Does Union with God mean Losing Your Self?

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken!
Be yourself. Everyone else is taken!

“If the goal of the contemplative is union with God, does the individual begin to disappear and lose his or her unique self (personality, emotions) in pursuing this goal?”

The above question came to me in an email from a reader of this blog. It’s a huge question and I’m not sure a single blog post can do it justice. But I’ll give it a try.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests that the spiritual life encompasses four degrees of love. We begin where most people are: in loving our selves, for our own sake. At its best, this is ordinary self-interest, at its worst, it is pure narcissism. But it’s where we start. However, something (a crisis, a spiritual awakening, a bottoming-out) can jolt us out of our self-centered life into recognizing that God is real and God has a claim on our lives. But this second degree of love tends to still be pretty self-involved: loving God, but for our own sake. This is the love of a person who worships God to feel good about themselves, or out of sorrow for their sins, or to get to go to heaven when they die. It’s still better than just pure self-centered love, although it still tends be at least somewhat narcissistic.

However, the person who seeks to grow in grace gradually recognizes that God is so beautiful and good and true that he or she begins to love God not for their own sake, but for God’s sake alone. This is the third degree of love. My devotion to God is no longer motivated by “what’s in it for me,” rather I love Love for love’s sake. My love is becoming what the mystics call detached or disinterested — not disinterested in the sense of “I don’t care” but in the sense of “it’s not all about me.” I begin to seek God’s will in my life for God’s sake. And yes, it is usually at this point that a contemplative becomes serious about seeking union with God, which is to say, a spirituality fully grounded in love.

But there’s still one more degree of love. And paradoxically, it brings us back to loving the self — only now one’s loves one’s self for God’s sake. You see, as beautiful as loving God for God’s sake is, it does carry a risk — of self-neglect or even self-contempt. We can see this in a lot of traditional religious writing, where the writer’s zeal for loving God seems to be matched with a sense almost of self-loathing (“I am a wretched sinner” and so forth). The heresy of Jansenism is marked by this kind of toxic self-rejection. If we love God but reject ourselves, our love is not perfect, and so St. Bernard sees the “highest” degree of love is a return to self-love fully immersed in love for God. Put it this way: God loves me, therefore I ought to love myself, but not a narcisstic self-love but rather a God-centered self-love.

Which brings us back to my reader’s question. Union with God may indeed be seen as a “goal” of contemplative spirituality (I put “goal” in quotation marks because contemplation typically strips us of having spiritual ambition). But it is not about self-abnegation; it is about finding one’s authentic, God-imaged self, maybe for the very first time. Every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God — which means every one of us is a unique, one-of-a-kind expression of God’s splendor and felicity, an expression of God that will never be repeated. Union with God therefore means being a fully expressive of our God-given uniqueness as we can truly be, with God’s help of course.

There’s an old Hasidic tale about a Rabbi named Zusya, who after a long life is lying on his deathbed. Rabbi Zusya is fretting that he did not live a more pious life. He had read in the Talmud that everyone is expected to be as great as Moses. He imagined standing before the judgment seat of God and being asked, “Why weren’t you more like Moses?” or “Why weren’t you more like Elijah?” or “Why weren’t you more like David?” Rabbi Zusya dies, and soon he is standing, trembling, before the judgment seat. With love in his voice, all God asks is, “Why weren’t you more like Zusya?”

So God will ask me, “Why weren’t you more like Carl?” and the same question will be posed to each and every one of us. God is not interested in cookie-cutter saints. The mystical life invites us into holiness, of course, but it is a personal holiness where every individual becomes the unique and beautiful expression of love and life that we are all called to be. That is what union with God promises us!

I hope this is helpful. If you have any thoughts about this question, please post them in social media or in a comment below. And if you have a question for me about any topic related to contemplative living, please send it along via the contact form.

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15 thoughts on “Does Union with God mean Losing Your Self?”

  1. DavidFromDenver

    Great post on the real self. Slightly O/T. Have you read Bernadette Roberts on Christian “No-Self?” Sort of East meets West in the Holy Trinity. If you have, would you care to comment.

    1. David, I own two of Bernadette Roberts’ books, but they’re among the hundreds (thousands?) of books in my library that are “not yet read”! So many books, so little time. There is a website devoted to her and her work, managed by some of her students:

  2. Hi Carl, thank you so much for your posts on fostering a contemplative church and on union with God. I am a meditator and also recently attended a Mass in a local parish where there was a 3 minute silence after communion. Your article inspired me to find out if this was being practised in my area. I experienced a feeling of togetherness in this silence although i don’t attend this church regularly. I am a new Catholic, having converted almost two years ago, and am still working my way through where i am and where God is taking me. Have been reading Caussade’s book “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence”, and finding it very helpful in learning how to let God lead and guide me. Anne

  3. The mystery of union is indeed a huge subject. Everyone who has known a ‘peak experience’ would I think agree that in some sense there is a loss of self involved. But yet there must still be an identity to recognise that loss of self. I like to see it in terms of the ‘transfiguration’ of the different facets of the personality, though I could not say exactly what I mean by transfiguration – but I like to think of the description of Christ’s transfiguration as a glimpse as to what it might mean.

  4. Thanks for such a beautiful and powerful insight about the nature of union with God, our Creator. The Carmelite Saints have profound words of wisdom and true, particularly St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
    Blessings, Carl.

  5. I’m so glad I was led to reading this article as it touches on what has consumed me for a very long time now and finally a dawn of understanding…. Stuck in a cycle of condemning the self and yearning for closeness of God and in my humaness, stubbornly could not get past the very real expression of anger when my concience brought it to light again and again. Your words brought healing to my troubled heart. Thank you.

  6. Hi Carl:

    Fascinating reflections on this subject. But I wonder if you’re making the recognition of our true, authentic spiritual self a bit too easy? I’ve been immersed mostly in Indian traditions. Many Westerners caricature them as wanting to get rid of the individual. But Robert Thurman (a Tibetan Buddhist monk as well as chair of Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia) suggests that until we discover our “True Self”, we cannot truly be an individual, but rather an array of mental, emotional and sensory habits at the mercy of every passing influence.

    So far so good, and much in tune with what you wrote. But now down to brass tacks – how to actually identify this truer individuality (and as you rightly note, without undue self-abnegation)? It is not so easy, I think, as so much of what we often take to be our “true” self is actually just more of that flotsam and jetsam on the surface.

    To put it most simply, my own discoveries in this area seem to coincide with periods of rather deep inner (and at times, outer) silence, with a rather dramatic increase in “synchronistic” occurrences which serve, in a way, as Divine Guides to what “I” need to be doing to uncover this deeper, truer Being.

    I’m not sure I’m saying this as simply as I need to. Let’s see – right now, sitting at my desk at the window overlooking the trees in Shiloh (Asheville, NC), taking a break from composing music for a “breathing video”, recovering from a sore throat and coughing every few minutes, I pause and wait in silence…….

    I feel gratitutde for your column, and the sensory experience shifts and beomes lighter, more “alive.” The felt-experience is one more of a continuity than “me” here and desk, window, trees, sound of washing machine over “there.”

    And a tremendous sense of mystery, not-knowing – not an uncomfortable “Oh my goodness who am I where am I” but a childlike delight in not-knowing.

    So, not sure if that is any clearer…..:>))

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Don. I don’t think I said it would be easy! But I do think that sometimes spiritually-minded folks can unnecessarily complexify what really is an essentially simple reality or view or practice.

      FWIW, I’m a bit allergic to language about “true self” and “false self.” I think it’s just another dualism we create. I think authenticity is more a continuum than a binary on/off switch. And hopefully a life grounded in silence and compassion and the quest for wisdom will allow greater authenticity to emerge. But I don’t think of this so much as “righting a wrong” but rather as a blossoming, an evolution, an emergence.

      I think your poetic language of how silence helps us to have an identity with something bigger/more fluid than the “me” that is anchored in the body is lovely. My one question: is it wrong to be deeply present to the body? I don’t think so, even though that may mean having a more localized sense of “self.” I think for me, my practice has led not so much to an “Either/Or” relationship between body-consciousness and God-consciousness, but rather a “Both/And” where my self and Thy Self are both always present, always intimately connected, always in communion (united in love), and (in the immortal words of Pete the Cat), “it’s all good.”

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I so love Asheville, hope some day to call it home.

  7. in response to Carl’s 12-9 post: (didn’t get an email minder; just found your delightfully playful and unitive response)

    Well, I take no responsibility for anything I wrote since I was in the midst of a feverish, sore-throated (I keep wanting to write “soar throat”) painful whirlwind. But having said that:

    Yes, I remember dashing off the phrase distinguishing “true/false self” and your wariness was a good catch. Occasionally can be a helpful pointer, I think, but yes, tends toward a kind of non-helpful dualism.

    I couldn’t find anything in my post that was denigrating the body or considering it to oppose or block in any way the Divine Presence. Anyway, if it gave the impression, “my bad” (though thanks to you i have now discovered Pete the Cat and know with him and Julian of Norwich, that indeed it is all good – and all shall be good!).

    As a keyboard player since – my goodness, 1956 (started accordion at age 4) some of my most memorable encounters with the Divine have been through music – particularly working with dancers, certainly the most embodied of all artists.

    There’s a lovely Indian myth which was often referred to by Ramakrishna (ahh, the wonders of the internet – just found it: “When I think of myself as a body, I am your servant; when I think of myself as an individual soul, I am part of you; but when I realize I am Atman, you and I become one.”

    This is sometimes recounted in a somewhat condescending manner, as if at an early stage one identifies with the body, but at the highest stage of “enlightenment”, one “achieves” Oneness.

    My sense of it is very much your “both/and” wording – God being infinite and playing with us and through us in infinite ways, I can love Her and be loved by Her and love Her in the grass and sky and trees and water and find myself in Her to the point of becoming utterly lost in Her all simultaneously.

  8. This is a question I always wonder about. I think it’s very hard to recognize our own true “self” and impossible to declare what it is but it doesn’t matter as long as we continually try to lead a contemplative life, listening for God’s direction and allowing it to move us where it will.

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