Jesus of the Scars: the Kingship of Christ is not of this world


This is a re-blog of a post on Christ’s Kingship from the same time last year

Originally posted on Journey Towards Easter:

Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, where we both mark the end of the liturgical year and celebrate Jesus’ lordship over all earthly powers and authorities. On this day we remember to whom we owe our true allegiance, and that He whom we acknowledge as King is the Lord of all time (indeed, of eternity as well).

How though is Christ our King and Lord? Earthly rulers of all times and places have exercised and displayed their authority over their subjects by acts of power and proclamations of their own greatness. Not so with Jesus Christ, who, though co-equal in substance and honour with the Father, ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Philippians 2:6-7) and ‘being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even…

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Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron: Will We Follow Him?

In a letter to his aunt on the 16th of November 1935, Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron wrote about the frustration he felt with respect to the great need the world has for God’s love, but the reluctance people have to open their hearts and respond to it – that the cure for our ills is before us all the time but we are so preoccupied with satisfying any number of petty, selfish desires that we block out the voice calling us to be healed. Saint Rafael likewise laments his insignificance, and the tension between his desire to call the world to love God and his inability to effect any change in people’s hearts – though he knew that it is not our arguments that convert our neighbour but the grace of God, he was at this time suffering the common anxieties that stem from an inability to be reconciled to our limitations as human beings and trust in God alone.

In a deeply moving passage, he then continues to consider the people who Our Lord and His disciples passed during the years of His ministry, and the many who heard His preaching and teaching only to remain unmoved. When I first read this, I thought of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (perhaps because of the upcoming Solemnity of Christ the King being on my mind) but Saint Rafael no doubt intended his meditation to apply to all the times at which Jesus and His disciples were surrounded by crowds, large and small. Rafael’s description of the joyfulness of the Apostles upon the addition of a new member to their group is wonderful to read, especially given the sorrow expressed earlier in the letter, and the tender love that he depicts as emanating from the glance of Our Lord is acutely affecting.

Furthermore, the simplicity of the response desired that Saint Rafael describes is greatly moving, as it reminds us that God does not ask of us any great works or eloquent words. He does not look to be impressed or coerced into loving us – He loves us already, because that is who He is, and all He asks is that we love Him in return and love others as He does. The question is though, will we follow Him? Whilst Our Lord Jesus walked past those in the crowds of Judea and Galilee, His glance then was but a temporary thing; but His eternal gaze remained upon them, on all people before and thereafter, and remains upon us now – His look is one of Love, and the offer to follow Him is always open:

How sad those people make me who, seeing the procession of Jesus and his disciples, remain unmoved. What joy must the apostles and friends of Jesus have felt every time a soul opened its eyes, left everything and joined them in following the Nazarene – he who asked for nothing else but a little love. Will we follow him, my dear sister? He sees our intentions and looks at us, smiles and helps us. There is nothing to fear; we will go to be the last in the procession that traverses in silence the Judean countryside yet sustained by a very great, immense love. He has no need of words. We don’t have to raise ourselves to his level for him to see us. We have no need of great works or of anything that attracts attention: we shall be the least of Jesus’ friends but those who love him most.

Excerpt taken from Spiritual Writings, courtesy of Daily Gospel.

Thomas A Kempis: On Resisting Temptation

Thomas a Kempis (1380 – 1471) was born at Kempen, near Dusseldorf, and left home at the age of thirteen to join his brother at the Latin school at Deventer – a school which he attended from 1392 to 1399. However, Thomas’ brother (John) had, whilst at school there, become attracted to the Congregation of the Common Life (also known as the Brethren of the Common Life) – a religious community mostly made up of laymen, founded by Gerard Groote, an influential evangelist who had, inspired by the example of a local Carthusian Prior, given up great worldly status and preferment in order to dedicate himself to constant prayer, study and self-discipline – and Thomas soon found himself attracted by the movement as well.

The Congregation/Brotherhood were not bound by permanent vows, but were bound together by a rule of common ownership, poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a desire to challenge the laxity and corruption of the times. One of Groote’s disciples was a priest named Florentius, and it was under his tutelage that Thomas a Kempis spent much of his time at Deventer, learning from him by word and example the importance of dedicating oneself to the Christian life, as opposed to nominal self-identification as a Christian – this spirit permeates the work for which Thomas is known today, The Imitation of Christ, written later on when he had become an Augustinian Canon Regular.

Nevertheless, the reason Thomas a Kempis is so well remembered even now is that his presentation of that spirit of evangelical zeal and apostolic revival that he had imbibed is particularly clear, and that he has a remarkable knack for clarity, as well as a great insight into the means by which Christian imperatives can be applied practically in everyday life (especially remarkable given that his counsel was meant for other men who had taken religious vows, not for lay people). Making allowances therefore for the occasions where Thomas’ advice is not applicable to lay life today, the Imitation remains a tremendously useful spiritual guide – something to be dipped into for inspiration, or for use as a companion for systematic reflection on one’s inner life.

The first section of his book is entitled ‘Counsels on the Spiritual Life’ and is principally concerned with the way of purgation – a clearing away of attachments to and preoccupations with worldly interests so that the soul may attain knowledge of its great need for God and be able to set itself obediently before Him, allowing itself to be transformed. In the thirteenth chapter of this section Thomas discusses, in terms that are characteristically honest, practical and clear-cut, the means by which temptation gets a hold of us, and the ways in which we can prepare ourselves before any assaults arrive, as well as effectively defend ourselves at the moment they occur:

So long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation: as Job says, “Man’s life on earth is a warfare.” We must therefore be on guard against temptations, and watchful in prayer, that the Devil find no means of deceiving us; for he never rests, but prowls around seeking whom he may devour. No one is perfect and holy that he is never tempted, and we can never be secure from temptation.

Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, yet they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed, and instructed. All the Saints endured many trials and temptations, and profited by them; but those who could not resist temptations became reprobate, and fell away. There is no Order so holy, nor place so secluded, where there are no troubles and temptations.

No man can be entirely free from temptation so long as he lives; for the source of temptation lies within our own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil. When one temptation or trial draws to a close, another takes its place; and we shall always have something to fight, for man has lost the blessing of original happiness. Many try to escape temptations, only to encounter them more fiercely, for no one can win victory by flight alone; it is only by patience and true humility that we can grow stronger than all our foes.

The man who only avoids the outward occasions of evil, but fails to uproot it in himself, will gain little advantage. Indeed, temptations will return upon him the sooner, and he will find himself in a worse state than before. Little by little and by patient endurance you will overcome them by God’s help, better than by your own violence and importunity. Seek regular advice in temptation, and never deal harshly with those who are tempted, but give them such encouragement as you would value yourself.

The beginning of all evil temptation is an unstable mind and lack of trust in God. Just as a ship without a helm is driven to and fro by the waves, so a careless man, who abandons his proper course, is tempted in countless ways. Fire tempers steel, and temptation the just man. We often do not know what we can bear, but temptation reveals our true nature. We need especially to be on our guard at the very onset of temptation, for then the Enemy may be more easily overcome, if he is not allowed to enter the gates of the mind: he must be repulsed at the threshold, as soon as he knocks. Thus the poet Ovid writes, “Resist at the beginning; the remedy may come too late.” For first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent. In this way the Enemy gradually gains complete mastery, when he is not resisted at first. And the longer a slothful man delays resistance, the weaker he becomes, and the stronger his enemy grows against him.

Some people undergo their heaviest temptations at the beginning of their conversion; some towards the end of their course; others are greatly troubled all their lives; while there are some whose temptations are but light. This is in accordance with the wisdom and justice of God’s ordinance, who weighs the condition and merits of every man, and disposes all things for the salvation of those whom He chooses.

We must not despair, therefore, when we are tempted, but earnestly pray God to grant us his help in every need. For, as Saint Paul says, “With the temptation, God will provide a way to overcome it, that we may be able to bear it.” So, let us humble ourselves under the hand of God in every trial and trouble, for He will save and raise up the humble in spirit. In all these trials, our progress is tested; in them great merit may be secured, and our virtue become evident. It is no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue. Some are spared severe temptations, but are overcome in lesser ones of every day, in order that they may be humble, and learn not to trust in themselves, but to recognise their frailty.

The Imitation of Christ (1952), pp.40-42, Penguin Classics.

            Apart from the fact that it is littered with excerpts from and allusions to Scripture, what I love about this counsel is Thomas’s frankness and realism – he doesn’t try to make our lot out to be any easier than it is, nor does he shy away from the fact that some seem to be tried less than others. This is the way of things, and if we believe in God and His wise Providence, then we must believe it is so for good reason; Thomas thus sees the variety of degrees of temptation experienced throughout humanity to be a reflection of the variety of states of people’s souls – if some are tried more than others, it is because they have certain flaws that can only be corrected by particular trials.

Similarly, there are those who, whilst they do not suffer many great temptations, are routinely subject to frequent lesser ones, and Thomas sees this as being God’s means of constantly recalling them to humility and faith in God – and this being a particular case of the role that temptations play in our life in general. For, as he writes above, it is ‘no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue’ (c.f.; 1 Peter 2:19-20; Romans 5:2-5) – because of our fallen nature, we need the trials that temptations occasion in order to grow. This is something that Julian of Norwich also writes about, albeit in slightly more inviting terms, as I considered in an earlier post.

Another salient part of Thomas’ advice, and one that I personally find particularly useful, is the reminder to block out any hint of temptation as soon as it arrives – that the temptation grows in intensity if one does not divert attention from it (and towards God) straight away, that ‘first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent’, and so we must not entertain it even for the slightest moment. As soon as we recognise the thought or external stimulus for what it is, we must turn away from it and turn instead to the Cross of Christ, kneeling before Him and asking for grace. This, as Thomas reminds us, is the pivotal moment, as after this the force of the temptation will only grow, and we will only become more enslaved to it.

Knowing from experience the truth of this, as well as much of what Thomas a Kempis writes about above, I have found myself returning to the Imitation of Christ many a time for inspiration, and thereby committing a great deal of it to memory (the content, as opposed to the words – if only my memory were that good). It is a salutary guide and excellent corrective to much of what we hear in modern life (including, unfortunately, much that is delivered from the pulpits); a voice that still sounds fresh and has the capacity to cut away the swathes of mental and spiritual clutter that we accrue as we go through life, and that recalls us to the essence of what the Christian life is about – trust in, love for, and the imitation of Our Lord.

True Non-Conformism in the Modern West

In a recent article at The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Strzelecki Rieth interviewed the Polish politician Marek Jurek – a Member of the European Parliament, founder of Poland’s Christian National Union and leader of an autonomous conservative political group that is allied to, as well as providing part of the intellectual grounding for, Law and Justice (Poland’s largest conservative party). The interview is primarily concerned with the legacy of Communism in contemporary Polish politics, and the extent to which liberal politicians after the fall of Communism effectively collaborated with ex-communists during regime change, rendering a proper return to Poland’s cultural roots and values (which values had been instrumental in delivering the grassroots change necessary to overthrow Communism) harder to implement.

Whilst this is an interesting discussion in and of itself – particularly given the important role a Poland fully returned to and re-engaged with its cultural heritage could play in the revitalisation of European culture as a whole in the future (and I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to study the interview in full) – there is one passage in particular that has an immediate relevance for all of those in the West who are concerned with the way in which our traditional, Christian-inspired, cultural and moral principles are steadily being eroded. In response to a question about the extent to which family is still highly valued in Poland and what other countries could learn from their example, Jurek concludes that:

…we must proudly defend our Christian civilization. What’s more—we must defend our Christian civilization even if we are in the minority. More so if we are in the minority. Pope Benedict XVI, towards the end of his pontificate, said that in the modern world, the Catholic Faith is the counter-culture. The Catholic faith functions as a counter-culture in our modern world. Great ideas can take entire generations to put into effect. The Left, over the years, has successfully built an aura of being the “non-conformists” in our society; of being the non-conformists who are out to change the world. Any sober observer of political reality can see that this is a complete lie—because the Establishment in our world is a Leftist Establishment. Yet despite this fact, the aura of Leftists as “non-conformists” persists. Yet what is true non-conformism in our world? True non-conformism is persistent adherence to authentic conservatism. This situation is also an opportunity for us to demonstrate the power of our beliefs.

True non-conformism, in contradistinction to ideological extravagance, must be political. True non-conformism cannot close itself up in an ivory tower, where it is enough to write essays in comfort, click the “send” button, and mail them off to friendly editors. True non-conformism must be political: it must go out to the people, it must awaken the sentiment of responsibility dormant within thousands of people who believe in the God of the Decalogue and the Evangelists, who believe in the value of our civilization, who believe in our national and state traditions. True non-conformism must be political because it aspires to give voice to these ideas in representative institutions and then force the Establishment to listen to our voices. We take up these causes not only for our own good, but in fact, we defend these causes for the good of our opponents as well.

Jurek’s response here is a salutary reminder to us all not only to be wary of the tactics employed by those on the Left (which, while often as disingenuous as they appear, also just as often emerge from an in-built utopian spirit – in a desire to always progress, socialism cannot see the status quo as anything but something to be overcome, and will thus in a certain sense always consider itself to be counter-cultural, no matter how much it already controls a culture), and of the true position conservatives find themselves in today, but also of the responsibility that is incumbent upon those who are committed to the ‘permanent things’ – the principles and traditions which have made our civilisations what they are.

The Church, as mentioned above with reference to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, because it was the progenitor of those principles and traditions upon which Western civilisations have been based, and remains the guardian of them now, is possibly the most counter-cultural institution on earth. It represents a sure and constant voice, reminding us of and recalling us to those things which formed the warp and woof of our culture, and which can again inspire us to a more humane vision of society. It already acts as a haven for many who are disillusioned with the turns the West has taken, but to really fulfill its calling (particularly the prophetic office) the Church must continue to raise its voice publicly, critiquing the false vision of humanity perpetuated by our leaders, and providing the lost sheep of our world with the good news that there is something more than the materialistic utilitarianism they have been fed for so long.

Furthermore, this responsibility is laid upon everyone within the Mystical Body of Christ – this is not just a job for the clergy, but for all of us. True non-conformism, as articulated by Marek Jurek, is an active responsibility laid upon all who recognise the great treasures that have been given to us and are so rapidly being lost or thrown away. If one truly recognises these treasures for what they are, there is nothing left to do except to pass that gift on – to ‘awaken the sentiment of responsibility dormant within thousands of people who believe in the God of the Decalogue and the Evangelists, who believe in the value of our civilization’. That ‘sentiment of responsibility’ is also intimately bound up with the deepest yearnings of the human heart for the reality of God and His Love – true conservatism must inevitably involve a return to the One in whom all we value ultimately finds its source and justification.

Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Holy Trinity and the Mother of God

Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (whose sobriquet means ‘wonderworker’ or ‘miracle-worker’) lived from 213 to c.270, and was born in Neocaesarea, Asia Minor, in the area of Pontus, where he returned to after some time studying under Origen in Palestine, and was made bishop there (he is also known therefore as Saint Gregory of Neocaesarea) despite having originally intended to practise law; he acted as bishop there for another thirteen years after. Today is his feast day, and after a brief summary of some of the details of his life, I would like to take a look at a vision that he was given just before his episcopal consecration, during a time of solitude and prayer – it is a vision that is significant for a couple of reasons.

Saint Gregory was originally given the name of Theodore (a common name at the time, meaning ‘gift of God’) and was introduced to Christianity at the age of fourteen. His introduction and subsequent conversion were occasioned by a journey he had taken with his brother, shortly after the death of their father, to study law in Beirut. As part of this journey, they escorted their sister to Caesarea in Palestine, where her husband was legal counsel to the Roman governor there – upon arriving in Caesarea, Gregory and his brother encountered the teaching of Origen, and they gave up the study of law to study the mysteries of the Faith under him. Gregory wrote warmly later on of the way in which Origen used persuasive, personalist methods to win them over, not just reason alone.

Saint Gregory studied under Origen for five years, and continued the moral and spiritual disciplines he learned for seven in total, before returning to Pontus in 238, originally to take up the practise of law again, but later acting as a missionary there, converting great numbers to the Faith (reckoned in fact to be virtually the whole populace of the area). Not much is known about his apostolate during this time (which was carried out  over the period of roughly thirty years) except that he won the people over during a period of wars, plague and persecution, and that many great miracles (later detailed by Saint Gregory of Nyssa) were attributed to him, which is why he was known as Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The incident which took place before his episcopal consecration though, has a significance beyond the undoubtedly great things that Gregory achieved in Pontus. The vision that he received is the first recorded instance of the Blessed Virgin Mary having appeared to someone in such a way, and is also an early testimony to Trinitarian doctrine. The vision is recounted in a biography of Saint Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395), who based his writings on information handed down to him by his grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder (c.270 – 340), who was a native of Neocaesarea and knew of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus as a child, handing his teaching down to her children and grandchildren. The vision Saint Gregory of Nyssa recounts in the biography is as follows:

Once again [Gregory] was terrified and turned his face away, unable to bear its sight. The vision was especially amazing since the night was gloomy, for it resembled something like a light illuminated by another light. Since he could not look upon this spectacle, he heard from those who appeared to him speaking in detail about what he was seeking. Not only was he revered with regard to true knowledge of faith but recognized the names of each man who appeared when they called each other by their respective names. It is claimed that this vision of a female form told [Gregory] that the evangelist John was exhorted to manifest the mystery of truth to a young man, saying that she was chosen to be the mother of the Lord whom she cherished. He also said that this fitting vision had vanished again from his sight. He was immediately ordered to write down this divine revelation and later proclaim it in the church. In this way it became for others a divinely given legacy through which the people might repulse any evil of heresy.


            The words of the Trinitarian revelation are then given, but the translation that is given in the passage from which I have quoted above is a little clunky and lacks the sense of grandeur which I think is requisite for such an important confession of faith, which is so clearly consonant with the early creeds and other more refined doctrinal statements later on. Here are the words revealed to Saint Gregory by Saint John the Evangelist, from another source and in another, more dignified translation:

There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.

There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal.

And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all.

There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever.

The Creed of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus

            Whether the revelation given to Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus was exactly as described by Saint Gregory of Nyssa is a question for academics, but the latter at least seemed sure that what had been passed down to him by his grandmother was, in terms of its essential content, sure and trustworthy. We have here then a very early, as well as very robust and comprehensive, articulation of Trinitarian doctrine that precedes the official formulations of such at the Ecumenical Councils; moreover, in the case of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, this revelation was transmitted by the Beloved Disciple and vouchsafed by the Blessed Mother of God, giving us at the very least sound testimony to the extent to which these figures were associated with orthodox Catholic Faith.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and Saint John the Evangelist, have been long associated, symbolically, with the Church. They were and are seen as icons of the Mystical Body insofar as John, representative of the true believer, is commended to be the spiritual son of the Mother of Our Lord (c.f.; John 19:25-27), thus likening Mary’s motherhood to the motherhood of the Church – as we all accept Christ as Our Lord, we, like Saint John, also accept Mary as our Mother; similarly, also following Saint John, we accept the Church as our Mother. Thus the appearance of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John to Gregory, with reference to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the very heart of orthodoxy – cannot be accidental. The Faith and the Church are one, just as Our Blessed Lady is symbol of the Church and also the paradigm of perfect faith.

John Donne: A Song of Sweetest Love

I have been reading rather a lot of John Donne recently – a surge of reading inspired by (albeit indirectly) the Council of Chalcedon – and whilst in a future post I would like to take a look at Donne’s religious life (particularly the nature of his religious allegiance, which is notoriously ambiguous), today I am going to share one of his secular works. It is one of a handful that is entitled ‘Song’, and so by way of differentiation is also known by its first line – Sweetest Love, I Do Not Go. The poem is written primarily as an expression of Donne’s anguish at having to part with his wife, but gradually moves from these concerns to communicate a deeply felt sense of what true love is.

Anne, Donne’s wife, was the niece of Sir Thomas Edgerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (a high office of State), to whom Donne had been appointed as secretary, and at whose home he was living. Donne fell in love with Anne, but the relationship met with disapproval from Edgerton and Sir George Moore, Anne’s father. This may partly have been due to the age difference (Donne was twenty-eight to Anne’s sixteen) but seems to mainly have been because of Donne’s low income and lack of social standing. At any rate, they were married in secret, and for this Donne was held in Fleet Prison until the marriage’s validity could be proven beyond doubt. It was another eight years before the poet was reconciled with Sir George and received his wife’s dowry.

Donne also lost his job because of the marriage, and so had to make ends meet by taking occasional work as a lawyer. Thankfully, as Anne gave birth to twelve children over their sixteen years of marriage, they were also supported by the generosity of Anne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wolley, who gave them somewhere to live and sent work Donne’s way. The background to this tumultuous and often stressful time, sustained only by the great love that Anne and John Donne had for one another, is important in understanding the sentiments expressed in this poem. In it, he begins by reassuring Anne that their parting will only be temporary, preceding a more wonderful return – as the sun sets before rising again, how much more will Donne’s love cause him to return to his beloved.

Donne then considers how we habitually take the blessings in life for granted, only to allow life’s woes a greater hold over us than is warranted, letting sorrow gain a hold over us that is out of proportion with our prior experience, and also that articulations of grief at such times uttered by one’s beloved redouble the pain of parting for the lover. This leads him to consider the strength of the love that binds them, and that even in parting, by the remembrance of one another and the calling to mind of that unbreakable and eternal bond, the parting has no abiding reality – true love keeps those who share in it alive to one another, transcending any separation by time and space. Furthermore, given Donne’s convictions, it is not presumptuous to see this bond as partaking in a far greater Love – one that transcends even death itself:


Sweetest love, I do not go,

For weariness of thee,

Nor in hope the world can show

A fitter love for me;

But since that I

At the last must part, ’tis best,

Thus to use myself in jest

By feigned deaths to die.


Yesternight the sun went hence,

And yet is here to-day;

He hath no desire nor sense,

Nor half so short a way;

Then fear not me,

But believe that I shall make

Speedier journeys, since I take

More wings and spurs than he.


O how feeble is man’s power,

That if good fortune fall,

Cannot add another hour,

Nor a lost hour recall;

But come bad chance,

And we join to it our strength,

And we teach it art and length,

Itself o’er us to advance.


When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,

But sigh’st my soul away;

When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,

My life’s blood doth decay.

It cannot be

That thou lovest me as thou say’st,

If in thine my life thou waste,

That art the best of me.


Let not thy divining heart

Forethink me any ill;

Destiny may take thy part,

And may thy fears fulfil.

But think that we

Are but turn’d aside to sleep.

They who one another keep

Alive, ne’er parted be.

Individuality, Personality and ‘Being Yourself’

The idea that one is an ‘individual’ above all else is a very common one nowadays – there seems to be an idea, accepted uncritically, that there exists such a thing as the naked ego, beholden only to itself, unattached to its environment and unformed by its history. The popularity of this idea does not tally particularly well however with the reality of human experience, and it is a relatively novel conception in human history that we are each summed up in and defined by our individual being alone, divorced from any context. Instead, it has been consistently affirmed by human cultures for the better part of our history that whilst each person does exist as a unique individual, and acts according to their own lights, they do so only because they are first identified as being part of a greater whole.

Before being an individual, we are each a citizen, a member of a particular nation, a son or daughter – we are bound into a network of allegiances that precede our identity as a unique human being and that shape who we are, allowing that uniqueness to emerge. We are formed in great part by our history, and we cannot cut our allegiances to our upbringing without doing some violence to the essence of who we are – the soil and hearth of our background are as much a part of us as the blood that runs through our veins. This also means that to be an individual necessarily entails a certain set of duties, ties of allegiance that have authority over us, and to cut ourselves off from these duties, in the name of some theory of radical autonomy, is again to do great violence to the natural order of things, impacting not just ourselves, but upsetting the very network of interconnection that makes us who we are.

One implication of this is to make it clear that there can be no such thing as mere human rights, if these rights are seen as separate from obligation to family and to society. Even in specific cases where this occurs turmoil usually follows, but as such behaviour becomes more extensive, the very fabric of societies, which rest upon natural networks of reciprocal obligation and accepted patterns of authority, will become disrupted, leading to widespread social chaos. This seems to be what is happening already in the West at present. However, reflection on how our uniqueness is related to the prior corporate bonds from which we emerge can also provide us with some insight into what it means to be unique – on the difference between individuality and personality.

In his book Silence and Honeycakes, a short collection of reflections on the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers, Rowan Williams considers this question in depth, and uncovers (via the wisdom contained in the collected ‘sayings’ of the Fathers) some interesting insights into modern conceptions of individuality and the ever-present call to just ‘be yourself’:

There is a saying ascribed to Isidore the Priest warning that “of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.” Once again, the modern reader will be taken aback. “Follow what your heart says” is part of the standard popular wisdom of our day, like “following the dream”; are we being told to suspect our deepest emotions and longings, when surely we have learned that we have to listen to what’s deepest in us and accept and nurture our real feelings? But the desert monastics would reply that, left to ourselves, the search for what the heart prompts is like peeling an onion; we are not going to arrive at a pure and simple set of inclinations. In the matter of self-examination as in others, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Silence and Honeycakes (2003), p.49, Lion.

            As Jeremiah wrote, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ (17:9); and this does not just serve as a hint towards the doctrine of Original Sin, but speaks of the essential and intractable difficulty of ever really knowing oneself. Whilst it is good to examine oneself, this can never be simply an uncritical introspection, a naïve search to find the treasures hidden within, but must rather involve bringing all our thoughts (which include much deception and selfishness) into the light of Truth. If we really want our true selves to emerge, we must allow ourselves to be examined and critiqued by God, allowing all our self-justifying fantasies to be exposed by Him, and this cannot occur if we are determinedly trying to ‘be ourselves’.

Essentially, just as our personalities only emerge via a network of exterior relationships and arrangements, our self only ever is what it is in relational terms – we not only become who we are, but we are who we are, in relation to others, and most especially in relation to the ultimate Other, God. Thus discovery of our true personality can only come about in the same way – both God and our neighbour act as mirrors for us to receive the responses, criticism and forgiveness that we need in order to grow. But the question still remains as to what it really means to be an ‘individual’, or whether this is a useful term at all, and it is a question that Williams continues to explore:

We are fascinated by the power of the individual will and intensely committed to maximising this power, the power to shape and to define a person’s life through the greatest possible number of available choices…

…And the problem is that we are actually so naïve about choices, forgetting that this world of maximal choice is heavily managed and manipulated. The rebellious teenager has a ready-made identity to step into, professionally serviced by all those manufacturers who have decided what a rebellious teenager should look like; advertising standardises our dreams. Our choices are constantly channelled into conformist patterns, and when we try to escape, there are often standard routes provided by the very same market – “Don’t be like the crowd!” says the advertisement which is trying to persuade you to do the same as all the other customers it’s targeting…

…we need to distinguish with absolute clarity between the individual and the person: the person is what is utterly unique, irreducible to a formula, made what it is by the unique intersection of the relationships in which it’s involved (and this is obviously grounded in what we believe about the “persons” of the Holy Trinity, about the way God is personal); but the individual is just this rather than that example of human nature, something essentially abstract. It can be spoken of in generalities (in clichés, you might say): it is one possible instance among others of the way general human capacities or desires or instincts operate.

ibid, pp.51-53.

            To see oneself as an individual then, according to Williams, who bases his insights not just on the Desert Fathers but also the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, is to see oneself as someone who is to a great extent defined by choices made. On the other hand, to see human beings as persons is to say that the choices we make are ‘some of the least distinctive, even the least interesting things, about us’ (ibid, p.53), and that someone who is truly being their own self is one who feels the least need to exert their personhood in decision making, but instead who is freely who they are without any need for self-assertion.

Williams, following Lossky, draws inspiration here from the controversies over monothelitism in the early part of the seventh century, and sees in the orthodox position (as articulated by Saint Maximus the Confessor) a way of understanding, through the human nature and will of Jesus, something about human personhood in general:

…for Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the human will is active, and the human will, like all human wills, wants to survive and rebels against the threat of not surviving. It can envisage the threat of death and what might be needed to escape death. In a purely formal and abstract sense, it is able to “choose” to survive, because that is what human wills do.

But the human will is not the human person, and all this is quite abstract when considered apart from the person who activates the willing. There are no such things as wills that drift around in mid-air making decisions (although there are modern writers, from certain kinds of novelist to certain kinds of psychologist, who seem to suggest that this would be nice). Persons do the deciding; and when you have a person who is wholly self-consistent, whose identity is completely bound up with the calling to live in unreserved intimacy with God as Father, there is, as we say, no choice. Not because something external limits what’s possible, but because the person has such solid reality, such distinctive and reliable identity, that it will do what is consistent with being that person – and in the case of Jesus, this means doing what God requires for the salvation of the world.

ibid, pp.54-55.

            For someone like Our Lord, whose very Personhood is defined by the complete alignment of being and will with the Father, who has such integrity in terms of who He is, He is then absolutely free to choose what is correspondent to His nature. This does not mean that He was spared the knowledge of other options – ways out of the awful path that He faced – or that there was no decision to be made. What it means is that because there was (and is) no conflict within Him, because He really is completely His own self, there is, realistically, only one choice that such a Person could make – He is utterly free to be Himself and thus freely acted according to His nature.

We however, are not well-integrated, self-consistent people, but suffer constantly from a disjunct between what we want at our deepest levels (which is also what we know to be for our true good and happiness) and what we actually do (c.f.; Romans 7:7-25), and we are thus subject to a wide array of competing voices that convince us we need what they offer in order to be ourselves, when in fact, time and time again, we become less truly ourselves and more enslaved to the whims of our varying desires. But, what can still be learned from the example of Our Lord is that true personality comes from true freedom, and also that true freedom comes not from making as many choices (or rather, giving into as many impulses) as possible, but from discovering what it is that is genuinely unique about ourselves.

Such a discovery, as noted earlier, cannot come from attaching ourselves to any particular agenda, nor can it come from following the vapid modern recommendation to ‘follow your heart’. Becoming oneself can only come about by recognising our true nature as relational beings, by putting away the heavy yoke of naked autonomy and re-immersing ourselves in those patterns of obligation and mutual concern that are not only natural but essential to our existence.

Furthermore, discovering the real freedom we see in Our Lord (and in His saints) requires a submission of the will to the One in whom all are personalities are rooted – by allowing our true nature to emerge in accordance with what is already God’s plan for us and letting Him lead us to holiness. The saints, as is often noted, are all directed by the same concerns and led towards the same goal, but represent an extraordinary wealth of personalities. Like them, we can discover who we are not by looking to ourselves, but by looking to the One to whom we have always been in relation, before anyone or anything else, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being – the One whose eternal light is shown in the refracted glory of the uniqueness of the saints.