In my recent reading of The Good Heart, I came across this statement by Fr. Laurence Freeman:
…there are different forms of intolerance, some more political, others more psychological. And they all have their root in the tyranny of the individual ego that clings to its obsession with being special yet shirks the challenge of accepting its uniqueness.
This statement was made, almost in passing, while reflecting on the importance of inter-religious dialogue, but it has profound significance for every aspect of spiritual practice.
One of the things common to many mystical traditions is language about a need for the “death of the ego”, or eliminating self-interest in some way. There are corollaries in mainstream Christianity as well, where we hear testimony that we should sacrifice our wills to God. We may have even been taught that our highest aspiration is to throw away all our personal desires except for the desire to fit ourselves into a particular mold for how a good Christian is supposed to look, sound, and act. It’s not unusual for such teachings to be accompanied by the psychological insight that our desire for specialness, to be esteemed and admired as extraordinary in some way, even if only by oneself, is often the biggest single roadblock to living a more integrated and mature spirituality.
While that insight is valid, it is a mistake to take it as a doctrine that there is no spiritual value to the differences that naturally and necessarily make each of us unique human beings. From a traditional Christian perspective, such a view is at odds with the realization that each soul is a singular and cherished creation of God, each with a one-of-a-kind combination of spiritual gifts, life experiences and perspectives. It also places unnecessary, even unhealthy, limitations on our potential to enrich our relationships with God’s other children.
In the name of being more spiritual, enlightened, or pleasing to God, the denial of any value in uniqueness can lead to a game in which we puff ourselves up with rituals of self-flagellation, humility worn on our sleeves, suppression of our talents, and refusal to outwardly enjoy even the gift of gratitude from others. In effect, it is saying to oneself, if not everyone else, including God, “See how special I am for denying my specialness?!” So we develop a secret spiritual pride, and often simultaneously pile up secret shame, guilt and self-loathing in our semi-conscious awareness of the deceit we are perpetrating.
There are even greater tragedies connected with this vicious circle of seeming virtue. To begin with, such false meekness makes it easier to bury our talents and sidestep the struggles (and the joys!) of serving the manifestation of Heaven on earth in the ways, times, places and lives of others that only we, each as unique souls, can do. Beyond that, it can produce in us a sense of resentment and self-righteous judgment toward those people who aren’t strangling their own souls as we are, which is how, as noted by Fr. Freeman, intolerance begins to emerge. In this mindset we begin to divide humanity into teams – “ours” and “theirs” – with a desperate sense of conviction that our team is good, right, true and blessed, while their team is bad, wrong, false and damned. Rather than serve love more directly and freely, we externalize our own confused internal warfare and spread our suffering into the lives of others.
One of the potential blessings of mystical practice is that it welcomes the Holy Spirit to facilitate a more profound appreciation of the eternal spark within our souls as well as the impermanence of our personal existence. We also come to the awareness that the same conditions are true for everyone else, which begets the further blessing of greater compassion for others. We can come to know and accept that each of us is a unique flower of God’s love – our petals budding, blooming, fading and then falling to return to the soil within a very short span of time, yet contributing to the ongoing processes of creation, of life and love, in ways that we cannot even begin to fathom. This is a significant development in the spiritual formation and self-actualization of a mystic. We do not have the foresight to know the effects of all our choices but we can proceed with the faith that a life of uniquely loving attitudes and actions will contribute to a healthier, more diverse, and more beautiful garden. In this vision it is sad to think of a flower choosing to keep itself wrapped up tight, as though there is some special merit in trying to remain a bud. It is sad to imagine a lily trying to pretend it’s a rose, as though only a rose can be loved by the Gardener and other flowers. Why would the Gardener, who is Love itself, expect us to torture ourselves so?
Your heart knows what kind of flower you are, even if your mind can’t clearly foresee it. Just let it bloom. You’ll love it! Other flowers will love it too. The Gardener already does, and there is no better way to surrender to the Gardener’s will.