Well, if you take a look at the titles of the bestselling self-help books right now, you’ll see that they all have something to do with becoming your authentic self. Titles like: “The Authentic Life,” “The Art of Authenticity,” and “Excavating the Authentic Self.” It seems everyone nowadays who is seeking to improve their lives wants to get in touch with their authentic selves. But, what is the authentic self?
Well, in today’s Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Jesus tells the first disciples that if they wish to follow him, they must “deny their very selves.”
What did Jesus mean by this?
Well, the “self” of which Jesus is speaking here is the “false self.” This is the self we must deny if we wish to awaken the “true self,” “the Christ self,” the “authentic self.”
That’s why (in today’s Gospel reading) Jesus also tells the disciples that they must “take up their cross” each and every day, for the cross represents the death of the false self and the resurrection of the true self.
Now, let me be clear: Jesus is not saying that we must suffer in order to follow him. But, you know that suffering is often a precursor to spiritual awakening.
Sometimes, it takes a job loss or a divorce, a medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one in order for us to awaken to the Truth of our Being. Oftentimes, when we think our lives are breaking down, we are actually on the cusp of enlightenment. Our breakdown is really a breakthrough.
I’ve shared with you before the story of spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle’s awakening. He was going through a period of great depression and disillusionment with his life. One day, he sat on a park bench alone repeating over-and-over to himself, “I can’t live with myself anymore. I can’t live with myself anymore.”
And, in that moment of breakdown, he had a breakthrough. He realized that if, “I” can’t live with “myself” anymore, then there must be two of me: the “I” and “the self” with which it can no longer live.
Because he knew he was only one person, Eckhart Tolle realized that one of those selves had to be false.
And, in that moment of realization, he came to understand – just as Jesus and all the great spiritual teachers did – that in order for us to live lives of peace, joy, abundance and freedom, we must deny or die to the false self, so that we can resurrect the authentic self, the true Self, the Divine Self. Capital “S!”
When we start to awaken, we begin to realize that the small self (the false self) is just an illusion -- that we’re not what we do or even what we think. The Truth of our being is much greater than that, and the spiritual journey is all about the discovery of that greatness.
But, sadly, Jesus’s instructions in today’s Gospel passage about “denying the self” and “taking up your cross” have been so misunderstood by Christians over the years.
My mother, for example, was an extremely devout Christian, and whenever she had disappointments in her life, she would always say, “Well, this is the cross God gave me to bear.” My mother, like many Christians, seemed to think that misery and suffering are sent by God, and enduring them makes you a good Christian martyr.
And, over the years, I’ve also heard from many gay and lesbian Christians who said that they married someone of the opposite sex or remained celibate because of today’s Gospel reading -- that they repressed their true nature because they heard Jesus say, “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” if you want to follow me. And, so, they saw their sexuality as a cross they had to bear in order to be a good Christian.
And, many of us who grew up in the Christian church were taught that the season of Lent was a time of suffering -- a time to give up the things that bring us joy --as if somehow, all that suffering and repression would bring us closer to God.
It reminds me of the Christians of old who wore hairshirts or who whipped themselves because they believed that pain and suffering would bring them closer to the Presence of God.
Do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus in today’s Gospel passage is telling you that he wants you to suffer and repress yourself and not live a life of joy in order to follow Him?
I think Jesus is saying just the opposite here: I think Jesus is saying (as he did in John 10:10): “I have come so that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”
I think Jesus is saying, “Come, follow me, so that you may experience life to the full -- a rich, authentic life, full of joy and peace and freedom and abundance.”
You see, my friends, when Jesus is talking about “denying yourself,” he’s not telling you to deny the things that bring you joy, but to deny the things that are keeping you from your joy, that are getting in the way of your living a rich, full, authentic life.
I think Rev. Polly Moore said it perfectly in our “Words of Integration & Guidance” today. She said, “When Jesus said ‘Deny thyself,’ what he meant was: Negate (and thus undo) the illusion of self.”
I know that that is a very difficult concept to understand, but, I believe, it is the key to our spiritual awakening.
During a difficult time in my own life, I was led to discover the writings of the medieval Christian mystic known as John of the Cross, and his words which awakened me were: “I have abandoned all I ever sought to be. And, in dying, my spirit has been set free.”
Now, he, obviously, wrote that while he was still alive, so he wasn’t taking about physical death. He was saying that our small self – our ego self – has to die in order for us to truly live.
That’s why Jesus says in today’s gospel: “Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life will save it.”
That’s the true purpose of Lenten season: to prepare ourselves for this death and resurrection and new life.
The purpose of Lent is to “give up” or “let go” of the illusion of the false self, so that you may more fully experience the magnificence of your true self.
For, the Truth of your Being is that: You and the Father, You and the Mother, are One. Not two. One.
When you know this Truth – really know it and start living from it – you become free to be all that God has created you to be.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
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