It is argued (and I concur) that existence apart from God is really a false existence--it is not real, not recognized by God because he did not create or imagine any thing to have existence outside of relationship with himself ("In him all things have their being." Col. 1:17.)
The setting up of the "imagined self" is the fruit of the snake's suggestion in Genesis 3 that if humans act outside of unity with God, we "would be like him," implying we would not need him--that we could BE independent of him. This is where the false, uncreated, illusory self was projected, which some believe is the Original Sin.
Salvation, then, is found in the recognition that life ONLY exists in relationship to God as we surrender in openness to that relationship--only IN HIM do we live and move and have being (Acts 17:28). We are not to fight, strive or perform to get in that relationship--that would be the work of the illusory self--we simply come with brokenness and openness in response to his call and trusting in his mercy alone.
The sad part is most of us cannot recognize the REAL us, who is created by and held in life by God. Many contemplatives refer to the real self as the "hidden self," which is self-explanatory--it is a part of us that is not easily known and must be discovered. Paul alludes to this when he says that pagans are "darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18). Though God created us to live out of an identity all wrapped up in him, many of us live without any illumination of that "self"--our minds are "darkened."
To make matters worse, we mature living, deciding, experiencing life out of our false, illusory self as though it were our true self (but which is no self at all!), and we build and plan our lives in a Babel-esque way to "reach the heavens" completely out of sync with God's plan.
When I suggest to myself that I do not really know myself and have been living, planning, reacting to life, and processing the human experience through a FALSE SELF that isn't even REAL (because it was not created by God), it is disorienting at best and paralyzing at worst. But it IS the claim of sacred text--we are not who we think we are if our whole lives have been built upon a self who is not REALLY a self. This is why we are in such deep kimchee. We don't even know ourselves, which makes faith an inapplicable abstraction to us.
So...how does one DISCOVER the real self. Ahhh...if only that were an easy step 1, 2, 3, answer. But it is not. The true self is about as easy to find as God's presence within is easy to find. As obscure as that sounds, that's about the most accurate way to describe the road to discovery of the true self. In The Confessions Augustine wrote: "I could not be then, O my God, could not be at all, if you were not in me; or, rather, unless I were in you, of whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things."
It is only when you seek the face of God that you discover your own true face. This is not to suggest that you and I are God, but that we only find ourselves as we look at God (like we see a reflection of our faces when we look at the water).
This is not a path of exactness or certitude. In fact, it is much the opposite. This path is one requiring humility and vulnerability as one moves into what many call the "cloud of unknowing." Think of the two places we are most touched by the Person of Christ: when he lies in the manger as an innocent, vulnerable baby and when he hangs on the Cross naked, nailed and dying, refusing to call for help. It is in these kinds of weak places, uncertain places, desperate places, painful places, "this-could-go-in-a-way-I-didn't-anticipate" places, where we fall in love with Jesus and see him most clearly.
I think we find our true selves in these kinds of places too. That's why Christians embrace the Way of the Cross. Following the Way of the Cross means we don't have to hide from our struggles, weaknesses, inconsistencies or failures--we can actually stare through them to the mercy of God and in so doing, we actually find our TRUE SELVES in Christ. This is how we deconstruct the false, illusory self and find the self God imagined us to be instead of wasting our lives living through the fake phantasm of a being (unrecognizable to God) we created in ourselves.
My hope, as the Bishop-Protector of the Order of St. Anthony is to challenge us to persevere in book-ending our days in prayer; embracing weekly fasting; finding paths of simplicity of focus and living; participating in weekly Eucharist; submitting to spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation; et.al. In so doing, we are NOT to act out of the false self--which is only interested in posing; performing; being perfect or right; proving we are better than other people; trying to make up ground for our own stupid; trying to earn brownie points or a Eagle Scout badge from God; etc.
We are doing this to submit to a process that helps us enter "the manger"--as infants in faith, needing to be taken care of more than trying to be in charge. We are doing these things to nail ourselves naked to the cross vulnerable and helpless, doing what we don't necessarily want to do. Think of those times when you plan to skip a meal in anticipation of redirecting your hunger towards the eternal, or it's time to do an office and you think: "Oh no...I have to do these same prayers again!" It's easy to feel like doing the office twice a day is going to kill you (at least a little). But, maybe that's the point?
What if the broken, empty, "I-seem-to-just-be-going-through-the-motions", boring places like the Office can often be, IS the kind of place where we can best bump into God and discover the true human self he created? Not the moments of inspiration or great experience (though we welcome those with thanksgiving). Remember, God inhabits obscurity. He abides in the quiet, secret, hidden place, which seems like a glass through which we can only see darkly. I think we should train ourselves to welcome this as the adventure of faith. Faith may always be a sketchy enterprise, but it can be one that is exhilarating as we radically throw ourselves into it. I want to be like a free-jumper off of the cliffs of the human experience smack into the darkness, which is faith. Whether it's a win or loss, whether I live or die, is not in my hands. My role is simply to jump. I hope this is what all of us in the Order aspire to.