Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all in all.Col. 3: 9-11
As a young person, I was an inveterate liar, not in the most serious of ways, but about almost any small truth that had what I felt was the power to embarrass or shame me. As I grew older and a bit stronger, thus at least slightly more able to dare to face the truth, I came to realize that sometimes I would even lie when there was no need to, when the truth was not shameful to me. With this, I also came to realize that every time I failed to be truthful, I deepened my sense of alienation from myself and from others. I was prone to lie because, although on any reasonable scale I was raised in a loving family, we did have our secrets, from each other and from the outside world. These secrets and lies were the basis of an alternate reality we lived, strangely enough often unmindful of it. Because the foundation of this alternate reality was untruth, it was an anxious place to live because to truly belong and to reinforce the illusion one had to get the lies straight. Even as a child I believe I felt the fear and anxiety that I couldn’t or wouldn’t keep my story straight, that is keep my lies aligned with those of the others.
I think in theory we perhaps all agree with the author of Colossians that we should stop lying to one another. It seems like a quite straightforward spiritual directive. If we honestly reflect, however, we become aware that it is not as easy as all that. Our socially constructed realities are a mixture of truth and lies, and the line between them is often quite blurry. We “honestly” assert our ideals, sometimes common ideals, but we don’t practice them. We declare to each other that our motivations are visible to all, that in us one sees what one gets, while refusing to recognize those unconscious needs that drive us without our acknowledgment. We assert a kind of mastery and competence in the world that fails to take into account the trembling child within. We declare our friendship to each other while treating each other as expendable for the sake of our personal and often unconscious projects.
Thus, even in our longing to be honest and transparent, we experience how difficult it is to actually know the truth of the matter. This beclouded vision of reality is an attribute of what the author of Colossians calls “the old self with its practices.” When I had the realization that I sometimes lied even when it was not necessary for what I deemed self-preservation, I was recognizing the practices of “the old self.” That which is capable of recognizing those practices is what Colossians terms “the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” This “new self” is the life we are that “is hidden with Christ in God.” Although the image may have often been overdone in our past ascetical history, one way to see our ongoing human and spiritual formation is to see it as a battle between the old self and the new self. The danger of this analogy is its violent connotation. There is a certain violence, of course, that is needed to take on the lies and illusions we live by, but it is also very possible to make this work a violently suppressive and repressive one. This can only result in replacing one false form with a more “idealized” form of self, a falsely spiritualized one, for example. As called to serve the spiritual formation of others, I constantly repeat to myself Paul’s self-admonition in 1 Cor. 9: 27: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Because our propensity to illusion, and so to lying, is so strong, we must always be vigilant that we have not “overcome” our own vulnerability, weakness, and sinfulness through a willful imposition of our own false idealized form of life.
We heard earlier in Luke’s gospel of Jesus going up the mountain to spend the night in prayer before calling his disciples. A brother of ours, whom I deeply revere and who has a very strong personality that has always manifested itself in an almost superhuman capacity for work, recently said, “As far as work goes no one could reproach me for not working enough. But as far as prayer goes, all of you could reproach me for not praying enough.” How is it that all of us, myself included, speak so much of the primary importance of prayer and yet devote so little time to it? There’s a common expression that says, “Human beings can bear only so much reality.” I think that our avoiding of prayer is a manifestation of this truth.
It is in prayer, given that we are attempting to live sincere and reflective lives outside of the moments of prayer, where the truth of things is brought home to us. It is when the turmoil of our vital cravings, our functional ambitions and rationalizations and even our transcendent aspirations are quieted that the truth of inspiration can be received by us. It is in silence and solitude that I cease to perform, to keep hidden that of which I am fearful and shamed. And, if I remain there long enough, then even my compulsive narratives and self-justifications begin to quiet, and the truth that is “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” can being to seep into my consciousness.
Prayer is not introspection. It is rather more associated with what Adrian van Kaam calls “transcendent reflection.” It is a mode of gentle and reflective presence of myself before and in God. It is the whole of me, “in what I have done and in what I have failed to do” and in my truth and in my recurrent and habitual lies, standing before the God who is merciful and compassionate to all. In a trusting vulnerable presence of myself in my illusions, I experience the truth of things most deeply. I don’t, perhaps, understand all of the truth and I certainly realize that I will not always be in the truth in this way, and yet I experience, at least for a moment, that it is because the world and the glory are God’s that everything is okay.
One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is from John 8:32: “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” St. Teresa of Avila says that humility is “walking in the truth of who you are.” We lie, deliberately and unconsciously, because we think we cannot bear the truth. But to do this is to find ourselves at this moment as the victims of an illusion we must exert ourselves to perpetuate. Freedom comes only in the humility to be truthful. Where there is no pretense there is no pressure to support it. However dark the truth may look to us, there is no light without facing that truth. Our own manufactured light will come at the cost of our very lives, those lives that are not “the old self with its practices” but rather the “new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” The knowledge for which we are being renewed is the knowledge of the truth of things, a truth that for us may seem difficult or impossible but that is the only way for us, finally, to know and do God’s will in our regard.
Again how very much like us is the Samaritan Woman. We too are ignorant regarding what we want. We imagine so often that our longing for the Eternal is pure and singleminded. We feel so pleased with our pious self, so righteous about our motives. We fail to recognize that we merely mixed a few golden pellets of graced longing with the old sticky mass of self serving desires and designs. Our graced aspirations are soon polluted; rarely do they remain untainted by our old selves or uncontaminated by this age.Adrian van Kaam, The Woman At The Well, pp. 62-3
It takes a life long growth in graced awareness to purify them. This awareness will only be pure in a final sense if Christ himself burns us clean in the dark nights of sense and spirit. But the grace of the dark night, especially the passive nights of sense and spirit, may never be given to us. In the meantime, we might turn our inner pollution into an asset by making it a source of humility. Humility means digging deep holes in our pompous self, calcified by willfulness and pride. Each hole dug by humility leaves room for the Lord and his grace. One means to maintain the power of humility in our soul is the constant awareness that our holiest longings, our best motives, are tainted by selfishness. The golden pellet of holy longing is his gift; its contamination we must claim as our own.