The Temptation of Shallow Self AwarenessFr. Barnabas Powell
“Shove me into shallow waters, before I get too deep.” This was a popular song in the 1980s espousing the “virtue” of shallow living. “I don’t want to get too deeply insightful about myself. I’d rather be shallow.” I get it. Doing the work to truly know yourself is hard and scary! Because IF you put the humble work in to explore the vast universe that is your own soul, you are then confronted with a choice: What do I do about this?
And yet our First World societies are awash in self-help books, therapists, mood-altering drugs, and constant chaos over being “my true self.” If I hear one more person tell me they are trying to live out “their truth” I think I’ll scream.
But our Orthodox Faith says this is wisdom to truly know yourself. And I’m not saying this current craze of mental health is bad. Not at all. I’ve benefitted myself with times of therapy! But with everything good, we cannot discount the evil one poisoning our good desires with false promises and narcissistic selfishness. This is his constant behavior since the beginning when he lied to our mother and father, Adam and Eve, about the Tree of Knowledge.
So, how do we know ourselves in a healthy way? How can we explore our inner life without stumbling into the shallow self-centeredness of too many in our society gripped by the foolish narcissism of “My truth” and identity intoxication? It’s going to take attentiveness and a humble willingness to be guided by true wisdom and not the empty calories of pop psychology.
Look at our Gospel Lesson this morning in Luke 4:22-30:
At that time, the crowd spoke of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.'” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away.
This mental barrier of watching the Lord grow up in their village, and the familiarity these folks had with the Lord’s extended family, became an easy excuse to ignore the powerful message the Lord proclaimed. They thought they knew Him, but they didn’t even know themselves. His message disturbed them precisely because they hadn’t allowed the wisdom of the Faith to wake them up to God and their own spiritual; needs. They were so disturbed by His words that they actually tried to kill Him. Of course, they did. His message was a direct threat to their self-ignorance!
And what was His message? The Lord proclaimed to His hometown what He had been proclaiming in every place: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!” But they were so blinded by their “familiarity” that they refused to accept His words. This is the subtle danger of false familiarity: it blinds you to the profound depth of eternal truths. The Lord warned these folks about this danger by revealing the truth that throughout the history of the faith it was the barrier of mere familiarity that kept the very people who had been given this spiritual treasure FIRST from holding this treasure forever. Their very false familiarity with the Faith became a detriment to their ability to experience the joy of the faith.
But it turns out what they called “familiarity” was actually just shallow lip service to the treasure of their faith. They were addicted to repeating old words without actually hearing the wisdom of those words. They were so convinced they knew the Faith, they missed it!
St. Elijah, the Prophet was no stranger to doing the hard work of knowing himself and facing his own shortcomings. This great Old Testament prophet was of such piety and spiritual devotion to God that he was one of the figures from Isreael’s past to appear with the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration with St. Moses, the Lawgiver. And yet, when he was used mightily by God to rebuke the immorality and impiety of Queen Jezebel, he ran and hid because she was angry with him and wanted him dead. And it was in this deserted cave where he hid that he lamented he was the only one left in all of Israel that hadn’t abandoned the True God. Then the Voice of the Lord came to him and told him that there were thousands who had not bowed before the false gods of the age. Elijah had to be brought to this desolate place, not just physically, but emotionally as well, before he could learn the true nature of his own soul. In the end, the great prophet learned well and was taken up into heaven without facing physical death in a fiery chariot!
Today, where is shallow false familiarity holding you back? Do you really know Normal Orthodoxy or are you just so comfortable with the trappings of the Faith that you have become numb to the message of the Faith? You may be confronted by this spiritual poverty in a way that disturbs you, but don’t hate that moment. If you have the humility and courage to embrace this momentary discomfort, to discover yourself and know yourself, you may discover a depth of the treasure of your Faith you never really knew existed. And what is merely familiar may become brand new all over again. This is what a Normal Orthodox Life looks like!
P.S. The incarnate Angel, the Cornerstone of the Prophets, the second Forerunner of the Coming of Christ, the glorious Elias (Elijah), who from above, sent down to Elisha the grace to dispel sickness and cleanse lepers, abounds therefore in healing for those who honor him.