Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Selfless Self

On a recent car trip from New Hampshire to western Pennsylvania I had time to think. I don’t like to listen to the radio, and we did not bring any CDs. We did some reading. My wife Jude read aloud our morning devotions and some of the newspaper (the section on the new Harry Potter film). Later I silently read the rest of the paper.

But mostly we talked or enjoyed silence. For a couple of hours, while my wife listened to Christian music on her iPod, I enjoyed some philosophical reflection. Because I am basically a selfish person I thought about myself – or more exactly my self.

There are many qualities associated with self. There is self-centeredness, self-esteem, self-employment and self-actualization. There is self-justification, self-involvement and self-knowledge. There is self-love and self-loathing, self-conceit, self-importance and self-satisfaction.

There is even a magazine entitled Self, which can be found on self.com. It seems I am not the only person interested in my self.

I find the words “selfish” and “selfless” interesting. Think about the literal meaning of these words. Selfish is about the self. A stylish person has style; a selfish person has self. A selfless person literally has less self. Does that imply that Jesus, the perfectly selfless person, had no self? If he was full of God, perhaps there was no room for self.

In Buddhism the self is seen as illusory - the doctrine of “no-self.” They say there is no one home in this body and mind. The self is just a fleeting constellation of thoughts and feelings that we mistake for an enduring entity.

In Hinduism there are two selves - the little individual self and the “capital S” Self. The big Self swallows the little self like the sea swallows a drop of water. This cosmic Self is understood as our true identity. The spiritual life is waking up to that Self-knowledge.

Christianity never developed the idea of a divine Self masquerading as little individual selves. Instead we are real little selves created in the image of the Other Self who is clearly not ourselves.

The selves can have communion and (in Christian mysticism) union with God. But it is a costly union – both to God and man. The Cross is the self crucified, so that the risen Christ who knows Himself as God’s very Self, may live.

By faith we share Christ’s selfless death and Self-ful (is that a word?) resurrection.  We live in Christ, and Christ lives in us. We are the body of Christ. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

Me? Well, my self is still selfish. My selflessness appears only for brief visits. But as I peer into the depths of myself, I see the Holy Spirit indwelling my spirit. God is the selfless Self at the heart of my self. And as Augustine said, “My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in Thee.”

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