As Lent begins, I find myself once more blessing the congregation with these words: ‘Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him’. It seems to modern ears that the very worst thing one could ever do is to deny oneself! Surely it’s all we have, the most precious, indeed, the only thing that we truly have. Our contemporary spiritual instinct is to deny such denial and counter it with another injunction: ‘be yourself’!
I can full understand why people react against this apparent call to meek submissiveness, sounding, as it does, like an invitation to be at the mercy of some greater authority, conforming to external norms and expectations, rejecting all individuality and freedom. And I am sure that religious authorities have sometimes been as guilty of such an interpretation as other human institutions have. But I feel more and more convinced that the call to deny oneself is right at the heart of the spiritual life and I have been helped by some Buddhist insight into what this truly means.
In Buddhist thought, there is no separate self to deny: to deny oneself is deny that there is such a thing as a separate self to deny! Buddhism does not posit a self-existent ‘soul’ with some sort of existence that is, to some degree, independent of the body. Indeed, orthodox Christianity also denies such an anthropology! The Buddhist no-self is a recognition that there is no separate ‘thing’ that is ‘me’. We are always in movement, in process, in becoming and not some kind of solid entity with firmly defined boundaries. Of course, Buddhism does not deny that there are ‘selves’ – that would be counter to the simple observation of the diversity of human forms – but it insists that these ‘selves’ are also ’empty’ of substance. But to say they have no separate substantial identity is not to say that they are unimportant or of no value. On the contrary, this awareness opens us up to the fundamental truth of our connectedness with all other things. All ‘selves’ share this boundless, expansive, creative openness, this ‘void’ that is at the heart of all life.
So in denying that there is a separate self, we are denying the self-importance, self-obsession and aggressive self-protection that can lie at the heart of so much of our human misery. To let go of such a self is to find freedom. And I think that when Jesus said that we must ‘deny ourselves’ in order to find ourselves, I think he something like this in mind: ‘deny your separation, your isolation; do not cling to such things and you will find life’.