J. Philip Newell on repentance as turning around
so as to become truly ourselves.
so as to become truly ourselves.
Yesterday I attended a prayer service and talk by J. Philip Newell (pictured at right), a scholar of Celtic spirituality and the author of numerous books that focus on this particular understanding and expression of the Christian faith.
Following is an excerpt from his 2000 book, Echo of the Soul: The Sacredness of the Human Body. It seems an especially appropriate reflection to share during this Lenten season.
Creation is forever being born. It is continually issuing forth from the mystery of God, from the realm of “the unseen” into the world of “the seen,” as the Scriptures say. The biblical picture is that life at its inception is good but that its goodness immediately is threatened. All things fall under “the power of sin,” as the New Testament says. They are imprisoned or held down by what is wrong. The goodness that is within us and within all life becomes like occupied territory. This leads St. Paul to reflect on the tension that we experience in ourselves between good and evil. “I do not do the good I want,” he says, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.” His “inmost self,” as he calls it, desires the good, but his false self pursues what is sinful. Redemption is about being reconnected to our true self.
Our Western Christian tradition often has given the impression, and at times explicitly has taught, that this tension is primarily between the soul and the body. The result has been a denigration of the human body and a distrust of our deepest physical energies. The biblical term “the flesh,” which refers to the sinful tendency in us to disregard our inmost self, incorrectly has been equated with “the body.” “The flesh” and “the body” in the New Testament are different concepts. The consequences of the confusion have been disastrous. We have ended up obscuring the truth that our bodies are made in the image of God. When St. Paul teaches that we are to live “according to the spirit” rather than “according to the flesh,” he is not suggesting that we should not live according to the body. It is precisely in our bodies that we are to live according to the spirit, rather than allowing ourselves, including our bodies, to be dictated to by what is opposed to our inmost being. The invitation is to be liberated, to be reconciled to what is deepest in us instead of being held in bondage to what is false in us.
The Irish novelist James Joyce describes one of his characters as living at a distance from himself. That is a fine description of how most of us live much of the time, at a distance from our true selves. Edwin Muir, the twentieth-century Scottish poet, in one of his poems speaks of the way in which “evil and good” are bound inseparably together in the field of our lives and world, “and nothing now can separate the corn and tares compactly grown.” The imagery is of weeds choking the goodness of what has been planted originally in the depths of our being. “Yet still from Eden springs the root as clean as on the starting day,” writes Muir. The root is still there. It is our “treasure trove,” he says, buried deep and needing to be rediscovered. William Blake says that “the Sanctuary of Eden” is still within us but that the inner gate that leads to Eden is “frozen” shut. What is it that will open again that gateway within us?
The Gospel of Christ, which means the good news of Christ, is given to tell us not what we already know but what we do not know. It is given not to tell us that we have failed, because we already know that about ourselves. That is not good news. It is given to tell us what we have forgotten, and that is who we are. Spirituality does not consist of being told what to do. It consists of being reminded of who we are. Only when we know who we are will we be clearer about what we should do. The grace of repentance is about turning around in our lives, but it is not about turning around in order to be restored to what is deepest in us. It is about becoming truly ourselves. The gift of grace reawakens our memory of Eden. It begins to open again within us the gateway to our true naturalness. As William Blake says, grace bears us through darkness “back safe” to our humanity. The problem is not our human nature. The problem is our exile from true human nature. Grace restores us again to ourselves.
The challenge is to discern the true from the false self, the authentic from the inauthentic. Repentance is not simply about turning away from a false self out there. Evil attaches itself like a cancer to what is good. The false self lives off the true self. It grows on it. Part of repentance is to discern the goodness in us that has become buried by evil. It is to identify deep in our mistakes and confusions the goodness that is more authentic expression of our nature than our failings. It is to see sin as a misdirection of our truest energies. Repentance, therefore, is a painful operation. The false layers of who we are need to be severed from our true depths. As the twentieth-century Jewish teacher Abraham Kook says, “this is the most inward kind of pain, through which a person is liberated from the dark servitude to his sins.”
Of course, as a gay man within the Christian tradition, I’m well aware that there are some who would use the insights of Newell to condemn homosexuality and its physical expression. For these people, homosexuality is one of those “confusions” that bury our authentic selves. I don’t believe this to be the case. Furthermore, I consider such negative thinking about homosexuality to be the result of what Newell describes as the “denigration of the human body and a distrust of our deepest physical energies.”
I believe that my body is made in the likeness of God, and that part of my being human in a human body is my sexual orientation. It’s an orientation intrinsically connected to my body’s “deepest physical energies.” This orientation and these energies are part of me. They are good; they are an aspect of the “true naturalness” of Eden – that beautiful metaphor for humanity’s original state of union with God.
When I was in denial of my homosexuality, I was, in the words of James Joyce, “living at a distance” from myself – my true, authentic self. Only be coming out, by accepting and celebrating myself as a gay creation of a loving God, could I accept God’s invitation to be liberated, to be, as Newell writes, “reconciled to what is deepest in [myself] instead of being held in bondage to what is false in [me]. As the vast majority of gay people will tell you, coming out facilitates a wondrous and life-giving restoration to what is deepest in us, our true humanity – a humanity that is blessed with a sexuality; in our case, a homo-sexuality.
Evil, of course, remains a part of all our lives – gay or straight, and I appreciate the ways in which Newell highlights how evil is not something “out there” but deep within ourselves, layered around our inner goodness. I have known “sin,” “mistakes and confusions” that have buried my inner goodness. For example, being sexual with someone with whom which I don’t share a deep sense of attraction and connection, is, for me, wrong. The sex itself is rarely that good, and, afterward, I usually feel disappointed with myself and empty. Yet I have also known God’s guiding and liberating grace in my life as I’ve struggled in getting it right. It is this grace that I continually recommit myself to seeking. It is God’s justice and compassion that I continually endeavor to embody. Such embodiment, I have discovered, takes time and work. But it’s the only way I know by which I can open myself to that necessary and ongoing process of “restoration” to what is deepest and truest within me.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Liberated to Be Together
“More Lovely Than the Dawn”: God as Divine Lover
“This Light Breeze That Loves Me”
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Challenge to Become Ourselves
The Gifts of Homosexuality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Somewhere in Between
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
A Girl Named Sara: A “Person of the Resurrection”
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
In the Footsteps of Spring: Part 4 – Coming Out
Coming Out: An Act of Holiness
Getting It Right
The Journal of James Curtis: Part 4 – Carlos