“When the external life and the inner life are working together, we always have beauty, symmetry, and actual transformation of persons—lives and actions that inherently sparkle and heal, in part because they can integrate the negativity of failure, sin, and rejection and they can spot their own shadow games.” ~Richard Rohr
This pithy statement from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation of August 28 is true but a bit more complicated than it appears. Arriving to “actual transformation” is hard work and takes many years to complete. Integrating our image of God with the “negativity of failure, sin, and rejection” doesn’t happen automatically.
We avoid facing our shadow self like the plague. It is much easier to project our sin and failure on other people rather than owning up to them. Jesus identified the phenomenon when he said in Matthew 7:5, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, nearly 2,000 years later, called it “projection” and identified the projected items as the “shadow.”
We put up false fronts, called personas, to keep other people from knowing the real person behind the front. These false fronts come from what is expected of us from our socialization—culture, family, church, occupation. They are not completely bad; we need them to function. They become bad when we begin to believe that these false selves are our real selves. They become bad when we repress the bad stuff and project it on others.
There are two ways to get to know your shadow, according to Jung. Think of a trait in someone that you can’t stand. More than likely that is a part of your self that you have not dealt with and you project it onto the person you can’t stand. Or ask your spouse or close friend if you are like the person you can’t stand. If they are honest, they will identify the shadow traits you try to conceal.
Most of us don’t have the courage to do this, however. We’d rather mosey along living under the pretense of our personas and our false selves. That is, until someone inadvertently yanks the mask right off your face. That happened to me when someone told me that they thought I was experiencing a spiritual crisis. I was wearing personas of churchman, missionary, and Bible teacher. The statement, a mere observation with no intention to hurt, cut me to the core. It exposed my pretense and made me turn inward; to contemplation among other spiritual disciplines.
Contemplation allows us to see the false selves for what they are: false. If we started contemplation as part of our daily “rhythm and rule,” we would eventually be able to discern the true self from the false self. Most of us, however, are not capable of doing that on our own. We need some kind of crisis like my own mask “off-ripping” to look for help. When we reach that point, we need a guide to help us along the way; a spiritual companion, a spiritual director or a counselor. And we need time.
Once we begin the painful yet liberating process of contemplation, we are confronted with all the shadow traits we had been projecting on others. Fortunately, we also find the true self buried under the garbage of our false selves—the God image within us. This God-image carries his eternal love for us as well as his unbounded mercy and grace.
When the shadow and the God-image confront each other in contemplation, the God-image transforms the shadow and we “have beauty, symmetry, and actual transformation of persons,” just as Rohr claims. When these two opposites are integrated, we have “lives and actions that inherently sparkle and heal.” This does not happen overnight, however. For me the process took years and I am still a beginner on the journey.
Without contemplation, we have superficial lives that are resentful, that grumble and that poison. We see too much of this around us, even among Christians. My wish is to encourage people to begin the process of contemplative transformation before a crisis hits, to turn inward to find the true self before too many personas are established. I would rather be around people who “sparkle and heal” than people who grumble.