There are days when I can barely say the St. Francis Prayer that pops up at the end of the Episcopal morning prayer service. I say it with a lump in my throat, with mental fingers crossed, with my own revisions, if I say it at all. This is the famous prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” and goes on to say, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” And all the while my heart is aching for that more-than-human consolation, and for relief from the duty to appear compassionate, sane and cheerful no matter how difficult certain relationships become.
Callan frames this dilemma with her usual eloquence in a recent post about caring for her elderly depressed mother, who doesn’t accept Callan’s male-to-female transition:
Get the ego out of the way, say the Eastern masters. They don’t mention the part where you replace it with the will of a self-pitying narcissist, though many of the gurus, well, they do have their own sense of self.
Hope may be the thing with feathers, but a plucked chicken never has to worry about falling, though her life may be short, fat and consumable by others.
My theory has always been that classic Christian writing puts so much emphasis on shrinking the ego because theology was written by men whose main challenge was avoiding the pride and callousness that went along with their dominant position. For women, who are trained to take responsibility for others’ feelings even at the risk of suppressing our own, taking these teachings at face value can push us more out of balance. It’s interesting that Callan, raised as a man, has for a long time found herself in this typically female situation. Further proof that gender and personality don’t correlate as neatly as ideologues across the spectrum would have us believe.
In any event, her post reminds me of the main stumbling block I faced before I could become a Christian. All this talk of selflessness–didn’t that just put you at the mercy of corrupt human authority figures who were only too happy to prevent you from developing ego-strength? Well, yes and no.
The fools’ gold of Christian morality is a subtle form of works-righteousness that looks (to ourselves and others around us) like true humility. When we are afraid to say “no” to someone who has become a tyrant in our lives, we may think we are demonstrating unselfish Christian love toward them. But are we really doing what is best for them? If not, is it love that moves us, or merely the fear of being wrong?
Jesus said we lose our life in order to find it. If we’re not finding it, and the beneficiaries of our sacrifices also seem to be moving deeper into the prison of the ego and further away from the freedom of life in Christ, it’s time to consider whether we’ve let someone other than Christ be our master.
(A world of thanks to Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Christian psychologists, for their book Boundaries, from which the above insights were taken. This book saved my life and set me on the road to baptism.)