mean?
Directee: Well, my In-Charge Me came through the door to talk with you after a tightly scheduled morning, and even though we started with prayer, I’m still racing inside. If we could have a few more minutes of silence, I’d like to invite God to help me let go of my surface clatter. I’m in such high gear.
Director: That sounds good. When you’re ready to talk, you can begin.
(We hear the directee desiring to be in a centered place, a recollected space, where she thinks she might have a chance at noticing more.)
Directee: Thanks for the quiet. I needed that. Now I feel more able to pay attention to our conversation.
I find that my perceptions are different when I begin “in” God—when I’ve made some intentional turn toward inviting God to “be near, be present, come in.” There is something going on here about God respecting my boundaries. It feels as if I’m acknowledging that I am not sufficient alone and that I want to be open, willing, and available to God, with God. When I’m feeling especially courageous, I may pray something like, “God beyond the God I know and have words for, please be with me, the person beyond whom I know and have words for.”
Director: And today?
Directee: Well, today I’d like to explore a little.
Director: Would you like to talk about the two days you began describing?
Directee: Yes. I guess I’m less sure about the goodness of the first day when I thought that God and I were accomplishing a lot.
Director: Why is that? It seems that some days we are intensely involved with being God’s people in the world, and other days we are more aware of just being God’s.
Directee: I agree with you. But I’m aware that the qualities of my heart were different on the two days. In retrospect, it felt as if something was missing on the first day. I’ve had the most peculiar sensation that I was missing, that I was functioning like some kind of machine. Even though it felt good to get so much done, I began questioning my criteria for evaluating my days. I heard myself valuing my life because of what I did, what other people thought of my performance, and what I could buy.
That sounded off-key, very attuned to my culture, not so congruent with my faith.
Director: What does that suggest to you?
Directee: First of all, I’m glad God showed me that stuff in such a gentle way.
It didn’t feel as if God was saying, “You’re a bad person.” It was more like, “I love you, Little One. How are things going?” In prayer I began to pay attention to the driven quality of my life during the early part of the week, and my heart and the questions that arose. (Tapers off into silence which lasts for several minutes):
Director: And how does that seem now?
Directee: Hopeful. I’ve begun to experiment with my prayers, asking for grace to recognize more of how God calls me to be as I plan my days, not just at the beginning of already scheduled days. I’d like to have more awareness that the “real me” is engaged. I don’t just mean that about “busyness” or not. It’s more about my seeing that I frequently function out of cultural stereotypes—filling roles. I know what’s called for and just settle right into a pattern. That troubles me.
Directee: Because I think God desires me to experience more fullness, delight, joy in authentic living. Sometimes the reality I most need to see is just out beyond the edges of my conscious awareness. Once again, I see I have to trust God that whatever I truly need to recognize will be shown me in God’s good time and way. Ugh! There’s a part of me that argues with that. I do like to be in charge. I’d be grateful if that driving control stuff could be put to final rest. I get impatient.
Do you hear me, God?
The “already but not yet” is often apparent in spiritual direction conversations. When we continue to seek a deepening relationship with God, we may notice our struggle for authenticity. We discover our particular mix of mask and truth and become more familiar with the interplay between our taking control and our being willingly available to God—between our willingness and our willfulness. But even with this growing awareness, there will always be much that remains hidden.
When teaching a group of people who knew very little about spiritual direction, one director said:
It was really hard to describe all of this to people. It all seemed so counter-cultural. To live in
God’s presence meant to focus on who you are more than what you do, on listening rather than speaking out, on being drawn to things rather than pushing to make things happen, on letting go rather than seizing control. It was radical and freeing. Just as Jesus is radical and freeing. And I also noticed that the more I took time to fill up with God’s presence, the more effective I became at emptying myself out into service.Vicha Jessie “Jessie Vicha’s Witness” Christos Alumni Network News, February, 2003.
A man who has participated in spiritual direction for five years says, “I thought I’d be in better shape by now after being a person of faith almost all my life and being involved in spiritual direction for a few years. But I find that as I continue to be intentional about nurturing my relationship with God, I’m changing and being changed in ways that surprise me.”
Teasing apart manifestations of true and false selves within our own personalities is often more subtle than this brief spiritual direction conversation might suggest. But the way that it occurs is not. It is when we are open to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, blissfully off guard, that we are more likely to recognize our own ploys and facades.
Shaping our questions can help us in our process:
- What in my thinking and behavior seems to draw me toward God? Toward listening for God’s intentions and nudges, calling me to question my ways of being and relating in the world?
- When am I likely to notice my own false-self behaviors so that I have the opportunity to explore them with God and ask for the transformation I desire?
- What relationships encourage me to live more congruently with the true self? How do I make space for these?
The true self is shy.
- How do I encourage a shy person?
- How do I make space for the shy one who dwells in me?
Authentic self is about freedom—freedom to hear and follow God. We can support and encourage this freedom by paying attention in the midst of daily life and through times set aside for spiritual practices such as prayer, solitude, and spiritual direction.
Following the Spirit’s invitations, the true self thrives in cooperation with God. When we live responsively with God, we accomplish some different things—and some things differently than we would have chosen without God’s guidance. Our attunement with the Holy Spirit’s presence carries us along a life path that is more satisfying, fulfilling, and worthwhile than anything we could envision or choose alone. Our true self recognizes that God who created us in the divine image is present with us and invites life-giving and transforming thoughts, choices, and behaviors.
Many spiritual direction conversations revolve around perceived changes:
Directee: I’ve been thinking about who I want to be.
Director: Sounds like a big project.
Directee: Yes and no. I’ve spent years focusing on who I want to be.
Now I seem to be thinking more often about who God wants me to be.
That shifts my perspective somewhat, but it’s still a lot the same. I was reflecting on my thoughts and behaviors that did not line up with Scripture. I’d try to modify my behavior at least to look like a better Christian. But I find that’s changing—I mean the way I do it is changing. (Pauses and looks out the window.)
Director: (After a long silence) Where are you going with that?
Directee: I guess it’s more about “how” I’m going with that, rather than “where.”
Directee: Much more gently. I’m more aware that I’m not in charge, and there are lots of changes I’d like to make in my personality that don’t happen when I address them head on. It’s as if something in me “digs in,” fights to remain. Sometimes it simply goes underground and seems to have disappeared, to my relief. But later I learn that was not the end of it.
Director: Any ideas about why this is so?
Directee: Even though I say I want what God wants, I am aware that another part of me feels like it’s fighting for survival. I’m getting a better view of my own dividedness—not pretty. For a long time, I think I lived with the illusion that I was different from other people. Perhaps they couldn’t or weren’t willing to change, but I was and would do it. NOW.
Director: It sounds as if you are tasting your own resistance.
Directee: That’s a good way to put it. Sometimes I get scared by the ferocity of my holding on, even when it seems quite civilized and subtle. It is an enormously strong current in me. And I’m not quite sure where to go from here.
Director: How does this show up in your prayer?
Directee: I’m pretty tentative. First, because I’m embarrassed to see myself. I guess I’ve been avoiding parts of it…maybe trying to deny or hide it…sounds like Adam doesn’t it? “ I knew my nakedness and so I hid myself.” I thought I was past that, but I seem to find new ways to hide.
Director: I hear some sadness in what you say.
Directee: Yes, along with disappointment, discouragement, anger. God’s ways often puzzle me. I figure God would like to be done with this as much as I would, so why are we still here? I guess I’m not going to get an answer to that, but at least I’m getting a clearer idea of what “here” looks like. It’s like one of those diagrams in shopping malls with a big X. This is where you are.
Director: That sounds like grace. Maybe not the one you would have chosen, but seeing clearly is an enormous step forward. Now that you see in this way, is there anything that seems like God’s invitation or encouragement?
Directee: Good question. I think I need some alone time with God.
I’d like to write in my journal about what I’m hearing and seeing. I’d like some extended quiet solitude to open my heart with God and pray about my mixed ways. It feels like an empty space, but an empty space where God might be with me if I’d take the time. That feels hopeful.
Whenever I do that, I may not be able to figure out exactly what I thought I came for, but I am likely to be willing to listen to whatever God brings to my attention. It might even include some self care—like getting enough sleep. (Directee laughs)
Most often when I take time with God, I come away with a deeper sense of “I am with you.” I experience more freedom to trust that whatever transformation God desires is taking place when I let go of myself as my own project—speaking honestly to God about what I see and then leaving the rest to God—trusting that when there are things I need to do, God will show me.
Director: It sounds as if you are on the right track.
Directee: Thanks for trusting me and God in me. I’m grateful that you send me back to God rather than prescribing three easy things to do.
Director: It looks as if we’re at the end of our time today. Would you like to pray aloud? Do you want me to pray? Shall we both pray? Or would you prefer silent shared prayer?
Directees who are working on true self/false-self issues do not always use this language. But they are sensitive to Scripture and to Christ, and open to the Holy Spirit. Twenty/twenty hindsight can be one of the ways of discovering how we hide from ourselves and teach us about our inner false self/true self dialogues and discernment. Looking in a rearview mirror can be helpful. Revealing insights appear unexpectedly, and we may not welcome them at first. It can be troubling to recognize our own blindness. We can be embarrassed by our responses and try to cover or deny what we see.
At times, our inclinations toward true self can become a self-management project which hinders our perceptions and possibilities. But when we persist with
God, we become more able to recognize and respond to the Spirit’s promptings. No matter what words we use, God is the one who brings about personal transformation little by little as we choose to be awake and intentional—choosing God, listening for the Spirit’s promptings, and responding. God is the one we depend upon.
The intention of spiritual direction is to pay attention to our deepening relationship with God and how God continues to invite us to intimate companionship, to be and become God’s people in the world. Although our culture, including Christian subcultures, sometimes instructs us to think that God wants most to use our talents and competencies in the world, when we turn to Scripture, we discover that the Great Commandment sums up how God sees authenticity and the values of the true self:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27, NASB)
Authenticity is embodied in loving relationships, not ownership or performance, or appearances. We are cherished by God and invited to cherish others. All we have to offer God is our yearning and willingness to be God’s beloved friends. When we are intentional about continuing to encourage and support our desires and relationship with God, we grow in freedom to live more and more out of our true self.
Our greatest hope of being and becoming our authentic selves is our becoming like Christ. Scripture affirms our hope and its realization:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2, NIV).
This is the authentic self.
Only love is capable of genuine transformation. Willpower is inadequate. Even spiritual effort is not up to the task…Thomas Merton reminds us that the root of Christian love is not the will to love but the faith to believe that one is deeply loved by God. Returning to that great love—a love that was there for us before we experienced any rejection and that will be there for us after all other rejections take place—is our true spiritual work.
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us “Beloved.” Being the Beloved express the core truth of our existence.
Life of the Beloved
01. Additional Readings
Bakke, Jeannette A. Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. BakerBooks, Grand Rapids, MI, 2000.
Benner, David G. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Finley. James. Merton’s Place of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self. Bloomington: Ave Maria Press, 1978.
Hougen, Judith. Transformed into Fire: An Invitation to Life in the True Self. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002.
Manning, Brennan. Abba’s Child. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002
02. Sidebar Page 1
In spiritual direction conversations, directors intentionally turn their attention and heart, their hopes and thoughts toward God and invite God to be present and to serve as the director. Their first ear is open toward God-—a way of listening prayer. They listen to directees out of this place of prayerfulness. Directees also open themselves to God and invite the Spirit.
Jeannette A. Bakke,
Dr. Jeannette A. Bakke is the author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. She teaches spiritual direction in seminaries, retreats, and training programs and is part of a cross-denominational group that is exploring the role of contemplative prayer in seminary education. Jeannette was involved in developing and teaching a training course in spiritual formation for Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard chaplains.