I can't believe it's been two weeks since I have posted...ugh...Such is the pace of a doctoral program.
I've been thinking a lot lately about how we form our sense of self, which should be no surprise to people who ever read this thing. In particular I have been aware of how easily the university setting can prompt covetousness, and how hard it is to feel "at ease" even in a setting in which people are very friendly and that is not outwardly competitive. In my program, people are working on dozens of areas of research that are so widespread, it can be quite difficult to figure out what common ground we have. However, when I listen to other students talking about their areas of interest, discussing scholars and movements that I have never even heard of, much less read about, it is easy for me to get defensive in response to feeling like I'm on the dumb end of the department, or on the other hand to work myself into a frenzy of wanting to read all this stuff. Now, there's something good about being motivated to read more, I suppose, but there is a certain abysmal character to such a desire. There is physically no way to read everything I "should" read to be up on the sweep of my chosen fields (let alone all the other fields I "should" be keeping abreast of). It is a bit like the Buddhist figure of the "hungry ghost," which is conceived of as having a huge stomach, but a tiny neck - it cannot be satisfied, no matter how much it eats, because its hunger is insatiable.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who spends part of the year living in a hermitage, says that when he gets settled into his retreat every year, he comes to the place where he feels like if he never read another book, it would be enough. This is a very well-read guy, so he does not mean that reading is not important or that he has gotten it all figured out. He knows the potential of study to liberate, but he wants to make clear that it can also become an insatiable desire. Even though study is critical to bringing us to new understanding of ourselves and our world, it can also lead to a sense of self based in being able to "compete" with the other: I've read all those people, I am among the literati, I know all the theories out there. The attempt to fill the chasm of who I am with anything, even anything good - books read or published, good works accomplished, income donated, degrees earned - is itself an indication of just how alienated from myself I have in fact become. The measure of that for me is when I find myself in the company of different groups of people: around my students I could feel confident in my knowledge base, while among my classmates I feel somehow more ephemeral, like I am less real around people who know more than I. That may be one way of reading "the Fall" in Genesis 3: the immediacy of my knowledge of my relationship and identity with God gets disrupted with the rise of self-consciousness, of shame and pride, so I feel the need to cover my nakedness with the fig leaves of what I can pat myself on the back for.
That may be one good thing about today: All Saints Day. If today shows us anything, it is the absolute multiplicity of models that have been acknowledged as legitimate ways of living true humanity. The call to holiness is not a blueprint or a script; there is no one way to be a saint. Rather, sainthood is INCARNATED in the very tissue of who I am. As much as I admire her, I am no Mother Teresa, which is ok - I'm not called to be her, but to be me, genuinely me, which is harder than it sounds. This mimesis or creation of desires based on other people tells me what I am supposed to desire, what I am supposed to want to be, and it will jerk me around as long as I play the game of trying to produce a mask that is so real that I will forget that it is simply a mask.