"You are too small at this point, and the God you will find will be made to fit inside of that smallness."
Those of you following along at home with Richard Rohr will know that this year the good Father has been using his daily emails to outline the seven underlying themes of his teaching. The series has been nothing short of spectactular. Today's email introduced the Fifth Theme, which says the following:
The separate self is the problem, whereas most religion and most people make the “shadow self” the problem. This leads to denial, pretending, and projecting instead of real transformation into the Divine (Transformation).
Today's email just about knocked me right off my seat. It's stunning. So, I'm going to reproduce it here in it's entirety for you,and strongly suggest that you subscribe to his daily mailings yourself if you haven't already.
The problem of “ego” is so recurring in different religions, through successive periods of history and under various disguises, that we know we are dealing with some foundational and core issue, and one that must be almost unconscious. It is an issue that cannot be dealt with by simply being “moral” about this or that, or joining the right group; but by a fundamental “dying” which almost all of us are afraid to do. As Jesus himself says in any number of ways: “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This is why I continue to say that moralism is always the cheap substitute for mysticism (or mature religion).
Since the twentieth century we have used the word ego (Latin for “I”) to describe this rather total identification with one’s own “single grain” as the reference point for life and perception. All great spiritual teachers will tell you that your small self is not the reference point for anything lasting or substantial at all, but only for a small memory bank of experiences, my feelings, and my temporary self-image—all too small and not a fitting reference point for big truth or reality. Paul, in an unfortunate choice of words, called it “the flesh,” and much of Hinduism and Buddhism would have called it “illusion” or even “emptiness.” Thomas Merton and many of us call it the “false self.”
Until this autonomous self is somehow dismantled as a worthy receiver station, one cannot get very far in spiritual seeing. You are too small at this point, and the God you will find will be made to fit inside of that smallness. Your own issues, your personal hurts, and your self-image will, on the other hand, be far too big, too exaggerated, and too grandiose—trying to overcompensate for such lack of perspective and substance. Your feeling world will be “all about you,” because it has no other center of gravity except what you feel moment by moment, and year by year—all of which is shifting sand.
So what happens at the early levels, which is where we all have to start, is that we look for something else to die instead of “me”! We normally choose a specific behavior, an action, a place, a substitute “sacrifice,” a body part to eliminate instead of our false self, which ironically is going to die anyway. This area, defined differently by each person and group, is what we mean by one’s shadow. Your shadow self becomes your enemy, and is usually plausible things like sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There are often, of course, good reasons for tackling these concerns. But “the issue” is not really the issue! Tackling them does not of itself lead you to love of God, love of neighbor, the Gospel, love in general, or even truth.
Yet we persist in attacking the shadow because, frankly, it is a bit easier than dying to who we think we are, or who we need to be, or who we just want to be! And it gives one a false sense of moral high ground. In other words, religion at the early levels largely substitutes superficial shadow boxing for significant death to the false self. It can continue for much of your life and never achieve anything except more and more ego control of the shadow—which makes you more and more anal retentive—and in a most disguised kind of way only strengthens your egocentricity. You are trying to drive out the devil in a most devilish way. This is the garden-variety religion that much of the world dislikes and mistrusts. And it should.
This, in a word, is why immature religion creates such immature, but highly defended, people. To use Jesus’ brilliant metaphor, “You clean the outside of the cup, and not the inside . . . whereas if you clean the inside—the outside takes care of itself” (Matthew 23:25-26).