God and the Self – Dragons and the Treasuries of Grace

 

Beloved, we are children of God, and it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1John 3:2)

You are dead, and your life is hid in Christ in God. (Col. 3:3)

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it. (Lk. 17:33)

You have to live God, because God is life. – Fr. Roman Braga

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There is a deep connection between God and the self within Christian understanding. Obviously, they are not the same thing, but we do not know one without the other. It is possible to say that we only know God to the extent that we know ourselves and that we only know ourselves to the extent that we know God.

To know yourself is an inner activity, made particularly difficult in an outer-directed culture. Though we live in the age of the “selfie,” we are, nonetheless, an age that is distracted from the true knowledge of the self. The “selfie” has nothing to do with self-knowledge and everything to do with an objectification of the self – how I would like myself to look if I were someone else. What the selfie never shows is how we truly perceive ourselves.

There is an experience of shame that surrounds the self (everybody’s self) that is simply unavoidable. Shame is associated with the inner sense that there is something wrong with “who I am.” It is acquired from experiences, mostly unavoidable, within life. And so, we never go very far within ourselves without encountering some level of pain and discomfort. There are parts of ourselves that we do not share and prefer to remain hidden. Often enough, the discomfort surrounding such things is great enough that we avoid confronting them ourselves.  It is the primary cause for our avoidance of inner awareness.

All of this means that the journey to knowing the self will inevitably require going into and through the shame that surrounds it. The true self should not be confused with the “shame-self.” They are not the same. The shame-self is who I am, defined by how I feel about myself, or that aspect of myself. The true self is beneath that and deeper. By the same token, God is beneath even the true self.

It is of note to me that there is a great darkness associated with God in some presentations of the Christian faith, enough to drive many people away. When I read or hear such presentations, I am inclined to believe that I am encountering someone who has not gone beneath the self of shame. Reading along in social media, you’ll encounter memes and such that proclaim, “He just needs a good kick in the pants!” or words to that effect. Such sentiments seem to be applied to parenting, social policy, theology, etc., as the occasion requires. They are words without compassion or understanding, marked primarily by violence and dismissal. They are the words of someone whose “inner critic” says the same miserable words to them all the time. They are words that have not been examined. There is an assumption that, if only we worked harder, tried more, didn’t quit, paid attention, etc. (such an endless list), we would be better (and, perhaps, we would like ourselves). It is the voice of the shame-self, disguised as responsibility, morality, authority or whatever.

Within the Tradition, and the Scriptures, the knowledge of God (and thus of the self), comes as revelation. It is hidden and must be made known. That which hides God is within us, not outside of us. It is the “pure in heart” who see God. This does not necessarily imply a sinlessness or perfection. Rather, it is a stillness that can see what truly is without turning away.

Fr. Roman Braga, who is quoted above, suffered in the Pitești prison camp in Romania, perhaps the worst such regime in history. He was in solitary confinement for three years. It was in that context, he says, that he “learned to pray.” His writings constantly affirm that God is “within us,” that within us is a vast, limitless universe. In such a setting, you either find the courage to enter within and discover the life that cannot be destroyed or go mad. Fr. Roman’s thoughts on the inner life are not unlike those of St. Macarius:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius (H.43.7)

Fr. Roman reminds people that St. Paul taught that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” a saying that has been tragically reduced to a moral exhortation. Rather, we should have this Psalm in mind:

One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple. (Ps 27:4)

To behold that beauty and to make such an inquiry requires that we also encounter lions and dragons, poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. Those who do not undertake this singular pilgrimage spend the whole of their lives without knowledge of God or the true self. They remain people of the surface, doomed to act out the puppetry dictated by the self of shame. Over time, it adds to the treasures of evil and gives birth to ever more dragons and lions. It is little wonder that we bite and devour one another in our public life.

But there, too, is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace – all things are there.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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29 responses to “God and the Self – Dragons and the Treasuries of Grace”

  1. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Good morning Father,
    When you talk about the shame self are you referring to healthy shame or toxic shame or both?

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Helen,
    Toxic shame. Healthy shame, though painful, generally passes quickly. Toxic shame is often unrecognized in that it’s often so incorporated into the personality that we don’t see it. Toxic shame tends to make healthy shame more of a problem inasmuch as our tolerance for the discomfort of shame is greatly diminished by the presence of toxic shame.

  3. Bryden Avatar
    Bryden

    Father,
    This was one of the most life giving things Ihave read in a while. Glory to God!
    Thank you!

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bryden,
    Many thanks!

  5. Sally Avatar
    Sally

    Such a wonderful article on the relationship between knowing God and knowing yourself. I am curious about the reference to the ” great darkness associated with God in some presentations of the Christian faith.” What does this refer to? I also wonder if people twist the dark night of the soul understanding from 16th century John of the Cross, perhaps understanding this as personal darkness or shame. And is there even any teaching in the East similar to this?

  6. Byron Avatar

    To know yourself is an inner activity, made particularly difficult in an outer-directed culture.

    I wonder at this, Father. It is true that appearance is, and has been, a heavy weight in our culture (even more true now with surgical procedures that purport to change who we are…). But I think the culture is, at its core, a culture of the mind. I’ve never seen people so deify the human mind as the creator of reality. It’s also interesting that they deny doing so when I point it out. But, in any case, the heart is ignored at every level, aside from the most superficial.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sally,
    The “great darkness” that I had in mind is the wrathful/condemning God rather common in some circles.

    St. John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” can be compared, somewhat, to St. Silouan’s experience of being in hell (it continued for 15 years). St. Silouan was told, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” What we see in the case of St. Silouan cannot be compared exactly to our common psychological experiences. St. Sophrony (his biographer and interpreter) made a distinction between psychological experience and hypostatic experience. He did not dismiss or denigrate psychological experience (indeed, he said that many, if not most, people never move beyond psychological experience). However, hypostatic experience is transcendent by comparison. I believe that the two are “analogous,” even though hypostatic experience is a different quality altogether.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, certainly places God within impenetrable darkness. The darkness created by shame is, of course, a psychological darkness. However, by grace, entering into and beyond it for the “joy set before us,” should be noted. It is, in St. Sophrony’s terms, “learning to bear a little shame.”

    One way I like to describe this is “do not mistake your neurosis for God.” Mostly, when people say “God,” they mean an idea, an interpretation, an abstract principle to which they attribute personhood (or some such thing). Listening to them yields lots of information about their neuroses, but pretty much nothing about God other than His infinite patience with us.

    You ought to read St. Gregory’s Life of Moses.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron,
    The “mind” that you describe is pretty much just our neuroses. It’s not the heart, not the nous – it’s just clutter, distraction, and noise. The culture speaks to our passions (mostly the so-called “lizard brain”). The lizard brain is about as outward as anything possibly could be. It’s the limbic system, in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication. It’s ideal as a target for modern marketing.

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    It is little wonder that we bite and devour one another in our public life.

    Father, I believe social media amplifies such behavior. Furthermore there seems to be road rage of such regularity that a long commute to work or Church is a step into a battle zone. And at a theater lineup where people had brought their families, people jostled to get ahead of one another, trying to ‘beat out’ each other, their children in tow.

    As you say, Father, the real biting dragons are within. But we want to bite and devour someone else whom we want to see as ‘the other’, blaming some ‘other’ for the pain of loss we feel but dare not face its source in ourselves.

    If our goal as Orthodox Christians is hypostatic prayer, isn’t it only possible when we acknowledge the dragons within, without trying to blame others for our pain we experience from them?

    Like Father Braga who expressed gratitude for his prison walls, I too have witnessed the Living waters of the Kingdom of God in the dungeons of my heart. And indeed such experience brings hope and gratefulness.

    Father Roman Braga’s life-witness, his thoughts concerning our culture are edifying, and his outlook on the Christian life are aspirational and encouraging. Thank you for reminding us about him and his words.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Yes, indeed. For myself, when I tempted to the various rages – road, shopping, etc., I work at “reckoning” several things. I make peace with being late when I’m driving. I quit trying to be on time. When I’m stuck waiting, I quit thinking about what I’m waiting for and just work at being content with the moment. It’s a good time to pray, perhaps for everyone around me. Etc. It helps.

  11. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Father, this is true wisdom. An insightful diagnosis between the effects of inherited sin, self-knowledge, and theoria. Truthfully, this is insightful.

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I appreciate your words of advice concerning such situations Father. Indeed, in the midst of frustration and anxiety or angst, letting go of ‘what I want’ or the sort of behavior that I think I ‘deserve’ is not only key, but relieves us of our pain (or has the potential to be so with God’s Grace). Such prayer helps us to hang on to Him and to remember to love those (whom we might not know) around us.

    Admittedly sometimes it is a heart rending struggle, though. May the Lord grant us His mercy.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A woman I have known since 1980, Mother Katherine Weston, is no stranger to shame. She has battled it all her life and is still engaging it on a daily basis but not just for herself. Her primary weapon is prayer with music not far behind. She will be leading a conference in Houston in August on The Black experience and The Church. Among other things she will be introducing her musical work on integrating Negro Spirituals into Orthodox music. She was blessed to do that work 18 years ago and is has only now come to fruition. One can read about her over on myOCN.com

    The Lord is good and He is with us. Glory and thanks be to our Lord and Savior and all who serve Him.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, thank you. Your words are helpful.

  15. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    I suspect that in our days – ever since the “culture of distraction” reached levels never before possible (thanks to technology)-, as Elder Aimilianos seems to have been alluding since the early seventies, the biggest obstacle to entering those inner depths of self-knowledge and even God-knowledge is not so much [to quote you] “the discomfort surrounding such things” which has traditionally made us “avoid confronting them ourselves”, and has always been noted as the “primary cause for our avoidance of inner awareness”.
    Rather, it is more often than not these last few decades, the incapacity to attain and maintain that [to quote you again] “stillness that can see what truly is without turning away”, not so much because of the pain of shame we normally encounter there, but due to how we have cultivated and fortified greatly an extremely deep rooted and rather unavoidable life of distraction, to a degree of it having become second-nature for all you cannot ev en argue against.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    Perhaps. It is a sort of combination: the pain of shame makes entertaining distractions just that more attractive. It is of note that I pretty much never “lost signal” for my smartphone when I was on Mt. Athos in 2017. I did not, however, do more than post a few pictures. Of course, it’s not just the distraction which prevents us from seeing ourselves – it’s also a distraction that prevents us from seeing one another. I suspect that the technology will collapse in one manner or another (given time).

  17. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    The inner sense that something is wrong with “who I am.”… is this ancestral sin?

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I think I see an antidote to what you and Father describe. Mother Katherine seems to have a “wall” of sorts around her. It is a “wall” that is neither aggressive nor unwelcoming–it does seem quite living actually. She curated her prayer life and music within the wall in patience. Yet is able to engage those around her fruitfully.
    The monastic life gives more space for that, but as I age, I find there is an opening for cultivating such a state in the world. The evil in the world does not seem me as aggressively and I am not as interested in it. Repentance continues to be the key for me. As I’m Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
    .
    Thanksgiving and gratitude for all things seems part of that. Mother Katherine mentioned to me this morning how bring willfully aggressive even against perceived evil is the wrong approach.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    This shame is an “emotional” response to a particular kind of experience. That experience is a trigger that tells us we are vulnerable or exposed. In and of itself, the trigger is a safety signal, a warning and utterly not bound up with sin. However, it also signals a break in communion (in that communion is the safest, most wholesome thing we can ever experience). Sin certainly is the source and cause of broken communion (either our sin or someone else’s). The Scriptures describe Adam and Eve’s response in the Garden (after they sin) with depictions of shame (“naked and we hid,” etc.). But the shame is a response. It is not the sin, nor is it inherited, etc. It’s just information for us.

    As information goes, however, it’s painful. Pain, for that matter, is information. If my hand is on fire, the information of pain is not sinful – but it is utterly essential even though it hurts. The same is true with shame. It gives us information that is essential for the inner life and for our relations with others. In its healthiest form, it is even an essential part of the experience of worship and awe.

    I recommend my recent book, Face-to-Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame.

    That inner sense that “something is wrong,” might be some of the most important and accurate information we ever receive. Finding out what it is telling as and attending to it is important.

  20. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    There’s the psychological welcoming of distraction aided by shame, and there’s the neuroplasticity of eventual incapacity to [even notice our inability] to remain undistracted, cultivated from early youth in modernity.

  21. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, wow, another powerful post. We just purchased your book, Face to Face, and look forward to learning more about this. Shame seems to locate very near the crux of the gospel.

    “That which hides God is within us, not outside of us.” You wrote about the shame-self, the true self, and God, more interior than both. It seems like there’s an outer chaff that must be winnowed away, allowing the wheat to reveal its good grain. We cannot “live God” (Fr. Roman) until the seed’s casing cracks open and the heart is circumscribed. This imagery makes me wonder: is knowing God as deeper than our deepest depths the way we experience divine transcendence? Like a wellspring unplumbable.

    Thank you kindly,
    Owen

  22. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. This reminds me of the line “the pearl of great price”-a salvation which might be connected to the true self. However, most of our lives are not as dramatic as a Soviet gulag. What are some practical ways to be in touch with the true self beyond the shame in day to day existence? Many thanks.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    If you read in the Tradition (such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, et al) it is as you say.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laurie,
    I’ve long thought that, day to day, we all have enough hardship (of one sort or another) to save us, if we bear it with patience and seek God as He gives Himself to us.

    We pray, we fast, we confess our sins, we share our belongings and wealth, we make communion – in short – we keep the commandments of Christ a day at a time and God leads us into this depth of union with Him. There’s not really any technique given to us other than this.

  25. Gregory Avatar
    Gregory

    “That inner sense that “something is wrong,” might be some of the most important and accurate information we ever receive. Finding out what it is telling as and attending to it is important.”
    I’m reminded tangentially of the words of C.S. Lewis here: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We might amplify the meaning of ‘pains’ in a much broader sense, existential in all its facets as well as physical, and respond to such grace..

    Also related to the article, a single line from a Psalm which says so much, especially in this frenetic world:
    “Be still and know that I am God:” – Psalm 46:10

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Let us not forget that despite our fallenness Gen 1:31 is still true: And God saw everything He had made and, behold it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    ….and Jesus Himself reconfirmed that in Matthew 4:17 KJV: From that time Jesus began to preach and to say “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    Now, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed … it only took me 50 years to get a glimmer that Jesus meant what He said. Plus, as I age, I need things simple.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I first started reading the Bible when I was 25.

  29. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Gregory,

    Thanks for that C.S. Lewis quote.

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