When I was a teenager, I was active in a youth community in the Episcopal church called Happening. We held spiritual retreats for high school kids twice a year, where a ragtag band of us freewheeling teenagers, dressed in our finest flea market attire, would shower each other with Pixy Stix dust and hugs, would lead each other in worship, and would share with each other the deepest and most vulnerable parts of our lives in hopes of understanding how it all fit in the mystery of God’s purpose for us. Even if just for a weekend, we traded in the expectations and judgments placed on us by the world, our peers, even our parents, for a love that was knit in our hearts before the foundations of the earth were laid. And we entered into the fullness and oneness of God.
What freedom I found there! A freedom that was easily known and readily shared in that beloved community. It is a freedom to which we are all called (but seldom find) in this helter skelter world of ours, where it is every man for himself and the brass ring is always just out of reach. I am reminded of the words of a song we sang at Happening before every “talk” one of the youth gave to the group, “find the cost of freedom.” And, I find myself asking, what is the cost of that freedom we are promised? Freedom, which we discover in our inmost selves, when we, as Thomas Merton so beautifully and authentically describes in New Seeds of Contemplation,
throw off the pieces of the world like clothing and enter naked into wisdom.
What does that cost?
For some of us, like my friend Ed — a dear friend and spiritual mentor of mine from Happening (pictured above) — it costs our life. For others, it costs only what we believe to be our life. Our success. Our standing. Our security. Our image. What Merton calls our False Self. And the False Self does not die easy, because, as Merton recognizes, for each of us begins with
the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.
So, as much as the False Self must die before we can enter into the fullness and oneness of God, its death feels as much like dying as I could have every imagined.
It is like waking up in the middle of your life with nothing but the breath in your mouth and the love in your heart. Everything you spent your life working towards up to that point has crumbled. Dreams, hopes, ambitions, desires, expectations. All gone. And for the first time you see things as they truly are, in all their perfect simplicity, in their beauty and splendor. You begin to see the fingerprints of God everywhere you look — on all of creation, even on yourself — and you feel the breath of God stirring up inside you and whipping about you, lifting mountains as easily as the hairs on your arm.
When you look back over the path you trod, a path of death and resurrection, of transformation and transfiguration (what Richard Rohr calls “falling upward“), you see all the things you held most dear in your life toppled and broken. You begin to realize that those things you held most dear — as good as they were, as beautiful, as true — were only idols. As good as they were, and as painful as it was to watch them die, you do not miss them. They were blocking your view of what is most good, most beautiful, most true.
As I reflect on the cost of this journey towards freedom for me and my family, I find myself asking, what remains to be paid? What am I holding back? What other idols are standing between me and the fullness and oneness of God?
And, I find myself praying that God give me the strength to lay those idols down before he brings them down for me.