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Resisting the False Self

Sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. In 1984 the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community was in crisis. Jeff Dietrich courageously looked at why this was so and discovered that his "gifts" were, in fact, working against both himself and the greater vision.

Jeff Dietrich  
In the early days of our community, there was an understanding in Catholic Worker circles that the L.A. house was the "political house" while the San Francisco house was the "spiritual house". Today nothing could be further from the truth.

While we are still very much an activist community, I sometimes think that we look more like a monastery than a Catholic Worker house. Our "horarium", as Sister Lisa calls our daily schedule, is filled with prayer time, our political actions often look more like liturgies than protests, and our common life is filled with abundant space for reflection.

While we are hardly what you would call a contemplative community, the reflective nature of our common life represents a profound conversion born out of personal and communal crisis. That crisis began in 1984 when our community suffered the kind of disastrous break-up that is not uncommon in intentional Christian communities like our own. That was the event that had the power to put me on my knees in prayer, actually brought me even lower than that. In the space of two years, we went from a community of thirty members to a community of six. Our home had all of the humour and spirit of a mausoleum. We had meeting after meeting and burnout facilitator after facilitator. We had intrigue and plots and counterplots. We had accusations and recriminations and counter-accusations. It is very difficult for people who have not lived in community to realise the sense of pain and betrayal that accompany these emotionally brutal episodes perhaps only those who have been through the pain of divorce, with its experience of love turned to hate, can truly understand this phenomenon. Ten years later I can say that it was a good thing, in the same way that one might say that death is a good thing, because out of death comes new life. But at the time that it was happening, it just seemed like death.

After previous communal battles, once all of the "problem people" had left, it had always been a relatively easy matter to rebuild. Make a new brochure, go on a speaking tour, recruit some new people, start some new projects. But this time all of my familiar strategies just simply did not work. It almost seemed as if I was cursed, because every six months or so the pattern would repeat itself, and we would have another round of communal discord and a new set of folks would leave. Gradually a very faint thought began to form in my mind. A rather devastating thought : What if the problem was not with all of those "problem people"? What if the problem was with me? What if I had a set of unconscious behaviour patterns that was a major cause of all of this emotional turmoil? What if I were my own worst enemy?
Often I think social activitists like myself tend to be so blinded by the light of our own "good works" that we cannot see our shadow side.

I wish I could tell you that through a thought process of deep meditation and contemplative prayer, I at last attained clarity and a solution to my dilemma. But the truth is somewhat less gratifying, though no less edifying. Just about this time somebody introduced us to a personality typing system called the enneagram. It was indeed an answer to prayer. Without going into a lengthy explanation, it simply made clear the rather elemental spiritual truth that we are all composed of equal parts of light and dark, good and bad, positive motivations and self-serving ones. Most of us, however, tend to be blind to our own dark side because the light from our ego, our positive side is so bright. Our negative, "shadow side" is simply our positive gifts run amok we use our "gifts" to serve ourselves rather than using them to serve others.

I assume that when Jesus said that anyone "who would be my disciple must deny himself, take us his cross, and follow me', it is this false self that must be denied. In the Gospels the disciples are deaf to what Jesus is saying because they are blind to their own false selves and consequently to their dual motivations. Yes, they desire to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. But it is certainly not their intention to embrace the cross. Their true desire is to go to Jerusalem to seize political power. The disciples are interested in power and prestige, while Jesus is interested in sacrifice and service. On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus demonstrates to his perplexed disciples a consistent rejection of the power and prestige associated with wealth, religious hierarchy, and patriarchal family structures and tells his disciples that they must become like servants and little children. Whoever would become the greatest in his kingdom must become the least.

All of this rejection of power creates a dilemma for the disciples. It keeps bringing them face to face with the cross. In my own case it brought me face to face with a set of positive personality traits"gifts", if you will, that simply were no longer producing the kind of positive results they had before. I began to see that the very strategies that had been so successful in the past; my ability to organise, create enthusiasm, and to promote my project through writing, speaking, and public relations, was actually in very large measure an activity of self-promotion. Like the disciples in the story, I suffered from the problem of dual motivations. I loved Jesus and I wanted to follow him, but I also wanted the power and privilege, small though it was, that came with being a minor public figure in the tiny arena of social justice and protest.

Often I think social activists like myself tend to be so blinded by the light of our own "good works" that we cannot see our shadow side. I think that is where prayer comes in once we realise that we have these dual motivations, this dark side. Jesus says that this false self that has been formed and reinforced in us since childhood "can only be cast out by prayer". But what is prayer? Towards the end of the Gospel, just before he is arrested, Jesus asks his disciples to "stay awake with me and pray". Praying, then, is staying awake with Jesus and being conscious of our dual motivations, and the allure of the dominant culture that seduces us from the way of the cross.
Though we continue to be far too busy feeding the world and protesting injustice, our weekly schedule does provide j rough parity between prayer and action, reflection and service.

Let me hasten to assure that while I have neither traded in my protest placards for a meditation pillow, nor developed a personal prayer life that could be characterised as other than episodic and desultory at best, I do, nevertheless, believe that the insights I have received into the dark side are simple but authentic spiritual truths and that they are an answer to prayer. Further, I believe that this insight was the foundation stone of a renewed community founded specifically on communal prayer, reflection, and reconciliation, as well as our continuing commitment to service, hospitality and resistance. During the midst of our community break-up, I found a quote from Thomas Merton that someone had printed out on a 4 x 5 card. At the time I only dimly recognised how appropriate it was to my own situation. I have had it pinned to the wall over my writing desk ever since. Merton says: "He who attempts to act and do things for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others except the contagion of his own obsessiveness, his ego-centred ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas".

No one here at the Catholic Worker is a spiritual giant; most of us lack the commitment and discipline to pray regularly. Individually, we are all terribly flawed or flaky or both. But taken as a whole, we're pretty awesome. Though we continue to be far too busy feeding the world and protesting injustice, our weekly schedule does provide rough parity between prayer and action, reflection and service. The primary example of our communal commitment to prayer is our Wednesday Day of Reflection. The day begins with the serving of coffee and raisin bread to about a hundred folks gathered in front of the county welfare building; from there we proceed to our weekly vigil. Often the vigil is held in front of the County Court Building to protest the death penalty, or in front of the Federal Building to protest nuclear weapons. Currently it is held in front of the Chancery Office to protest the enormous expenditure of funds for the new cathedral. Upon returning home, we spend 20 minutes in silent prayer in our prayer room.

At ten o'clock we gather in the community room for Bible study. After break for lunch we gather again, this time for our "personal meeting". The meeting begins with the Merton prayer: "Lord, I do not know where I am going" and after five minutes of silence, someone asks: "Is there harmony in the community? Can we light the candle?" There have been times when we could not light the candle for as many as two consecutive meetings. But fortunately most issues are resolved relatively quickly. The rest of the meeting is a sharing of our ups and downs, our success and failures, our frailty and our humanity. The meeting ends with a Confiteor: "I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned."

At six o'clock we have our weekly liturgy that is open to our extended community. The scripture readings are always taken from among the passages that we have studied in the morning so that we might be able to offer our extended community the fruits of our reflection. Following our liturgy and potluck supper, a group of us load up our van with large kettles of soup which we serve to a gathering of folks on the streets. We recognise this serving of soup as an extension of our Eucharist to the poor on the streets.

Our Wednesday Days of Reflection are like a mini-retreat in the middle of each week. It is an opportunity to be both confirmed and judged by God's Word in scripture; an opportunity to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in community, and to have some clarity about our own pretensions and delusions. The day helps us to remember what we so easily forget: that we are not here to do our will but God's.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

This piece first appeared in The Catholic Agitator Vol. 27/No. 2, March 1997. Los Angeles Catholic Worker, 632, N. Brittania St., Los Angeles, CA 90033. USA.

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