“Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen I say to you. I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour!”Matthew 25: 11-13
For me, some of the most frightening words of the scriptures are spoken today by Jesus. “Amen I say to you. I do not know you.” We spend our lives creating a different person from the one that God has created, the person, as Thomas Merton puts it, “that I want myself to be.” This person that we want is a person that God does not know.
Lately there has been much cognitive research into why it is that we dwell so much more on the negative than the positive: on the bad done to us as opposed to the good; on what we lack rather on what we have. The research suggests that the answer, understandably, is evolutionary adaptation. We think about the bad that has happened and the lacks we experience in order to learn how to avoid what threatens us and to fill the lacks. It is somewhat self-evident how this capacity is a needed survival mechanism. However, as the lacks we experience become less physical and more emotional, we can attempt to fill them by changing what we take to be lacking in our very personhood. Our lack and our pain are the greatest sources of deepening and growing in understanding, but we shall never learn the lesson they conceal if we obsessively and compulsively attempt to cover them over and then, as Merton says, feed the false self we have created to evade them.
The power of the parable that Jesus tells us today is that it is very much in our nature, as with the virgins in the story, to get tired of waiting. As we know, this was a very existential issue for the early Christians because they had understood that Jesus would return in the lifetime of at least some of them. And, as they all began to die, it was clear that this was not the case. So Matthew is telling his community that they must continue to wait, however long the return of Jesus takes. It is the very nature of all of us, however, to be impatient. It may well not be focal in our consciousness that it is taking Jesus a very long time to return, but we experience constantly that it is really difficult to wait upon our sense of lack with vigilance until, in its own time, it teaches what it has to offer us. Instead, we want to dissolve the feelings that our lacks evoke in us and that we suffer.
If Jesus did return today for me, would he “know” me? What would he recognize in me and what would make me a stranger to him? These are not at all easy questions to answer. In decades of life, I have both lived what Adrian van Kaam calls my “original calling” and I have lived out of many of my own “egocentric desires.” Wherever in my life and my being I have been unable to trust God’s will and God’s love for me, I have sought to know acceptance and love in other ways. I have developed ways of being that are seemingly able to obtain that acceptance and love I seek. Some, or even many, of the ways I have done this are counter to the person I am that God created. So what do I do, what do we do when touched by the “fear” that Jesus’ words evokes in us? How do we separate the true from the false in us?
Perhaps the most important practice in this regard is growing attention to and awareness of the multiple dimensions of our own experiences. This is what the tradition calls “vigilance.” I’ve often quoted a teacher and mentor of mine who used to say, “When things fall apart, that’s the sign that everything is okay.” Our attention is drawn to our modes of behavior when we experience their failure. Since we tend to create our false self out of our need for love and acceptance, it is when the manifestations of that self fail to accomplish their goal that we experience the invitation to re-evaluate them. For much of my life, I was so fearful of anger and conflict that when I felt angry with someone I would get even more solicitous of them. It was well into middle age when a therapist said to me, “I always know when you’re angry with me because you get very nice to me.” This was an astounding and painful revelation to me. My “niceness” was actually a manifestation of my falseness. It was my way of appeasing people for the sake of their acceptance, but it also resulted in the opposite of knowing the love I really craved. In avoiding the sources of my anger, an emotion that was calling me to relate more truthfully and intimately, I was avoiding intimacy and deeper relationship.
Even with this added awareness, I can feel so uncomfortable when I feel angry that I avoid sitting with it and letting it show its call and direction to me. I try instead to ignore it, or justify it, or displace it. Yet, because someone was honest enough with me to tell me that what was a central component of my false or pride form “didn’t work” with her, I at least am a bit more awake to those times when I employ it. I now at least experience the conflict inherent in denying my anger and in my “being nice”, even if I have not, as yet, really learned well how to be more honest and true in living it out.
In our world, perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to knowing the contours of our false selves is our lack of silence and solitude. In my experience the greatest obstacle to silence and meditation is my dis-ease with my self, with my intuition of my own falseness. Often we speak of the harmony between the contemplative and the active life. If we lived always in the truth, the two would always be “non-dichotomized.” We speak often of the concern of a quietism that would escape the call to service by becoming indulgent in prayer and contemplation. In truth, however, I have seldom seen this to be a problem. It is not busy-ness or activity we avoid, it is the confrontation with God and ourselves in silence and meditation. Our original calling is, in fact, a call. It is an assignment for the world that is uniquely ours. To know ourselves, then, is to act in accord with this calling. Our problems with doing the “deep work” for the world that is ours alone is our self-alienation. That is what we encounter in solitude, silence, and meditation.
That self-alienation is what Jesus describes in the parable today. Our not knowing ourselves is the reflection of Jesus’ not knowing us. Since all of life is “life in formation,” this experience never ceases to recur in us. Our lives are always differentiating and re-integrating. The experience of differentiation springs from an experience in which we realize that there are aspects of ourselves that we don’t recognize. In certain regards we have become someone that we do not know, and so neither does God. This is a call to re-integrate our lives in a form that is “closer” to our original calling. For a good part of my life, my goal had been to appease everyone by being nice, even when the truth and care would have called for compassionate disagreement and conflict. When this impersonated niceness worked, I could then avoid the call to truer care and intimacy to which my anger was pointing me. But when I discovered that my appeasing was actually depriving me of the true love and acceptance I craved, I realized how much of my way of being in the world was false, and that the person who was merely appeasing God was not known of God. In distancing from my anger, I was alienating from myself.
As Merton says, “We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.” There is almost always pain and resistance to discovering our illusions. If our lives are controlled by our desire to avoid pain at all cost, then we could find ourselves, when Jesus returns, being unknown of him. And so, Jesus tells us to “stay awake.” We are to be awake when life, as it inevitably will, shows us our own most cherished illusions about ourselves.” When we read the lives of the saints and mystics, we are at times shocked by what seems like their self-depreciation. They see themselves, in an often incomprehensible way to us, as the greatest of sinners. But we fail to comprehend this only because we are not awake to the truth of our own falseness. For every single human being, there is an abyss to be crossed between the one God made and loves and the one we have, through our own sinfulness and fears, become. It is often the one we have spent a life repressing and compensating for that God knows and loves. It is the “little child” in us who is closest to that original calling that we are. As the disciples when the children approach Jesus, we have tried to keep that child away from our awareness and from the eyes of the world. Jesus makes clear, however, that “the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19: 14). We are constantly being invited to be “born again” through the call of the formation field that we are. To be vigilant and watchful is to be ready when Jesus comes to offer us a new form for our lives, a form that is closer to our original calling and so more recognizable to him.
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 34-
This is the one that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about this person. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
All sin starts from the assumption that the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus, I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.