Our Idols Our Selves


WHILE LISTENING to the most recent episode of Clerically Speaking, I was struck by Fr Harrison’s ruminating on his ADHD and his free will. If we make out a part of us to be “who I am” then everything is filtered through that. Father seemed to be asking if he’s created too much of a crutch, short-handing his entire life into the ADHD diagnosis. It was an internal conversation I recognized because of how we treat SSA. The claim that “this is who I am” is reinforced, over and over, through the process of coming out: each emotional hurdle – telling Mom and Dad, telling my siblings, telling my friends, telling my faith community, etc – involves a process of fear, courage, and eventual release of endorphins, that it might almost be called self-hypnosis. The individual formulates a self-image, then does a test-run and is affirmed in that image. Eventually even the negative reactions to that image become positive reinforcements.

We can do this with sexuality, medical or psychological diagnoses, with our job, our class, our social positions, etc. We create a self-image based on some tiny aspect of ourselves and then feed that image until it grows into sort of synecdoche for our entire person. But that image isn’t me: it is, essentially, an homunculus, a fake me that I put out there to let others see and interact with. The real me, deep inside my being, is not important. Who I am projecting to be now is the only thing that matters. I’ve made a new me out of this one thing.

There are a couple of moments in, of all things, Brideshead Revisited when the narrator recounts that either himself or another character (Rex Mottram) are “part of a man pretending to be the whole”. For Rex it is his political aspirations, which are so important that his politics change over and over: from far right to far left, from capitalist to socialist, he will do anything to be popular – even contradict his previous self-image. The Narrator does this as an artist: puts a self-image of Bohemian Creator out there and runs with it. Anthony Blanche busts him free of this, calling out his charade. It takes, however, a few more chapters before the narrator gets it. Rex never gets it at all.

This seems a species of Imposter Syndrome, projected outward. At the heart of this is a fear that I’m not good enough. I must fool you into thinking I am, though. If I show you a fragment of me, just the bits that are what are needed here, then I have some control over things. You will like me or I will make up a new me for you to like.

What struck me, working through this with my therapist and my spiritual director (two different guys), was that having an homunculus is a defensive habit that is hard to break. In the last 6 months I’ve caught myself making a new one out of my job and out of my vocation: a tiny little mini-me that has all the qualities of a deacon or a soup kitchen director, but none of the qualities of me. God can’t save a mini-me, only the real me, hiding in the background. I wondered how often we do this to ourselves: set up a defensive shield of something (my liturgical office, for example) and then hid behind it. For me it was my religious journey that, after a while, became the thing. I was looking for something but even when I found something it was never good enough. This makes sense, of course: if it’s not the Truth, how can it be good enough? But for a while, it was fun just being the “guy with a really cool journey”. It didn’t matter that I never got anywhere. Rootless trees don’t grow though: they are more properly called tumbleweeds.

The homunculus is, really, an idol: someone I’m pretending to be that is much more important than who I really am. Not, mind you, that the homunculus needs to be important: but it is more important than me. I have created this thing so you must deal with it. You must love or hate it not me. You must argue with or support it not me. I have put so much work into creating this that you must pretend not to notice me at all. This thing is who I am… fully responsible for all that happens, and never at fault. Eventually, I have no choice but to do the things that the homunculus would want for its own preservation. I become the thing itself. (Except that’s not really possible…)

When we have an idol (or a pantheon of them) we can comfort ourselves with the idea that people are relating to us. But no, they are not. They are only relating to the idol – the fake person created to pass for the whole. They sacrifice to the idol their love, their companionship, their time and worth. But they do not know they are doing so. Carrying the idol around, I know there’s an idol, but I dursn’t admit it: to do so would risk giving up the not-real connections I think I have. If I give up the idol, you might not like me. So I, too, begin to sacrifice to it on a regular basis. The idol becomes stronger than I am. Chapters 10-14 of CS Lewis’ Great Divorce have two stories of this issue: The Man with a Dragon (Chapter 11) and the Man with a Chain (Chapter 12). But, more subtly, there are other stories about holding on to self-image in lieu of self also in that chapter. We can make an idol out of everything and, eventually, the idol destroys us.

Tracking my own reactions, there are times when people break the homunculus, or when they shatter my self-identity unintentionally. If I’m doing something where (in my mind) I must be perceived as this thing then to do something that clearly is outside of the role I’m playing makes me wither in self-doubt. For another person to (by their actions) cause me to break character is to provoke a huge emotional response from me – usually anger, yes, but sometimes fear, self-loathing, or pouting. I know who I am pretending to be, but if you get a glimpse of the real me, I have to be defensive. I have to lash out in anger to not only fix the thing you broke, but to quickly cover up the rip you’ve made in my self-image.

As Lewis points out, the homunculus eventually takes over, like a parasite feeding on its creator’s life. Eventually there is nothing left except the homunculus. The thing is God can’t save the homunculus. God can only save a human soul. The Church can’t ordain an homunculus, even one that is liturgically perfect. An homunculus cannot love others, although it can be made to seem as if it is loving others. A choice must be made: do I keep feeding the homunculus, or do I let the real me out of the box? The risk is that the real me must now feel and make choices: to be liked or not, to get saved or not, to love other people or not. Taking risks can be dangerous.

That’s what life is about: be still and know. Life is coming to oneself which can only happen by God’s grace. And self we imagine we’ve found on our own is not really us. As with Abram and the Prodigal Son, God is the only one who can reveal our real self to us. There is no need for panic attacks, angry lashings out, or fearful idol worship. Be still, and know.

God’s Bearhugging Boy


The Readings for Saturday in the 2nd Week of Lent (B2)

Erant autem appropinquantes ei publicani, et peccatores ut audirent illum. Et murmurabant pharisaei, et scribae, dicentes : Quia hic peccatores recipit, et manducat cum illis. Et ait ad illos parabolam istam.
Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spoke to them this parable. 

There are actually three parables in response to this complaint about receiving sinners and eating with them.

The first is about the man with 100 sheep but one goes missing.

The second is about the woman with 10 coins, but one goes missing.
The third is this one, today’s reading, about the man with two sons – and one goes missing.

In all of these the story is about something that was lost, that was marked as terribly important, that was returned at risk. But the prodigal son is different: for the Father doesn’t go looking for the Prodigal, but rather waits patiently for him to come home. That is also a risk. But I think we need to look at all three episodes as a package: there’s a difference between a sheep, a coin, and a son. 

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

A sheep is a (somewhat domesticated) animal. They are a bit stupid – they can float away if the water gets too deep around them while they are eating. They tend to follow the being in front of them. They can get caught in briars like some sort of gigantic, four-legged, bleating, velcrosaurus. (One of these was caught earlier this week as a replacement for Isaac.) You do have to go looking for them. You never know what might have happened.

As for a coin, an inanimate object, we know this is here in the house somewhere. I’ve only just forgot where I put it. This will drive me crazy until I find it. I must have dropped it and… yes, here it is under the fridge. It could also be between the cushions on the sofa. I love sofa cushion searches after a party! In the Fraternity House at NYU this was practically a fund-raising function. 

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

Well, yeah. And Jesus replies, “If you lost a sheep, you’d go looking for it, right? If you lost a coin, wouldn’t you go looking for it as well? And you’d have a party either way (at least inside)… right? A wayward child is very different.”

Brothers and Sisters, we are neither sheep nor coins in three individual stories: we are the lost child in the final episode of one long tale. We are generally not stupid like sheep nor inanimate like coins. We are willful, wayward, well-loved, and welcomed home.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The Prodigal a long way off is not yet fully reconciled to the ways of his father. He hasn’t yet been through even his planned confession: certainly not recognized the fullness of the wrongs he’s committed. He’s a long way off – and the Father runs to meet him. Jesus welcomes us home. In fact, nearly the moment we turn to him, he’s at our side guiding and guarding. The saints would go further: before we turn to him he’s there as well. How can this be, given the doctrine of Free Will? Imagine you are on a river in a rowboat: you can easily row against the current and go anywhere you want. You can also ride the current. The analogy breaks if you press it too hard, but it works well enough. The Holy Spirit is always there (“everywhere present and filling all things” as the Byzantine rite has it). We’re unable to escape. But we’re always able to ignore.

In se autem reversus, returning to himself. The Greek says “having come to himself”. The things of this world that attract us (sex, drugs, rock and roll, or just a good job, a home, a white picket fence, a spouse, some kids, and a couple of dogs) are not us. Each us us, even the most faithful spouse and parent, the most efficient worker, and/or the hardest partier, are  all able to do these things but not to be them. This is not us: our actions are not who we are. Our actions help form us, yes, but they are not who we are. We wake up one day and say, how did I get here?  Then you have begun the real journey home.

Quis, Deus, similis tui, qui aufers iniquitatem, et transis peccatum reliquiarum haereditatis tuae? Non immittet ultra furorem suum, quoniam volens misericordiam est.
Who is a God like to thee, who takest away iniquity, and passest by the sin of the remnant of thy inheritance? he will send his fury in no more, because he delighteth in mercy. 

The publicans and sinners begin to “draw near” and Jesus runs out, grabs them with both hands in a huge carpenter’s arms bearhug and says, “Hey! I got some food here to share…”

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Jesus reply is essentially, “These are not sheep, these are not lost coins. These are people whom my Father made and with whom I am honored to eat. And over food, I may draw them ever closer the one loves them and calls them home…”

Go and do thou likewise.