Earlier this year I had the attractive opportunity of traveling to the other side of the country. A good friend was doing some grad research and proposed the seven-week trip. The only catch? The budget was pretty tight, and the accommodations were going to have to be, well, mostly the car. Being humanities/art people, we’re moderately low maintenance and adventurous, so the prospect of living out of a car for seven weeks while we traversed over eight thousand miles was no deterrent.
I was highly optimistic about this trip. I was eager to learn more about my country, have juicy conversations with my friend, see cool historical attractions, take in impressive landscapes—you know, the things you do on a trip. And those things did happen, and it was totally awesome. Something that I hadn’t anticipated happened too: I did a lot of reflecting on the concept of journey.
I’m used to flailing a bit when people ask me what I do. The answer isn’t quite as readily clear-cut as “accountant” or “architect” or even “teacher.” An interesting thing about a road trip, though, is that people tend to ask you less about what you do and more about where you started and where you are heading. This question is, of course, strictly about geography, but it’s an interesting one to apply to the locomotion of our soul. Where are we from and in which direction are we headed?
François du Toit, the author of The Mirror Bible translation, has an interesting take on Psalm 23. He writes, “By the waters of reflection my soul remembers who I am.” Perhaps it’s so meaningful for me because it is so contrary to the idea that I need to change everything I am to please God. The journey of the spiritual life, then, is not so much about changing who I am as it is about identifying the grime that has corrupted the true me: discerning patterns of thought and behavior that diminish the flourishing of my authentic identity.
Many women and men of the contemplative tradition talk about the true self and the ego, or the false self. When they speak of the true self, they refer to the substantive part of us. The center of who we are. In this context, the false self or ego is the distorted compulsions and drives that encrust and immobilize our real, God-breathed selves. From the outside, they may look like socially acceptable ambitions and desires, habits and dispositions. However, anything that diverts our attention from our createdness and relation to God is of the ego. This, in part, is why contemplatives dedicate so much discussion to the importance of stillness. The ego is in the business of accumulating and projecting; the real self finds its rest in receptivity and communion with God, an endeavor that requires inner quietude.
In my spiritual journey, this is the direction I want to head. And the good thing about journeys is that it doesn’t matter where we start; it matters that we are moving in the direction of our goal.
Ron Dart, in his book The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley, translates Matthew 5:3 with an interesting twist: “The Divine Life is for those who die to the demands of the ego. Such people will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven.” For a religion that proclaims eternal life, Christianity seems to talk a lot about death. Dying to oneself, in particular. I’ve always wrestled with the idea of what it might look like to die to oneself. Does it mean just being nicer to our neighbors and behaving less selfishly in general? Or sometimes I hear Christian leaders use the phrase “dying to the old self.” I get the general idea, sure. But for me, dying “to the demands of the ego” clicked. It means scaling off the counterfeit pleasures, identifying destructive perspectives, and cutting shackles that prevent my soul from union with its source: God.
It may be ironic to think about inner journey and stillness and quietude while traveling to the farthest borders of the country in an overly stuffed car. But in a way, it seems to fit, doesn’t it? Stillness is, after all, first an inner posture. And every day is an internal, if not external, journey. So when people ask me what I learned from my trip? I tell them: the importance of asking myself in which direction I’m headed.