Self-absorption is my besetting sin. Well, one of them, anyway. The one I’ve been most aware of lately, the one I’ve been praying most for God to take away. It’s small comfort that self-absorption skulks along the shadowy back alleys of the monastic life. It’s a constant temptation to those of us who turn inward. How do we seek more and more the life that is within us without coming to equate our self with this deeper Self?
My own self-absorption has gotten subtler over the years. When I think back to the person I was in college, I cringe, even as I also feel some stirrings of compassion for the ways that I was trapped within myself. Hopefully in twenty years, I’ll look back on today with even more compassion.
The trouble I find myself in, now, is that the old ways of moving out of myself no longer work. For years, walking has been a kind of prayer for me. Whenever I felt hemmed in, anxious, angry, lonely, or restless I’d take to the woods or the meadows nearest. The trees have no expectations, and I’ve always felt I could be totally myself among them.
But you see, I’m one of those people who talks to themselves while they walk. I walk along muttering under my breath to myself and to God, sometimes catching myself out in some distortion of reality, sometimes working out an issue that’s been nagging me, sometimes giving thanks for the abundance of my life. Recently, though, I’ve come to see that all this talk is it’s own kind of self-absorption. I’ll come back from a walk totally sick of myself and realize I spent the entire hour talking out loud about me. My fears, my problems, my excitements, my, my, my. ICK.
I am a person of so very many projects. I give thanks for the overflowing of creative energy I’ve discovered since coming to monastic life. I really do think it’s a sign that God is at work within me, freeing me to love in new ways. But it’s so easy for that energy to tie me up in the fetters of the self. My whole mental focus can become my writing or my exercise or my quilting–whatever project I currently find most engaging.
I didn’t become a monk to write or to quilt or to read, though. I became a monk to learn to love God without measure and to allow God to free me of all that would hinder that love. If only I gave as much mental and spiritual attention to that endeavor as I do to all my little projects of self-improvement or self-expression.
Lately, I’ve tried something different with my walks. Instead of reciting my latest list of grievances or my plans for my own betterment, even instead of giving thanks, I’ve been praying the Jesus prayer. The whole experience of walking is transformed. My spirit grows quiet. My normally chatty mind stops its blathering. I hear the birds and the rustle of leaves. I notice the quality of the light and the feel of the damp air against my skin. With my mind occupied with the words of the prayer and my feet occupied with walking, I am able to be still in a way I’ve not been in a long time.
As I ask for Jesus’ mercy, I receive it in the stillness, the quiet, the presence of that walk. I don’t have nearly as many insights as I used to when walking. Instead, I trust that God is working out God’s purpose without my having to know what that purpose is. I don’t fix my grievances or plan out my latest project; I let them go into God’s hands. When I get home, I often pick them up again, but usually by that time I can hold them more lightly than before. And when my fingers start to tighten their grip, I can ask for mercy again.
I realize that even the awareness of a besetting sin is itself a kind of mercy. When I was in college, for instance, I didn’t even have that. Self-absorption struck me as a kind of justified pride in myself and my accomplishments. Now, at least, it’s a burden, a burden that helps me to turn my face back toward the God who loves me and wants me to be free. To the God who is always making a way out of the tangle of myself so I can walk quietly among the trees.