Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.
Ephesians 3: 16-19
A current bestseller is a book by Peter Wohlleben entitled The HIdden Life of Trees. Although I have not yet read it, I understand that it concerns the sentience and social nature of trees. In their own way, they make choices and also make connection with each other and the world around them. In today’s reading from Ephesians we read of our own hidden self. As we discover that trees have a life that is far beyond what we can immediately see and experience, so too with ourselves. Because we as human beings are embodied spirits, we are a capacity to know and to live the life and the love of God, although that capacity is often hidden from our experience.
In the words of Ephesians, we pray that God may grant us the power through his spirit for our hidden self to grow strong. What role do we have to play in that strengthening? Around a year ago, in the course of my annual physical examination, my doctor told me that for the sake of my health as I age, I should try to work at improving my body mass index. This would require losing body fat and gaining muscle strength. He told me that one way I could really improve the quality of my life including health and balance was to strengthen my “body core.” So, I initiated a program that included change of diet and exercise several times per week. By maintaining the discipline, I was able to change considerably the ratio of muscle to fat in just a year’s time.
It is much more difficult, however, to adopt an appropriate discipline for the strengthening of the “hidden self”. Perhaps it is because we tend to be motivated by seeing physical effects of our actions. Perhaps it is, even more simply, that the work required to grow in love is a lot more difficult. Ephesians tells us that the more we are “planted on love and built on love” the more we will know the love of Christ. At the same time, the more that we recognize and live in and from that love of Christ, the more we shall love.
One practice that may help us to strengthen our hidden self is to awaken to the truth of its presence. We live in a time that seems to greatly value what we refer to as authenticity. Yet, human beings are never “an open book.” The current and apparent form of our life, at any given moment, is but a reflection, often quite dim, of our true and hidden self. For us to live authentically is to live the tension between who we most deeply are, the love of Christ that has grasped us and that we have somewhat grasped in return, and our ability in the moment to give form to that life. When St. Francis Xavier said “What is life but a continual death, a banishment from the celestial glory for which we have been created and for which we are in the world?”, he was speaking of this tension. St. John of the Cross puts it more directly: “I die because I do not die.” The strange paradox of the spiritual life is that the more we come to realize the truth of who we really are, the more painful our “exile” from what is most true in us and the tension that alienation creates in our everyday experience.
As we awaken ever more fully to the life of Christ hidden in us, we experience a burning desire to reform our lives in those ways that are not consonant with that deeper life. This is, as Adrian van Kaam would say, “the sheer work” of personal formation. Improving our body mass index, for all the energy it takes, is relatively easy compared to reforming some of the deepest dissonant dispositions of our hearts. We tend today to think that we have personality profiles that are written in stone. But, if our true life is with our hidden self, this is not the case. In our early formation and over a lifetime we have developed ways of being that are both true and false to our spiritual identity. “The common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” is always summoning us to further formation, reformation, and, by God’s grace, transformation. We must develop a consistent practice of listening to our lives, to the calls to formation and reformation in every feeling, experience, encounter and situation. We must always be ready to learn better how to love.
What Thomas Merton has called “the desire to please God” is the experience of Christ’s love in and for our hidden selves. That desire is one that is never satisfied, and so certainly not self-satisfied. As our “strength to grasp the breadth and the length, and the height and the depth” of the love of Christ grows, we come to realize the great gap between God’s love and desires for our world and our sinful reality. This is the sadness, the gift of tears, of which the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church spoke. God would gather us under God’s wing, yet we rather insist on maintaining relationships of competition, envy, greed, and violence. Yet, through it all, a hidden life continues to communicate itself among us. Much of the time it is an almost indistinguishable murmuring, and yet, when we quiet our own noise and cease our own projects long enough, we discover a moment of rest in the love that envelops us all.
For this reason, if a person is to savor God, he must love, and if he wishes to love, he must have this savor. If he lets himself be satisfied with other things, then he can have no savor of what God is. We must therefore possess ourselves in a simple way in virtue and in our likeness to God and must also possess God above ourselves in rest and unity by means of love. This is the first point to be made concerning the gift of understanding: how a person who is common to all is made firm and stable.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, IV, B