Two nights ago I was in a dream. There was a small piece of paper in my hand, on which I was scrawling a list of my sins and shortcomings. The paper was only the size of a matchbox or so, which is no indication or representation of the number or severity of the sins written on it, since I was writing very small and sins, even if you write them in small letters, remain sins. After finishing I handed the list a priest who was seated in a chair in front of me. I had the sense that I was participating in confession, actually that’s exactly what I was doing, although the two of us present weren’t independently concealed in the customary partitioned booths (or so I’ve heard are customary, though I’ve never been in a confessional booth personally). At some point in the exchange and in the dream I found myself in a nearly prostrate position before the priest, bowed low to the ground with my hands folded in a sort of prayer-like posture. It appeared humble, though I don’t remember feeling any true remorse or humility in my heart. Isn’t it interesting how often and how skillfully we feign humility, generosity, kindness, patience, or love? Sometimes we pretend these things so well that we actually believe them to be true ourselves.
As I sat waiting for my absolution to be delivered I heard the priest laugh and I looked up wonderingly. There he sat reading through my sins one by one and after each he would smile a slight smile and chuckle. I remember thinking this was odd. After a minute, still holding the little paper in his hands, he looked in my direction with eyes full of kindness and wisdom and said, “Colt… the next step in your spiritual growth is going to come as you realize that there is nothing you can change about yourself or your life that can ever make you more loved.” Then I woke up.
Isn’t this what we have all done? Throughout the course of our “growing up” we have molded ourselves, sometimes involuntarily but also of our own will, into the image that we have decided to call “me” (though it is most often the image that we secretly believe will please others). You did not decide who you were when you 12. You were told who you were when you were young and have continued to be given feedback like this for the rest of your life; constantly micro-shaping your image of ‘self’ in order to try to answer the introspective inquiry of “who am I?” but also to meet the perceived expectations of those around you. This self that we build in response to our needs, environment, and the expectations of others is what Thomas Merton and others have termed, “False Self”. It’s not bad, it’s just not entirely true.
We create this false self out of a very real need to be loved and appreciated and accepted. This is where the message of salvation comes in. I don’t mean salvation in the sense that if you believe like me you’ll be saved from hell, forgiven by a previously angry God; I’m talking about realizing that you are loved, lovable, and even an expression of Love Herself, and that all that is expected of you in this life is to be that. I think this is the salvation that Jesus actually tried to offer people. The realization that you and I are loved, “as we are and not as we should be” as Brennan Manning put it, and that there’s nothing that can separate us from or bring us closer to God. This is important because when we recognize that we are continually and eternally enveloped in a Reality of Goodness, then moment by moment trials lose their sting and we slowly gain the ability to rest in the Love and peace that surrounds and inherently fills us.
All you have to do is give up. By definition when we stop trying to fix ourselves we are accepting ourselves. I’m not saying that we should just yield into all our desires and shortcomings and stop caring or trying to grow. I’m just saying we can lean into The Light and let ourselves be gently carried along the path of transformation or enlightenment. We stop fighting against the current; not thrashing, kicking and wailing to try to be heard or seen, but resting in the quiet security and joy of realizing that we’re already seen, already included, already loved. This doesn’t require any major immediate changes. You don’t have to delete Facebook, buy a new self-help book and up your meditation time to three hours a day. Simply take a moment in the morning when you wake up to be still and whisper to yourself the eternal truth, “I’m already loved exactly as I am”.