“If the goal of the contemplative is union with God, does the individual begin to disappear and lose his or her unique self (personality, emotions) in pursuing this goal?”
The above question came to me in an email from a reader of this blog. It’s a huge question and I’m not sure a single blog post can do it justice. But I’ll give it a try.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests that the spiritual life encompasses four degrees of love. We begin where most people are: in loving our selves, for our own sake. At its best, this is ordinary self-interest, at its worst, it is pure narcissism. But it’s where we start. However, something (a crisis, a spiritual awakening, a bottoming-out) can jolt us out of our self-centered life into recognizing that God is real and God has a claim on our lives. But this second degree of love tends to still be pretty self-involved: loving God, but for our own sake. This is the love of a person who worships God to feel good about themselves, or out of sorrow for their sins, or to get to go to heaven when they die. It’s still better than just pure self-centered love, although it still tends be at least somewhat narcissistic.
However, the person who seeks to grow in grace gradually recognizes that God is so beautiful and good and true that he or she begins to love God not for their own sake, but for God’s sake alone. This is the third degree of love. My devotion to God is no longer motivated by “what’s in it for me,” rather I love Love for love’s sake. My love is becoming what the mystics call detached or disinterested — not disinterested in the sense of “I don’t care” but in the sense of “it’s not all about me.” I begin to seek God’s will in my life for God’s sake. And yes, it is usually at this point that a contemplative becomes serious about seeking union with God, which is to say, a spirituality fully grounded in love.
But there’s still one more degree of love. And paradoxically, it brings us back to loving the self — only now one’s loves one’s self for God’s sake. You see, as beautiful as loving God for God’s sake is, it does carry a risk — of self-neglect or even self-contempt. We can see this in a lot of traditional religious writing, where the writer’s zeal for loving God seems to be matched with a sense almost of self-loathing (“I am a wretched sinner” and so forth). The heresy of Jansenism is marked by this kind of toxic self-rejection. If we love God but reject ourselves, our love is not perfect, and so St. Bernard sees the “highest” degree of love is a return to self-love fully immersed in love for God. Put it this way: God loves me, therefore I ought to love myself, but not a narcisstic self-love but rather a God-centered self-love.
Which brings us back to my reader’s question. Union with God may indeed be seen as a “goal” of contemplative spirituality (I put “goal” in quotation marks because contemplation typically strips us of having spiritual ambition). But it is not about self-abnegation; it is about finding one’s authentic, God-imaged self, maybe for the very first time. Every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God — which means every one of us is a unique, one-of-a-kind expression of God’s splendor and felicity, an expression of God that will never be repeated. Union with God therefore means being a fully expressive of our God-given uniqueness as we can truly be, with God’s help of course.
There’s an old Hasidic tale about a Rabbi named Zusya, who after a long life is lying on his deathbed. Rabbi Zusya is fretting that he did not live a more pious life. He had read in the Talmud that everyone is expected to be as great as Moses. He imagined standing before the judgment seat of God and being asked, “Why weren’t you more like Moses?” or “Why weren’t you more like Elijah?” or “Why weren’t you more like David?” Rabbi Zusya dies, and soon he is standing, trembling, before the judgment seat. With love in his voice, all God asks is, “Why weren’t you more like Zusya?”
So God will ask me, “Why weren’t you more like Carl?” and the same question will be posed to each and every one of us. God is not interested in cookie-cutter saints. The mystical life invites us into holiness, of course, but it is a personal holiness where every individual becomes the unique and beautiful expression of love and life that we are all called to be. That is what union with God promises us!
I hope this is helpful. If you have any thoughts about this question, please post them in social media or in a comment below. And if you have a question for me about any topic related to contemplative living, please send it along via the contact form.