The Shadow Self

Well…I was busted again today by the Holy Spirit. One of the great truths that has emerged through the contemplatives and mystics of the ages is that we humans often prop up a false or “shadow” self into our daily lives. This shadow-self loves to pretend it is the REAL us and loves to try and control the events of our lives along with the people we encounter.

I think the presence of the shadow-me in all of us is the result of Original Sin, which in the Genesis narrative appears when human beings imagine a NEW BEING that wasn’t God’s design—one that claimed it didn’t need God. The anti-God, serpent’s voice claimed that this “new you” would be “like God.” But it was not. It was not a self that God imagined or approved—nor did he recognize it. This would mean that this shadow-self is non-being because it was NOT the creation of God. Remember the claim of Rev. 4:11, “For you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (emphasis mine). Things only have being when God creates them. Col 1:17 tells us that all CREATED THINGS are all things are “held together” by Christ.

The shadow-self is NOT created and is NOT held together by God. Technically, it is nothing (no-thing). It is a falsity held together conceptually BY US. It has no substance, no reality—it is only a phantasm that takes shape when we try to attach things to it to make it seem real (like throwing a sheet over a ghost to give it form—anybody remember Casper?). We try to give this mirage’d-self realness through passion, fame, status, pleasure, intellection, experience, etc. But it doesn't work. It doesn’t work because the shadow-self is not a self that God sees because he did not create it. It has no "being" for only created things have "being" through God.

So here I sit in front of the prayer: “I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed.” I admit that even my very religious, regimented life can be empowered by the imposter of my life—my shadow self! How do I know? Because God-forbid anyone interrupt my prayer time or the plans that emerge out of this special, sequestered time! If I live an unexamined day, my shadow-self ends up being the lord of my life—even of the time that should be the time when I am being formed by God, where the true-self God imagined me to be emerges. 

Unbelievably, there are times when my very prayer time is being empowered by my shadow-me, thereby quashing the real-me. 


Truth is, it is this shadow-self that must be crucified.

But, the real me is so imperceptible at times. Though it is the real me, I am so used to living out of a false-me, I can’t seem to find the real me—the one imagined and created by God in his likeness and image. I am like the poor pagans described by Paul in Eph. 4:18—People who “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” Think of that. The life of God is RIGHT THERE; WITHIN THEM…but they cannot see it. The are “separated” from it. It eludes them.

Augustine nods to this reality in the Confessions as he talks about his life before he crossed the threshold of faith when he was looking for God in things in the world. He claimed that all along God was WITHIN HIM: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Late have I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you.” 

The Psalmist speaks of "The Lord, Who holds our souls in life” (Ps 66:8). You and I are alive right now because he is IN US holding us IN LIFE.

Our REAL SELF is rooted in this reality:


The secret of my identity and your identity is in the love and mercy of God and is identical with him, as we are in his image and likeness (there is no suggestion here that we are God but only our life only happens because of him). He is the reason for our existence. This can only mean there is one central purpose in life--to discover happiness, purpose and fulfillment in our discovering ourselves in the Person of God. We am IN HIM, not in our false selves. If we find him, we will find ourselves.

But only God can help us do this--it is not the work of human effort alone. Thomas Merton claims that we cannot find God—we must wait for him to find us by uttering a word into us. He is claiming that the finding of ourselves is an incarnation, not a human exploration. This means for us to know God, God must make himself known to us. Merton goes on to say that for God to make himself known to us, “God must not only be great, he must be small--small enough to enter our littleness and to make himself known there.”

This is the why of the Order. This is the why of bookending our lives in prayer. We are looking for God. We are looking for ourselves—our true selves.

When I think of the essence of sin as being the impulse to live out life from a false-self instead of the real-self, I realize I could say the confession prayer constantly—and then repent for saying it 3/4ths of that time out of my false-self!

This makes me feel hopeless AND delighted.

Hopeless because I realize faith is beyond human effort and I will never be very good at it (never beyond the acumen of a child). Delighted because this was NEVER supposed to be about the false-self (which is the only part of me that COULD feel hopeless, guilty, shamed, dejected), but about the REAL-ME who only has life in God.