May 23, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Is not “self-image” something we hear about all the time? Is it not what modern man seems to want most — a new self-image, a better one, handsomer, richer, or whatever quality is most prized? Billions of dollars are spent every year advertising and experimenting with new self-images, a problem only compounded by confusions in “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
But can there really be a self-image? Of course, one can form an “image of oneself,” in the sense of a conception of who or what one sees oneself to be, or of what one wishes to become. The rational creature cannot have itself as a model (you can’t imitate yourself!), but it can represent itself to itself — if not fully adequately, then at least in reference to aspects that catch attention.
What deserves to be denied is that there is, at rock bottom, a “self-image” in the sense of a complete idea of oneself within oneself that suffices as the map of one’s journey, the pattern of one’s destiny. The better acquainted a man is with himself, the more he stands humbly before an unknown abyss, looking up toward God who alone defines him. He says, with Socrates, “I know that I do not know”; he says, with St. Paul, “I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), “I am not conscious to myself of anything” (1 Cor. 4:4).
To try to make or re-make oneself according to an image projected by oneself is to enter a house of distorting mirrors with no hope of finding an exit.
In reality, man is made to the image of God. I exist as the image of another, who is therefore more myself than I am. If I wish to be myself, I must become increasingly like Him; the image is only as real as its active imaging. If we would know ourselves, then, we must come to know God; if we would be ourselves, we must become like Him.
No one has expressed the abounding paradoxes of our condition better than Etienne Gilson:
If man is an image of God, the more like God he makes himself, the more he fulfils his own essence. Now God is the perfection of being, Who knows himself integrally, and loves himself totally. If man is fully to realise his virtualities and become integrally himself, he must become this perfect image of God: a love of God for God’s own sake. … Whatever of amour propre [self-love] he retains, makes him to that extent different from that love of God which is God; and all love of self for the sake of self that he abandons, makes him, on the contrary, like to God. But thereby also it makes himself like to himself. As image, the less he resembles, the less he is himself; the more he resembles, the more he is himself; wherefore to be is, for him, to distinguish himself as little as possible [from his model], to love himself is to forget himself as much as possible.
Because this is the case, growth in spiritual being — esse spiritualis, as St. Thomas calls it — presupposes and demands alienation from or disintegration of the “self” we, or our world, have created.
Great masters of the spiritual life — among them Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine, Bonaventure, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Denys the Carthusian, John of the Cross — understand the total transcendence and intimate immanence of God to entail a surprising result in one’s own identity: the more God is allowed to take over, the more one starts to lose (track of, hold of) oneself. The old self disintegrates, and a new self is forged in a crucible of mental emptiness and suffering, in which one can only mutter: “Who am I? What am I?”
As Augustine cries out, “O Lord, I am working hard in this field, and the field of my labors is my own self! I have become a problem to myself, like land which a farmer works only with difficulty and at the cost of much sweat” (Confessions 10.16). And the eventual result, if one does not reject God’s grace, is the beginning of permanent self-transcendence, the foretaste of unconditional rapture in the beatific vision, when we see God face to face — and see ourselves for the first time, because we are seeing Him for the first time.
God wants the self as we (poorly) understand it to disintegrate; this is why he allows us trials and sufferings throughout our lives, repeated opportunities to lose our grip on “reality” in order to gain a deeper grip on the one reality that decisively matters. We have to be decentered in order to be recentered on Jesus, and this Jesus, whom St. Catherine of Siena did not hesitate to call “drunk” and “mad,” is altogether “eccentric”: as God, He receives all that He is from the Father, and as man, He looks only to the Father’s will. Christ is never folded back upon Himself, to unearth His identity from within His own essence; He is constituted as a Person by relation-to-another. He is anointed savior by His submission. He triumphs through self-surrender.
The Christian’s progressive decentering is inescapably painful; many who start on the path give up before they attain the hidden center where joy and peace are to be found, or settle for a self-induced “peace of mind” that is not the gift Jesus came to give us. Moreover, it is never as if the disciple definitively attains this new center — not in this life, for the disciple is not yet grown to his Master’s full stature (Jn. 13:16; Eph. 4:13). Rather, we are forever centering and decentering, drawn downward (or outward, as Augustine would say) with the gravity of fallen nature, drawn upward (and inward) by the levity of divine grace.
This very disorientation, this unpredictable and, at some level, unavoidable swirl of setback and progress, is part of the process of disintegration, blessed loss and gain.
The next time you are wondering: Why is life so difficult — on the material plane, the psychological, or the spiritual? Why so many challenges, misunderstandings, setbacks, contradictions, temptations, sicknesses — the whole panoply of life in a fallen world? Why so much confusion in the Church, so much corruption? The sins of the human race cause these troubles, and God knows that we will benefit from bearing our crosses, if we freely take them up. It all serves as a “severe mercy” to break down our sinful self-love, our inadequate self-image; it urges us to throw ourselves upon the Lord, to find ourselves in Him, to lose ourselves in His love, which is the only reality that can never fail, never disappoint, never run out.