There is the story of a desert monk who was told by his elder to plant a stick in the ground and to water it until it grew leaves. This is an example of monastic obedience (obedience means you do not ask the question ‘why?’), and this is what we must do to our ego – water it until it grows leaves.
We live in the era of the ego, after the Fall (when we acquired carnal knowledge in order to have children, in order to give birth to the body of the Church). That is, in the era of the I. It is remarkable that in English the ego is a line: I. LINE, by a step in the alphabet (l-m), is connected to MINE – we like to lay claim to things in this world, to draw a line and say ‘this is mine’.
I think we are in this life to learn to move away from the ego (which paradoxically enough leads us to affirm the self, who we really are – this is one of many paradoxes in Christianity). How do you move away from the I?
As I see it, there are three ways of moving away from the I. The first is to make reference to a third point, to understand that in our relations with others it is never a two-way process, there is always a third person present. This is why the best kind of conversation is prayer, because instead of two people talking to each other, two people turn to face in the same direction and address themselves in communion to that third person, whom we name God. Prayer is conversation with a common purpose – it doesn’t have to be in church.
When you make reference to a third point, as if when crossing a river you remember the source, then you have a triangle: Δ. And a triangle is close to the letter A (in effect, the letter A is a triangle on stilts).
So that is one way of moving away from the I: Δ > A.
The second way is to draw a line through the I, to delete it. This is the meaning of the Gospel message to lose our life in order to find it. It is the opposite of what this world tells us to do – to keep our life, to prolong it as long as possible and to make it as comfortable as possible. It is not that we seek our death, far from it, but we lay down our life for the other, we make sacrifices for the other, we actually gain salvation through the other. When we draw a line through the I, of course the symbol we get is the Cross: †. The Cross is an I with a line drawn through it.
So how can we lose our life in order to find it? Surely this doesn’t make sense. Is Christ telling me to throw my life away and then to go and find it again? Well, in a way, yes, because as a desert father, Abba Alonius, once said, ‘If I had not destroyed myself completely, I should not have been able to rebuild and shape myself again’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward, Cistercian Publications, 1984, p. 35).
But I think the true meaning of the Gospel message is this: a Cross is also a plus-sign, +. So when we lose our life (the Cross, †), we actually find it (the plus-sign, +). I would go so far as to say we only find it when we lose it.
This is the second way of moving away from the I: † > +.
And the third way of moving away from the I is to see it as a number – 1 – and then to count down to 0. The ego, the I, is actually a spiritual eye that is closed. You will see this if you cock your head like a bird. It is an eye on its side, and it is closed. This is why ‘I’ and ‘eye’ sound the same.
We must open our spiritual eyes (our spiritual Is), and then, when we open the letter I, we get O.
This is the third way of moving away from the I: 0 > O.
If we put these three ways of moving away from the I together, we get:
A + O
Now this is a remarkable fact, because when we move away from the ego, we are actually calling on God, Alpha and Omega. This is our purpose in life: to shift our focus of attention from ourselves to God, and language wishes to confirm this.
But what is truly remarkable for me is that the name Alpha and Omega is contained in the middle conjunction: ‘and’. We will see it better if we write it with capital letters: AND. AND is A ’N’ O (we have the shortened form of the conjunction, ’n’, as in rock ’n’ roll), and in reverse it reads DNA. It is in our DNA to turn to God – it is he who will make us whole.
We see this same choice between following our own inclinations and bowing down before another in the connection between EGO and GOD. They are only a step in the alphabet (d-e) apart. It reminds me of Christ’s injunction that we cannot serve God and mammon (or, in word-connection terms, we cannot serve GOD and GOLD – what letter does GOLD contain that GOD does not? The letter l, which equates to the ego).
So it seems that the SELF must go the way of all FLESH (SELF in reverse, with the addition of h). The SELF in terms of self-seeking, privately harboured ambitions, is FALSE (addition of a), it makes us a SLAVE (phonetic pair f-v). When we enter the world, when we respond to its call, I think we find at some point that what we had taken to be freedom – the ability to do whatever we liked – has in fact enslaved us, has turned us into a slave. Like the Prodigal Son, we come to our senses and seek another path, one that will truly free us and bring us to fulfilment. It is a common misconception that freedom equates to the ability to do what we like (within reason). This is the tenet of democracy. But the Church is not democratic – it is not ruled by people, although it may consist of them. It is hierarchical, and the head of the Church is Christ.
What do we do with the SELF when we come to this realization? There is a simple answer in terms of language, but again you must know your phonetic pairs: f-v and l-r. Then you can turn SELF into SERVE (repetition of e).
Or, as with the connection between GOD and GOLD, you remove the ego from SLAVE. Again, we will see this better if we use lower-case letters – ‘slave’. What happens when you remove the I from ‘slave’? What word do you get?
Language, like the desert elder who sent his disciple off to plant a stick in the ground, or Abba Alonius, who realized that you have to break the ego down in order to rebuild it, is clearly showing us in these examples that we have a choice between becoming enslaved to the impulses of the ego (and there are plenty of substances lying in wait to help us with this task) and turning to God.
It is all a question of opening our spiritual Is – or having them opened for us.
The semi-vowel y corresponds to the vowel i (that is the line, I). When we turn to God in repentance, when we lay our ego on the altar of obedience, we OBEY. I think we reach a point, having made our choice, where we actually decide we don’t really want our free will (there is a parallel here with marriage, where we become one body – and see what fruit that bears).
I am not talking about subjection to a tyrant. I am talking about Christ. With Christ (yes, it is difficult sometimes), I want what he wants, not what I want, because I know it will lead to better things. It will lead to life in all its fullness. And at that point I am capable of declaring, not OBEY, but O, BE I! (the exclamation mark shows that I have opened my eyes; a question mark does the same, it just takes longer to get there).
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com