contemplative spirituality

The Cheap and Showy Garment

“Sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty, but also in its great and very simply dignity: created to be the child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and his unselfishness.”

-THOMAS MERTON, No Man Is An Island

Reflecting on the immediate result of sin in the human story — you know, Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit, the snake and the tragic bite — I find it interesting the first thing we observe is that they were overwhelmed by a feeling of nakedness and shame. Suddenly facing a world now haunted with lurking dangers from without and a new propensity for crippling self-sabotage from within, their first move was to withdraw from the light of the day, and hide in the shadows. Grasping for fig leaves and a false self to hide behind, humanity began down the long and windy road of life East of Eden.

In the Western Christian tradition, we have tended to focus on sin primarily in terms of deeds that break God’s laws incurring guilt requiring payment and so on. Without denying this dimension of sin and salvation, I think we could benefit from broadening our understanding of sin’s impact by exploring another dimension of the fall that other Christian traditions have emphasized. We are doing a little bit of this in our current sermon series called “The Pilgrimage of the Soul.”

The quote from Thomas Merton above describes a view of sin that focuses on the way sin drove a wedge into our own souls, separating us not only from God, but also from peace with our own selves. Many of us know deep down that the one we often have the hardest time loving and forgiving is our own self. We find it easier singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like you and him and her.” But me? Really? Maybe Jesus really meant it when he included in the Greatest Commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And we cannot love others well when we hate ourselves. You know the saying, “Hurt people, hurt people.” Likewise, loved people usually love people better.

So, what do insecure human beings do with this primordial sense of shame or inadequacy? We cover and mask ourselves. We concoct and construct a false persona to hide behind and present to the world. This happens early and we slowly add and perfect this ego self over the first 30 or so years. We call it “personality.”

It’s not bad per se. Some would say it’s a necessary part of the human development process. But its a coping mechanism to help us survive in a dog-eat-dog world. So, for example, some flaunt their aggressive drive and determination by getting ahead and succeeding in sports, school, or business. Others hide behind their sweet and endearing charm, getting their sense of worth from being seen as “the thoughtful one” who is always “so helpful” and everyone loves to be around. Others make their way as a creative artist or brilliant thinker, seeking approval and affirmation by their music and poetry, or their knowledge and depth of insight.

Again, this is not bad, and probably necessary, but it’s still a false, concocted self that denies and avoids our insecure authentic self that is longing to be back home in Eden in the warm and safe glow of God’s holy presence where we once stood naked and unashamed. What if God’s rescue mission in entering into our human condition in the incarnation was not merely to become an atoning sacrifice, but to bring us back home to our own soul’s habitation in the unconditional love and embrace of our Heavenly Father?

What if sin is not just missing the mark in our behavior, but also the “fixations that prevent the energy of life, God’s love, from flowing freely…the self-erected blockades that cut us off from God and hence our own authentic potential” (Richard Rohr). 

The spiritual pathway and practices of the contemplative quietly draw us out of hiding in the bushes, still naked and ashamed, and into the new possibility of renewed communion with the God who loves us as we are, and not as we should be and wish we were. Knowing God’s unconditional love for us can unlock love for ourselves as well.

Salvation involves forgiveness of sins and Eternal life, yes. But John, the most contemplative of the Gospel writers, would also remind us that Eternal life is more than a future in Heaven: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Such intimate knowing invites intentional contemplating, and contemplation is the spiritual pathway toward casting away that cheap and showy garment we have worn for far too long. We’ll let Merton have the final word as well as the first today.

“Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: “It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”


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