There’s a better choice…

JMJ

The Readings for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Station at San Giorgio 

Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdet illam.
For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it.

There is the most wonderful word play here, in the Greek. Our Lord says, in 3 short verses (from 22-25), that  anyone who wants to follow Jesus must… 

Deny himself  (v. 23) 
Take up the cross 
Trying to save his life he will lose his life (v. 24a)
But losing his life he will save his life (v. 24b) 
Who cares if he gains the whole world
If his self is destroyed (v25) 

See those two couplets? 

Deny self – take up cross : gain world – self destroyed
save life – lose life : lose life – save life

The Greek seems to make the parallels using two Greek words, one for soul (rendered “life” in the English, but as soul in the Latin) and another word for self. The NABRE follows the Douay here, both sticking to “life” even through the Greek and Latin say “soul” 

I could venture that we are to read “soul” (or “life”) and “self” as the same thing. But words are chosen for a reason by their writers. What it “self” means a little less than “soul”? I think it’s important that the two choices are “Deny self” or “Self is destroyed” Either way the self goes away, right? Whereas the soul can be saved or lost, the self, not so much. You can gain the whole world and yourself is still going to be lost.

What is the difference between “self” and “soul”?

The Fathers speak of a sort of false self constructed when the passions run amok. If you’ve ever been addicted to nicotine (as I was for a long time) you might be able to relate – especially if you’ve joined the unhooked generation and kicked the habit. Those first few days/weeks of not smoking, you get lost or angry and eventually realize this is a nicotine fit. The difference between “normal you” and “you in a nicotine fit” is also the difference between “normal you” and “you on cigarettes.” You just never noticed it. But your friends did: in Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark (I think… it may have been the next one) she says that if you want to know what is wrong with your presentation, go stand outside with the smokers. Then she comments: “I don’t know if cynics become smokers or smokers become cynics.” Either way, today I would reply, “Ex-smokers don’t have time for that crap, Sister.” That cynic is a false self, the “you on cigarettes”. 

All the passions from anger to sex to bickering on facebook create a false self that we nurture and defend and risk our lives for. When we stop whatever it is to just “be ourself”, the difference between normal you and you stressed out without your favorite self-medication is exactly parallel to the difference between you on your self-med and the real you. 

When we stand up at the cross and nail our false self to it… and let it die… then Christ can live through us: Christ, the Logos of all Creation, is our true self. St Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, not I but Christ who lives within me.”

The Cross is our model, our protection. Letting go the “self”: ideas of who “I am” and “what defines me”, letting go of all the things that make me prideful and unloving, taking up, finally, the only sign of hope we have: the Cross of Christ on which he – like all men – must die in order to bring salvation and on which we – united with our God – will live forever.

It’s a curious interchange: giving up self for soul. The soul may be weak when this process starts. What passed for living before is now not part of the deal. Seen for a crutch, though, we toss it aside and now without it we limp. But Christ the eternal healer can work with us on that: whatever the “soul” version of “rehabilitation therapist” is, Christ is that. He gives us stretches to do, people to love, mercy to perform, and gradually our soul gets stronger until we rest in him for all our strength.

We need no “self” other than Christ. And we have no self other than this thing that will die. Better to go with the ever-living one!

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.