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The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging
By Brennan Manning
NavPressCopyright © 2015 Brennan Manning
All rights reserved.
Come Out of Hiding
IN FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S short story The Turkey, the antihero and principal protagonist is a little boy named Ruller. He has a poor self-image because nothing he turns his hand to seems to work. At night in bed he overhears his parents analyzing him. "Rullers an unusual one," his father says. "Why does he always play by himself?" And his mother answers, "How am I to know?"
One day in the woods Ruller spots a wild and wounded turkey and sets off in hot pursuit. "Oh, if only I can catch it," he cries. He will catch it, even if he has to run it out of state. He sees himself triumphantly marching through the front door of his house with the turkey slung over his shoulder and the whole family screaming, "Look at Ruller with that wild turkey! Ruller, where did you get that turkey?"
"Oh, I caught it in the woods. Maybe you would like me to catch you one sometime."
But then the thought flashes across his mind, God will probably make me chase that damn turkey all afternoon for nothing. He knows he shouldn't think that way about God—yet that's the way he feels. If that's the way he feels, can he help it? He wonders if he is unusual.
Ruller finally captures the turkey when it rolls over dead from a previous gunshot wound. He hoists it on his shoulders and begins his messianic march back through the center of town. He remembers the things he had thought before he got the bird. They were pretty bad, he guesses. He figures God has stopped him before it's too late. He should be very thankful. "Thank You, God," he says. "Much obliged to You. This turkey must weigh ten pounds. You were mighty generous."
Maybe getting the turkey was a sign, he thinks. Maybe God wants him to be a preacher. He thinks of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy as he enters town with the turkey slung over his shoulder. He wants to do something for God, but he doesn't know what. If anybody were playing the accordion on the street today, he would give them his dime. It is the only dime he has, but he would give it to them.
He wishes he would see somebody begging. Suddenly he prays, "Lord, send me a beggar. Send me one before I get home." God has put the turkey here. Surely God will send him a beggar. He knows for a fact God will send him one. Because he is an unusual child, he interests God. "Please, one right now—" And the minute he says it, an old beggar woman heads straight toward him. His heart stomps up and down in his chest. He springs at the woman, shouting, "Here, here," thrusts the dime into her hand, and dashes on without looking back.
Slowly his heart calms, and he begins to feel a new feeling—like being happy and embarrassed at the same time. Maybe, he thinks, he will give all his money to her. He feels as if the ground does not need to be under him any longer.
Ruller notices a group of country boys shuffling behind him. He turns around and asks generously, "Y'all wanna see this turkey?"
They stare at him. "Where did ya get that turkey?"
"I found it in the woods. I chased it dead. See, it's been shot under the wing."
"Lemme see it," one boy says. Ruller hands him the turkey. The turkey's head flies into his face as the country boy slings it up in the air and over his own shoulder and turns. The others turn with him and saunter away.
They are a quarter of a mile away before Ruller moves. Finally they are so far away he can't even see them anymore. Then he creeps toward home. He walks for a bit and then, noticing it is dark, suddenly begins to run. And Flannery O'Connor's exquisite tale ends with these words: "He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch."
In Ruller many of us Christians stand revealed, naked, exposed. Our God, it seems, is One who benevolently gives turkeys and capriciously takes them away. When He gives them, it signals His interest in and pleasure with us. We feel close to God and are spurred to generosity. When He takes them away, it signals His displeasure and rejection. We feel cast off by God. He is fickle, unpredictable, whimsical. He builds us up only to let us down. He remembers our past sins and retaliates by snatching the turkeys of health, wealth, inner peace, progeny, empire, success, and joy.
And so we unwittingly project onto God our own attitudes and feelings toward ourselves. As Blaise Pascal wrote, "God made man in his own image and man returned the compliment." Thus, if we feel hateful toward ourselves, we assume that God feels hateful toward us.
But we cannot assume that He feels about us the way we feel about ourselves—unless we love ourselves compassionately, intensely, and freely. In human form Jesus revealed to us what God is like. He exposed our projections for the idolatry they are and gave us the way to become free of them. It takes a profound conversion to accept that God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us just as we are—not in spite of our sins and faults (that would not be total acceptance), but with them. Though God does not condone or sanction evil, He does not withhold His love because there is evil in us.
Because of how we feel about ourselves, it's sometimes difficult to believe this. As numerous Christian authors, wiser and more insightful than I, have said: We cannot accept love from another human being when we do not love ourselves, much less accept that God could possibly love us.
One night a friend asked his handicapped son, "Daniel, when you see Jesus looking at you, what do you see in His eyes?"
After a pause, the boy replied, "His eyes are filled with tears, Dad."
An even longer pause. "Because He is sad."
"And why is He sad?"
Daniel stared at the floor. When at last he looked up, his eyes glistened with tears. "Because I'm afraid."
The sorrow of God lies in our fear of Him, our fear of life, and our fear of ourselves. He anguishes over our self-absorption and self-sufficiency. Richard Foster wrote, "Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence."
God's sorrow lies in our refusal to approach Him when we have sinned and failed. A "slip" for an alcoholic is a terrifying experience. The obsession of the mind and body with booze returns with the wild fury of a sudden storm in springtime. When the person sobers up, he or she is devastated. When I relapsed, I had two options: yield once again to guilt, fear, and depression—or rush into the arms of my heavenly Father; choose to live as a victim of my disease—or choose to trust in Abba's immutable love.
It is one thing to feel loved by God when our life is together and all our support systems are in place. Then self-acceptance is relatively easy. We may even claim that we are coming to like ourselves. When we are strong, on top, in control, and as the Celts say, "in fine form," a sense of security crystallizes.
But what happens when life falls through the cracks? What happens when we sin and fail, when our dreams shatter, when our investments crash, when we are regarded with suspicion? What happens when we come face-to-face with the human condition?
Ask any who have just gone through a separation or divorce. Are they together now? Is their sense of security intact? Do they have a strong sense of self-worth? Do they still feel like beloved children? Or does God love them only in their "goodness" and not in their poverty and brokenness as well? Nicholas Harnan wrote,
This [brokenness] is what needs to be accepted. Unfortunately, this is what we tend to reject. Here the seeds of a corrosive self-hatred take root. This painful vulnerability is the characteristic feature of our humanity that most needs to be embraced in order to restore our human condition to a healed state.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich said, "Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us." Our skepticism and timidity keep us from belief and acceptance; however, we don't hate God, but we hate ourselves. Yet the spiritual life begins with the acceptance of our wounded self.
Seek out a true contemplative—not a person who hears angelic voices and has fiery visions of the cherubim, but the person who encounters God with naked trust. What will that man or woman tell you? Thomas Merton responds, "Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon."
God calls us to stop hiding and come openly to Him. God is the father who ran to His prodigal son when he came limping home. God weeps over us when shame and self-hatred immobilize us. Yet as soon as we lose our nerve about ourselves, we take cover. Adam and Eve hid, and we all, in one way or another, have used them as role models. Why? Because we do not like what we see. It is uncomfortable—intolerable—to confront our true selves. Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, explains.
And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing. We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public. And in time we may even come to forget that we are hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like.
But God loves who we really are—whether we like it or not. God calls us, as He did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual makeup can render us more presentable to Him. As Merton said, "We never make this real, serious return to the center of our own nothingness before God. Hence we never enter into the deepest reality of our relationship with him." His love, which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into His truth. "Come to me now," Jesus says. "Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto Me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment your life is a bruised reed, and I will not crush it; a smoldering wick, and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place."
One of the most shocking contradictions in the American church is the intense dislike many disciples of Jesus have for themselves. They are more displeased with their own shortcomings than they would ever dream of being with someone else's. They are sick of their own mediocrity and disgusted by their own inconsistency. David Seamands wrote,
Many Christians ... find themselves defeated by the most powerful psychological weapon that Satan uses against Christians. This weapon has the effectiveness of a deadly missile. Its name? Low self-esteem. Satan's greatest psychological weapon is a gut-level feeling of inferiority, inadequacy, and low self-worth. This feeling shackles many Christians, in spite of wonderful spiritual experiences ... and knowledge of God's Word. Although they understand their position as sons and daughters of God, they are tied up in knots, bound by a terrible feeling of inferiority, and chained to a deep sense of worthlessness.
The story is often told of a man who made an appointment with the famous psychologist Carl Jung to get help for chronic depression. Jung told him to reduce his fourteen-hour workday to eight, go directly home, and spend the evenings in his study, quiet and all alone. The depressed man went to his study each night, shut the door, read a little Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann, played a few Chopin études or some Mozart. After weeks of this, he returned to Jung, complaining that he could see no improvement. On learning how the man had spent his time, Jung said, "But you didn't understand. I didn't want you to be with Hesse or Mann or Chopin or Mozart. I wanted you to be completely alone." The man looked terrified and exclaimed, "I can't think of any worse company." Jung replied, "Yet this is the self you inflict on other people fourteen hours a day" (and, Jung might have added, the self you inflict on yourself).
In my experience, self-hatred is the dominant malaise crippling Christians and stifling their growth in the Holy Spirit. The melancholy spirit of Chekhov's plays—"You live badly, my friends"—haunts the American Christian conscience. Negative voices from our family of origin ("You will never amount to anything"), moralizing from the church, and pressure to be successful transform expectant pilgrims en route to the heavenly Jerusalem into a dispirited traveling troupe of brooding Hamlets and frightened Rullers. Alcoholism, workaholism, mounting addictive behaviors, and the escalating suicide rate reflect the magnitude of the problem. Henri Nouwen observed,
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody" ... [My dark side says,] I am no good ... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence. [emphasis added]
We learn to be gentle with ourselves by experiencing the intimate, heartfelt compassion of Jesus. To the extent that we allow the relentless tenderness of Jesus to invade the citadel of self, we are freed from dyspepsia toward ourselves. Christ wants us to alter our attitude toward ourselves and take sides with Him against our own self-evaluation.
In the summer of 1992, I took a significant step on my inward journey. For twenty days I lived in a remote cabin in the Colorado Rockies and made a retreat, combining therapy, silence, and solitude. Early each morning, I met with a psychologist who guided me in awakening repressed memories and feelings from childhood. The remainder of each day I spent alone in the cabin without television, radio, or reading material of any kind.
As the days passed, I realized that I had not been able to feel anything since I was eight years old. A traumatic experience with my mother at that time shut down my memory for the next nine years and my feelings for the next five decades.
When I was eight, the impostor, or false self, was born as a defense against pain. The impostor within whispered, Brennan, don't ever be your real self anymore, because nobody likes you as you are. Invent a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will know. So I became a good boy—polite, well mannered, unobtrusive, and deferential. I studied hard, scored excellent grades, won a scholarship in high school, and was stalked every waking moment by the terror of abandonment and the sense that nobody was there for me.
I learned that perfect performance brought the recognition and approval I desperately sought. I orbited into an unfeeling zone to keep fear and shame at a safe distance. As my therapist remarked, "All these years there has been a steel trapdoor covering your emotions and denying you access to them." Meanwhile, the impostor I presented for public inspection was nonchalant and carefree.
The great divorce between my head and my heart endured throughout my ministry. For eighteen years I proclaimed the good news of God's passionate, unconditional love—utterly convicted in my head but not feeling it in my heart. I never felt loved. A scene in the movie Postcards from the Edge says it all. A Hollywood film star (Meryl Streep) is told by her director (Gene Hackman) what a wonderful life she has had and how any woman would envy what she has accomplished. Streep answers, "Yes, I know. But you know what? I can't feel any of my life. I've never been able to feel my life and all those good things."
On the tenth day of my mountain retreat, my tears erupted into sobbing. As Mary Michael O'Shaughnessy liked to say, "Often breakdowns lead to breakthroughs." (Much of my callousness and invulnerability has come from my refusal to mourn the loss of a soft word and a tender embrace.) Blessed are those who weep and mourn.
Excerpted from Abba's Child by Brennan Manning. Copyright © 2015 Brennan Manning. Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
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