Self: A widening circle | September 30

Texts: Leviticus 19:18,34; March 8:34-37; Galatians 2:19-20

Speaker: Joel Miller

After four months, we’re at the end of this theme.  That’s a long theme.  We’ve been listening for how we’re Called In to different parts of life.  Called in to the World.  To our City.  How we’re called in to this Congregation and how this congregation calls us in.

And, Self.  Called to be our deepest, truest selves.  Which is another way of talking about how the Spirit wakens us to our participation in the life of God.  Which is love.  Which is life leading to more life.  We’ve got these spheres, these widening circles, where self is both the smallest one, and the one that can transcend all the others.

Thomas Merton calls this “the most important of all voyages.”

This is what he wrote:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. ( “The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century”, p.11.)

Thomas Merton talks about the abyss that separates us from ourselves, but, paradoxically, one of the things about our Selves, is that it’s the one thing we can’t escape.  You can take a break from a congregation, switch to another, or quit church altogether.  You can move out of the city.  You can go on a retreat from the World, at least temporarily withdraw from the systems that order one’s days.

But wherever we go, we still have to live with our selves.  We can’t just change addresses and leave behind our thoughts, our experiences, our wounds, our addictions, our radiance, the stories others have told us about who we are, the stories we tell ourselves.

These are all the pieces floating around in our heads, coded in our relationships, that we experience as our self.  It’s quite a stew.

So here we all are, sitting here with our selves.

Now, as everyone knows, whenever one needs a definitive word on something, one goes to the biblical book of Leviticus.

Leviticus chapter 19 contains a rather generous view of the self.  Verse 18 was made all the more prominent when Jesus highlighted it as part of the Greatest Commandment.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  A little later in the same chapter is a less familiar saying that takes this even further.  It follows that same pattern.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These passages carry a certain assumption about the self – and I would call it a generous assumption.  In the ancient world “love” is used just as much as a statement of loyalty as it is a statement of affection.  To love your king or your master was to be loyal to them, to follow through on one’s obligations toward them, to defend their honor.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  “You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  These statements in Leviticus take for granted the loyalty and commitment one has toward oneself, and then use that as a reference point for how one ought to treat not just the neighbor, but the stranger, the outsider.

And the self is not just some independent isolated figure, but a self-in-community, formed by a particular way of remembering.  Over and over the ancient Israelites are instructed to remember that they were once strangers and foreigners and slaves in the land of Egypt.  This is not just a past experience, but a present part of one’s being.  Part of one’s story, one’s self.  The Holy One liberated them, and they now are to work for the liberation of all people because they know in their very being what it’s like to be a stranger.

This is the beautiful possibility of self about which Leviticus speaks.  Without this sturdy sense of self, the commandments begin to falter.

So…It’s a good thing we always have this sturdy, God-infused sense of self, Right?  We know how to be loyal, and true, and loving toward ourselves, Right?  How wonderful that we are absolutely at peace with ourselves as beloved children of God.  And so it naturally follows that our selves are overflowing with generosity and loving-kindness toward neighbors and those different than us.


From his Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, in the middle of the 20th century, in the heat of Cold War madness, with the world on the brink of nuclear suicide, Thomas Merton writes:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

It’s a phrase with echoes of Jesus’ words to the crowds following him: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  That word for life is psuche and can also mean soul, or self.  It’s where we get our word psyche and psychology.

What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your psyche, your self, in the process?

One of the most intriguing notions of Self I’ve come across recently comes out of a branch of psychology called Internal Family Systems.  This approach sees each person as made up of many different parts, like a family.  Each part has a story, even a personality.  Parts express themselves in relationship to the other parts.  The work of internal family systems includes starting to see and name those parts, those internal family members, be in conversation with them, and help them be flexible and gracious toward each other rather than rigid and domineering.

So, for example, one might discover that one has an anxious child in there, nervous about being accepted in the world.  But this child may not ever be allowed to grow up because of the goal driven Achiever who strives for success at all costs.  The Achiever may be in conflict with the gentle grandmother in there who feels she must always put other people’s needs before hers.  And she might be resentful of the Free-Spirited young adult in there who wants nothing more than to drink in all the beauty of the world.  These, and many more, all in one person.

As therapists were encouraging people to describe their internal family, they began to wonder who was the voice of the client that was able to so accurately and even compassionately name and describe these parts.  They came to call this voice the Self.  And after listening to many, many clients, a clear and consistent picture of the Self emerged.

The Self is the observer of the family, and has the ability to be the leader.  It has inherent wisdom.  It is born whole and doesn’t need to go through stages of development.  It’s so vitally important that when the parts feel that the Self is being threatened, they try to protect it, hide it away and take charge.  But this never works.  The parts think they’re helping, but they’re throwing the whole family out of balance, sending some into exile, losing touch with the Self’s ability to lead and harmonize the parts.  It’s easy for the person to begin believing that they are the anxious child, or the win- at- all- costs achiever.

And so the work becomes enabling these anxious parts to again trust the Self.  To find a way to give voice, for example, to the young adult-ish free spirited one inside, and when the individual begins to feel resentful or anxious about their voice, to have the Self realize which part is feeling this, and give them room to share their bit.

The more each part is listened to with a genuine curiosity, which is exactly what the Self naturally does, the more they relax into a harmonized and even playful relationship with the other parts.

It’s not just that simple, but that’s the basic gist of how Internal Family Systems approaches the inner life, and how it views the Self.

To make the leap back into traditional Christian language, this way of viewing the Self has parallels with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of Christ in us.  One place this shows up is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  So who is the I who is able to talk about this other I who has undergone this death and resurrection?  Paul hasn’t died physically, but he has undergone a kind of death in which a new self has been raised up.  Or a Self that was there all along.  What we might call his true self.  His deepest self.  Or just, his Self.  His self which is now able to see his life and others with compassion and grace.  A self he joyfully identifies as “Christ who lives in me.”

This Self, this Christ in me, is still the same person.  It still has all the quirky and odd things that makes one who one is.  One is still fully in one’s body, one’s family, internal and external.  But one begins to see that who one is is a member of the Christ, a participant in the Divine life.  A small, mortal human and a Self that encompasses all the other widening circles.  This Christ who lives in me, this not I, but Christ, who is my true I, is what allows all of those parts of us to relax and begin to learn a way of living together in peace.  Peace with each other, and peace with other others.  This is our baptismal identity, a gift from God.

Then, the commandments start to fulfill themselves.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.

This is the most difficult of all journeys, but, if we are to take Thomas Merton at his word, it is the most important.  It is ultimately not just our journey, but the journey Christ makes with us.