Toorak Uniting Church

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Awakening to our True Selves

Romans 5: 1 – 5
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
26 May 2013

Fr Richard Rohr, the author and Franciscan Priest, tells a story in his latest book, Immortal Diamond, that you may have heard before. It is reportedly a true story, but I have my suspicions that it may be a bit too good to have actually happened. The story is told of a young couple putting their new-born into the nursery for the night. Their four-year-old son said to them, "I want to talk to the baby!" "Yes, you can talk to him from now on." But the little boy pressed further saying, "I want to talk to him now and by myself." Surprised and curious, they let the young boy into the nursery and cupped their hands to the door, wondering what he might be saying. This is what they reported their boy said to his little brother: "Quick, tell me where you came from? Quick tell me who made you? I am beginning to forget…."

Rohr has taken the title of his book from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins which contrasts this mortal physical body with those flashes of immortality we all glimpse from time to time. He ends with the words:

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

The story told by Rohr ends with the words, "I am beginning to forget…" and Hopkins completes his poem with the treasure to be awakened in every human being, what he calls The Immortal Diamond. The passage read earlier from the Apostle Paul also draws us into this awakening of who we really are at our deepest level, at our deepest self.

Shifts in Theological Images:
A significant shift occurred in Christian theology about twenty or so years ago when an ex Roman Catholic theologian and now an Episcopalian priest wrote a book titled Original Blessing. The book argued that the child – all of us – was born not in what has been called original sin, but in original goodness and blessing. And that evil and cruelty, sin and destruction cannot be visited on the innocence of the child, but clearly placed on the responsibility, motivations and actions of the adult. The original vision that we observe in the curious and vulnerable eyes of the child is a call to wholeness and wellbeing, not to sin and destruction.
That may sound rather strange to some, but the 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo and the founder of the 16th Century reformation Martin Luther both promulgated this view of original sin that has weakened the message of the Christian church for at least the last two centuries. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and other churches has been for centuries that Baptism was the removal of the original stain. For me, the child comes into this world not pure or untainted, because children are born into the human race with its legacy of imperfection and deficiencies, but that the original diamond, that imago dei (the image of God) in all its richness remains in the life in the child.
The Development of the "Performing" Self:
Now here comes the rub. The child cannot live so naive in the world. There is much to learn and much to do and gain. So most cultures and societies have constructed a process that will shape and reshape the person, to fulfil what is necessary to be a productive member of society. To put it simply: you had to get an education, a husband or a wife, a house and probably a car. You needed an ego, something what would drive you to achieve and succeed. That is the performing self. And on this 40-year journey there were probably moments when you ask yourself, "Is this all there is? Is this it?" But as soon as the question came into your mind it was cast out.
Richard Rohr suggests that:

Much of the Christian religion is about avoiding the "death" of the false or performing self… we become moralistic, pious and falsely "sacrificial" about many small and arbitrary things.

Sadly, it may be because throughout life we can keep giving value to these at times insignificant and unimportant things. Perhaps we want to keep a fragile and crumbly world in place…. Who knows? But I find the passage from Paul’s letter to the community at Rome helpful, particularly when I look at it through the lens of spiritual growth and not religious doctrine. And we have the courage to leave the performing self behind and even enter into suffering so as to embrace the True Self, the Immortal Diamond within.

Carl Jung tells the story of a king who received gifts from his subjects every year. The gift bearers would come from the far corners of the Kingdom bringing their tributes of gold and treasures. Each year a poor holy man who lived in the wildest parts of the kingdom would bring his gift and every year it was the same gift – a piece of fruit. The King knew that this man was to be respected so he would graciously accept the gift of the piece of fruit. When the old monk had left, the King passed the fruit to his courtier and ordered him to dispose of it.

This happened year after year until one year the monk passed the piece of fruit to the King and waited until he took a bite from it. Hesitantly the King bit into the soft flesh of the fruit until he found something hard in the centre. He broke open the piece of fruit and there inside was the most beautiful gem he had ever seen. Realizing that the fruit contained a hidden treasure, he commanded the servant to take him to where all the old fruit had been disposed of. The King ran to the kitchen window and gazed out onto the garbage tip below and there among the rotting food was the unmistakable glimmer of precious stones - treasure hidden in the most unexpected places. For Carl Jung this was an illustration that in the darkest and everyday places, in the shadow of one’s own life, the greatest treasure is found.

What does the Apostle Paul say that shapes this life we are so attached to?

The time will come when we arrive at the realization that we are now on the right track and can live lives of justice, hope and peace by trusting that the Spirit of Christ which is in us will sustain us. Now we can live at peace with God, the centre of the Universe, and also with ourselves: this living presence of God’s Spirit fills every part of our being because we share in the beauty of God’s life among us. (Paraphrase)

Beautiful words, but let’s be clear that the road to this awakening to the True Self must lead through the tough and unpleasant stuff of life. There is a journey to be undertaken and a quest to be accepted. Again from the mystic Apostle Paul:

The sufferings that come to us in life are not something that we should evade. This is the way it should happen: suffering will produce endurance; endurance then produces character, and character gives birth to hope, and there is nothing disappointing in hope. That’s how the love of God’s Spirit and the love of those who walk life’s road with us are poured into our hearts, our lives and our bodies. (paraphrase)

The True Self and The Performing Self
It is strange that it takes us half a life-time to work out what is really of value in life. It is peculiar that the first half of life is all about acquisition and possessions and the second half is about letting go and loss. And it is even more peculiar that the new born, the infant, is closer to the truth than the mature adult. Maybe not as Jesus said: "I tell you the truth: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Did he mean that when you die you will go to heaven? Of course not! The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now and it is found in living into one’s non-performing self, into the true self.

Let me finish with a story, but I have to be careful in its telling. Next Sunday, Bishop Gene Robinson will be preaching here. I had a recent conversation with one of the leaders of Bishop Robinson’s visit. In the conversation this person spoke of meeting at a social occasion with one of the most significant leaders in the religious community in Melbourne. The person told me, "I thought to myself, at my age I have nothing to lose. I suspected he was against this venture, but I said, ‘Do we have you on board?’ His reply was 'Give my PA a call and see what can be arranged.'"

True self meets performing self…

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.