Connect. Know. Love. Cherish. We long for connectedness. We long to love and be loved. We were created by love to love and be loved. We long to be connected to God, our source. We long to be connected to others. We long to be connected to ourselves, to truly know ourselves. And, we long, deep inside, to be connected to creation. Something in us hints that we are part of the vast, the beautiful, the eternal.
Knowing God intimately, knowing others in authentic relationships, knowing ourselves in our essence, and knowing the natural world of which we are a part, is the purpose of our lives.
All of us adopt various personas, character traits, façades, and personality styles. We have to. There’s no other way to fit into our families and neighborhoods. Doing so is a primary task of the first half of our lives. Those personas are influenced by our families of origin, the culture in which we grew up, our educational and religious experiences, and by society as a whole.
We individuate. We separate ourselves from our parents and peers. We are not exactly like anyone else, but our personas are necessary in order for us to fit in. They become our identity. East coast, educated, middle class, antiwar liberal. Friendly Midwest salt of the earth. Southern Belle. Laid back California surfer. Driven entrepreneur venture capitalist. And so on. If we have a strong sense of calling, a big part of our persona will be our vocation. We will see “physician,” “educator,” “civil rights advocate,” or “pastor” as who we essentially are, rather than what we do.
Many people (most people?) never move beyond persona. They live ordinary lives with jobs, spouses, kids, chores, recreation, a hobby or two, and maybe a touch of religion. They’re good neighbors; they give money to charities. They retire, move to Florida, and play golf. They do not ask the existential questions – Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there a God? Who am I? What is my core identity? They feel no need to get to know the child within.
Others of us are forced to explore deep meaning of life questions. Trauma or life-altering circumstances may compel us. The man who was a pastor, father, spouse, and community leader is divorced and fired. Now he feels like he’s nobody. The woman who was a CEO is in a bad car accident and cannot work or walk anymore. Who is she now? The only child of the woman who defined herself as “mom” dies. If she’s no one’s mom, who is she?
None of us escape childhood without being wounded. It is inevitable. We live in a broken world with broken people. Some of us were deeply wounded by abuse, neglect, poverty, death in the family, or trauma. Others of us were wounded more subtly by (for example) coldness, unreasonable expectations, or a lack of guidance. Wounds hurt. We suppress their memory, especially when they are severe and deep, or when they occurred prior to conscious memory, or when allowing them to surface feels like a betrayal of family or clan. We cover the pain up with our masks and personas.
Finding and connecting with the living God, with our authentic selves, and with the reality of creation, invariably involves facing our woundedness. If the wound is severe, we may not even remember it; or, if we do, we may be in denial about how deeply it hurt us. Psychotherapy and spiritual direction combine to help us remember, accept, and face our inner wounds with compassion and grace.
Finding and connecting with the living God, with our authentic selves, and with the reality of creation also invariably involves deconstruction. Our personas must be deconstructed. In the process, our religiophilosophical worldviews almost always must also be deconstructed. What we thought was our core identity must be deconstructed. Our personas must die. We have so identified ourselves with those personas that letting go of them feels like we’re losing ourselves, like we’re dying. It plunges us into dark nights, ego death, purgation.
Full union with God, ourselves, and creation occurs as part of a process that includes purgation and illumination. Purgation isn’t fun. It’s another name for ego death, death to self, death to personas, psychic death, “the dark night of the soul.”
The “dark night of the soul” refers a period of time when God’s presence seems absent. According to her letters, Mother Theresa (now, St. Theresa of Calcutta) did not feel the presence of God from 1948 until her death in 1997. During that time, she often doubted the existence of God. St. John of the Cross (1542—1591) speaks of “the night of the senses,” when we feel cut off emotionally from God, and the “night of the spirit” during which we feel abandoned by God. Our prayers feel like they are ricocheting off the ceiling.
“Ego death” is a phrase in depth psychology (Jung called it “psychic death”) that refers to the destabilization and decentralization of a person’s identity. The false self, which is made up of the various personas we adopt as we mature, is dying. During the process, we let go of everything that previously defined us. Often, we are so attached to those personas that it takes serious trauma to shake us loose.
Or, the impetus may be more subtle – a marriage fails, we get depressed “for no reason,” we feel afraid and anxious, develop a serious illness, lose a job, suffer loss, grief, bereavement, find ourselves in midlife crisis, become aware that our career isn’t going anywhere, develop a feeling of discontentment, or our kids go off and leave an empty nest. We are plunged into ego death, dark night of the soul, purgation. We feel lost and alone. The universe makes little sense.
This death to (false) self is a blessing in disguise if we respond meaningfully. Some people do not. They double down on blaming others and distracting themselves in various ways. Sports bars do a great business. Others are wiser. They pause at the crossroads and consider the various directions. They begin asking the deep questions and seeking truth. They enter into therapy and find a spiritual director. They learn contemplative prayer. Their passion becomes knowing God intimately. They long to know and be known, to love and be loved. They are seeking the God who is love. They are seeking genuine authenticity – to discover and be who they were created to be. They are seeking to intimately know the true and living God, rather than the caricature of God they patched together from religion, family, and imagination. They want to nonsuperficially connect with others.
This is the primary task of the second half of life. It’s what Jesus was talking about when he said we “shall be perfect.” Perfect, not sinless. Perfect, whole, complete, authentic, fully actualized, fully human, fully alive, deeply connected with God, self, others, creation. The process will always be incomplete in this life. Going through the door we call death is a necessary part of the refining process. The journey itself is where we are fulfilled and whole.
We will all, according to the Apostle Paul, stand before the judgment seat of Christ where our works, behavior, character, will be judged in one of two categories. That in us that is like Christ is likened to silver, gold, and precious gems. In God’s presence, anything in us that is Christlike will be perfected, purified, refined. That which is unlike Christ is characterized as wood, hay, and straw. As we are immersed in the fire of God’s love, all that is unlike Christ will be burnt away, consumed, annihilated. It may be a painful process. It therefore behooves us advance towards wholeness here and now.
Our supreme task in the latter half of our lives is to become Christlike. Becoming Christlike has nothing to do with being religious, judgmental, or moralistic. Instead, it means to grow into who God designed us to be, to self-actualize, become whole. Becoming whole involves integrating our personas, shadows, and false selves with our authentic inner cores. Doing so requires discovering inner pain, facing trauma, feeling the full weight of our woundedness, and bringing it to the surface where God can heal it.
Being whole means being connected with the Source of universal love. Being whole means authentic relationships with others. Being whole means recognizing at a deep level that we are part of the natural universe, responsible to love and care for creation. Being whole means discovering and loving our authentic selves.