Lent is a time, not to hurt ourselves, but to die to ourselves so that we can live life to its fullest. Many of our penances – giving up sweets or cigarettes or alcohol, as well intentioned as they are – end up making us more self-absorbed. We are never so conscious of our tooth as when it is hurting. When a tooth is not bothering us, we’re hardly aware of having a head!
If the purpose of Lent is to follow Christ’s advice to ‘die’ to ourselves, not to ‘kill’ ourselves, what penances do work to achieve that? Allow me to share a spiritual practice that a spiritual director taught me that has had a profound, as well as a practical, effect in my life.
We know God as a Trinity, – Father, son, and Spirit, don’t we? Is it possible that there is a trinity in all of us? Let’s call them the “Me,” the “I” and the “Spirit.”
The “Me” is my flesh and blood self, the part of me that is feeling, sensing and aware. The “Me” is typing this column. The “Me” that is in you is reading this column. However, as I write this column, I am also aware of watching myself think and write this column. There is an “I” in you that is aware of you reading this column. What is this “I”? Psychologists call it the “observing ego.” Spiritual guides call it the “Higher Self” or “Soul.” (By contrast, your dog is aware, but it is not aware that it is aware! Your dog is not self-aware. That’s why it often licks ‘inappropriate’ places in public with no embarrassment.)
The “Me” that is in me is caught up in all the drama of life having joys and successes, experiencing depression and anxiety, having blood clots and strokes, experiencing health and vigor. The flesh and blood “Me” is in time and space alone. Because the “Me” is visible and tangible, some think that is all they are. The “Me” is the target of all advertising. Countless people want to sell “Me” cokes and computers and creams and cell phones. The “Me” is formed by my upbringing, conditioned by society, manipulated by advertising and so on.
The “I,” however, is free, spiritual, observing of the “Me.” The “I” that is in me, watches the “Me” experiencing depression, fear, anxiety, excitement and so on. The “Me” likes thrills, which is why the “Me” can get caught up in all kinds of addictions, such as addictions to alcohol and drugs and sex and shopping and so on.
The “I,” however, seeks joy and peace and love.
My point, for Lent and for life, is to practice identifying with the “I” and identifying less with the “Me.” The great mystics and saints did this. They dis-identified with the “Me,” and identified with the “I,” the higher self.
But there is more. For me to recognize that there is an “I” watching “Me,” there must be a third party in us observing both. I call this the “Spirit.” The “I” that is in me has the power to dis-identify with the “Me” because I have the “Spirit of God” to help me!
Jesus of Nazareth, the “Me,” was God in flesh and blood on earth. The “I” that was Jesus also always stayed with the Father. “The Father and I are one.” The Holy Spirit was their promised gift to us.
The sacraments of the church touch all three parts. Through water, oil, bread, words, blessings and so on, the sacraments touch the “Me,” remind us of the “I” and re-energize us, or reconnect us, to the “Spirit” of God!
What penance am I asking us to do? Practice an hour a day being the “I” observing the “Me.” Instead of saying, “I am depressed, anxious, fearful or worried, etc., say instead: “I am watching “Me” experiencing depressed feelings or anxious feelings or worried thoughts.” As we observe our feelings and thoughts, instead of identifying with them, they lose some of their power over us.
Gradually, expand this practice and make is a constant habit: “I” am watching “Me” eat, drink, walk, use the computer, call a friend, etc.”
Gradually living becomes meditating.
As the “I” observes the “Me” without blame, self-criticism, shame, or judgment, gradually the “Me” becomes freer.
When I can make this Lenten practice of self awareness a life practice of self awareness (and not self-absorption) then gradually “I” and the “Spirit” rule my life, and the “world, the flesh, and the “devil” lose some of their power!