Presenting your genuine self




What does it mean to be your genuine self, when you pray?

God can save the sinners we are. But not the saints we pretend to be. —Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Metropolitan Anthony makes this point often in his excellent books Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer. He recalls this rather funny phenomenon, where prayer becomes a kind of self-presentation. Often when we address ourselves to God we unconsciously adopt a persona. For many of us, it’s a pious one. Suddenly I’m standing before God as this meek creature, asking forgiveness for my faults. My brow is furrowed, my hand is on my chest. I present others before God too, friends and enemies alike, in a spirit of innocent love. All of that is good:  asking for forgiveness, lovingly lifting others to God’s care. But what if I’m only doing that in a pro forma kind of way?

Perhaps even that isn’t such a bad thing. As the expression goes, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” In other words, sometimes it’s good to go through the motions in order to train ourselves, on the way towards making those same motions expressive of a deeper reality. So maybe I can recite prayers in a rote way, and whether I’ve actually meant a word of it or not, it will still have been worth my putting myself into that posture of prayer, and mouthed the words, as a kind of training towards a deeper experience of the prayers.

That can work, but it’s risky. The problem is that we are liable to get stuck in the “Fake it” stage. Because praying and actually meaning it is scary. Genuinely asking forgiveness for sins, and genuinely praying for others, especially the “trouble” people in our lives, will probably mean that we need to alter our lives. Work on not sinning. Work on loving the people we pray for. Effectively, changing our inner lives. It’s much easier to fake it.

One of the ways we fake it is by becoming someone else while we pray. Before we’ve even uttered a word in prayer, when we put ourselves before God, we might ask, who is this “self” I’m presenting to God? Is it me, or is it a façade of some sort? The façade, the persona, can safely pray in an earnest way, and then leave the prayer-mode and return unchanged.

It’s much more challenging, but so much more fruitful, to use prayer as a moment to get in touch with my genuine self, in its untidiness, and present that before God. Knowing that God has seen this kind of thing before; knowing too that God loves this very same genuine self, in all its beauty, mediocrity, failing and striving. He will save that broken self. But he’ll want to wait for me to offer it to him first. That’s what I think this lovely quote means.

So if you do devote a specific time to prayer—whether in Church or at some other dedicated time—when you do so, consider beginning it something like this: Stand/sit there briefly in silence. Hear the silence. And before saying anything, take a moment to become mindful of who you are at that moment, and who it is you’re praying to.

It’s time well spent: it might change everything.

“More human than God intended.”

“He was a great poet, perhaps more human than God intended.” This assessment of one of our era’s greatest artists came from someone whom he had harassed sexually. I was struck by this phraseology.

In recent months, the avalanche of revelations and accusations of sexual misconduct have raised many important questions. Among these is whether a great artist’s work can still be admired and even loved when he himself has turned out to be deeply flawed in certain areas of his life. (I say “he” and “him” since sexual harassment is almost exclusively the province of men.)

What struck me in this case was this woman’s comment—about Derek Walcott—that he was great, but “perhaps more human than God intended.” This is a version of the “I’m only human” trope, also found as “all too human” or  “to err is human”—the logic being that human beings are so liable to be faulty that humanity itself is defined by deficiency. And that, to me, is a problem.

To be fair, these expressions all have the intention of giving us a break, checking our perfectionism, reducing our unhealthy regret. If it is truly human to “err,” then my error isn’t such a tragedy. And—true enough—everyone does slip up, sometimes innocently, sometimes in a calculated way; with few repercussions or wish disastrous ones. Looking around us and at ourselves, it is impossible to evaluate humanity as perfect or flawless. So, basing ourselves purely on the observation of existing realities, to err is human.

Yet from the Christian perspective, sinning isn’t human at all. We are made in God’s image, and are frequently reminded to be perfect as God is perfect. The Orthodox Church rejects any teaching that we are “totally depraved.” It acknowledges our systemic sin and total dependence upon God, but refuses to say that we are lost to goodness. Humanity, and human beings, are good-but-broken. The distortion of goodness is different from its obliteration.

By now most of us are aware that the Greek for “sin” means “missing the mark,” and in fact a lot of our expressions in English reveal an intuition that humanity is in fact good, at its very root. That’s why we speak of an atrocity or of cruelty as “inhuman,” and why someone who has shown valor or compassion may say about herself “it was the human thing to do.” After all, the word “humane” —which means compassionate, benevolent—comes from the word “human.” Sin isn’t endemic to human nature, it is a distortion of it.

But back to the quotation that began my reflection, where someone is assessed for his serious flaws as “perhaps more human than God intended.” That, to me, is an affront on our basic understanding of humanity. Not only is it saying that it’s “human” to be a sexual predator, which is preposterous, it’s also saying that God had intended this person to be somehow better-than-human, and that we’re all disappointed that he turned out to be …human (i.e., a sinner).

Am I being too picky here? Well, I see it this way: until we get it right as to what human beings are, at the root of their nature, we won’t understand sin, virtue, mercy, or salvation.

Challenges in humility: Being edited

Today I sent my final manuscript for How to Be a Sinner to the Press. Several friends had read drafts, and most of their comments addressed the tone of my writing, rather than the content. So the Press engaged the best copy-editor I know: Patricia Fann Bouteneff. There were multiple lessons for me to draw, vis-à-vis …humility.

Some of the factors at play:

  • She’s excellent at this work. She has decades of copy-editing experience. She’s worked on all my books and many of my essays. She knows me, and what is sought from her work.
  • She is my wife. We are likely to talk about the book in the same time that we talk about emptying the dishwasher and who’s baking the bread.
  • She is my wife. We talk about what’s wrong with my prose (and sometimes my ideas) in the same time that we talk about other problems.
  • Did I mention already that she is my wife? Remember that a lot of what this book is about is humility and realism in dealing with one’s faults… That means that I am obliged—by the laws of the book and those of marriage—to, umm, be humble, as I watch my lovely prose get sent through an excellent but ruthless machine.

Generally speaking, being edited can challenge the ego. Writing, for me, is both very hard work and also a pleasure. When I’ve put in the hard work, I am liable to be pleased with my prose. The trick for me has been not to become attached to it.

This book took a couple of years to write, and all my drafts were written in prose that I thought was warm and accessible. I liked it! But as readers weighed in, it turns out that it came across as chatty with too much extra fluff. So Pat knew what she had to do. And I had to brace myself—partly because I know how she works. As a rule, prisoners are not taken.

Generally speaking, Pat is not one to stroke my ego. She’ll tell me when I’ve done something well, but won’t dwell on it. She also trusts me enough to be quite frank about my shortcomings. (Those, she can dwell on!) Seriously though, he helps ensure that I don’t develop an unduly large ego, and this is one of the many ways she plays a part in my salvation.

So the other week she sent me the edited manuscript, with changes tracked. I know from past experience that this can be exciting, but also painful. This time around, I decided to take my next editing pass without seeing the changes. This helped a great deal, because rather than see my precious prose go through the shredder I found myself simply reading a crisp and clear product that, for the most part, sounded like me. It sounded, in fact, like the me I’d like to be, stylistically speaking.

In places, I knew what had been taken out. Sometimes I was just as happy or happier without it. In other places I brought back some discarded material, but in an altered, crisper form. Every once in awhile, just out of curiosity, I would click on “view all markup” and would pale at the sheer quantity of excision. But then I’d take a deep breath and go back to reading the-me-I’d-like-to-be.

Generally speaking I did better, emotionally speaking, through this process than I had for some of my previous books. I attribute this to a couple of factors:

  • For the most part I didn’t look at the “trash pile” of my excised prose.
  • I’ve been through this enough times now that I’m more like, “whatever.”
  • Pat and I have grown, and grown together, in our 25 years of marriage.
  • And finally, I do mean it: this book’s themes simply don’t allow me to be a jerk about my writing. The book, after all, is about humility, faults and their correction,  surrendering attachments, fostering compassion, and ultimately about peace of soul. So if I’m going to get behind my material, I’d sure better do it while I’m writing it.

Thank you, Patricia.

“…that we must look into ourselves…”

Etty Hillesum is someone to get to know better. A Dutch Jew during the Nazi period, she became increasingly interested in the Bible and in Russian literature (especially Dostoevsky). Over time, and notably during her time in concentration camps, she kept diaries that would justly earn her the reputation of being a genuine mystic. She knew the darkness within us, better than most. But was always more focused on the light, without losing her realism.

That realism extended into a powerful sense of God, her self, and the relationship between her inner life and the condition of the world. In that, hers is a fitting follow-up to what I observed last time, about G.K. Chesterton. This excerpt from her diary is especially evocative:

The rottenness of others is in us, too. I see no other solution. I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learnt from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else.

These are words from a concentration camp. Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.

Her diaries and letters are collected in this as well as other volumes.