Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing – but learning to see fully seems to take most of our lifetime.
When we are young, we all identify so strongly with our personas that we become masters of denial – and we l earn to eliminate or deny anything that doesn’t support our self-image.
By the second half of life, we’ve all bumped up against our shadow selves; regular contact with our shadows gradually detaches us from the personas we worked so hard to construct in the first half of life.
Neither our persona nor our shadow is evil in itself; they just allow us to do evil and not know it. (Remember, hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means “actor”, someone playing a role rather than being “real”.)
Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we don’t want others to see.
Our persona (which is Greek for “stage mask”) is what we choose to identify with, what other people want from us – and reward us for. This “stage mask” is not bad, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true”.
So our self-image nothing more than that – an image – which isn’t worth protecting, promoting, or denying. Our self-image is not substantial or lasting; it is just created out of our own minds, desires, and choices – and other people’s choices for us!
As Jesus said, if we can begin to “make friends” with those who bring us challenging messages, we’ll begin to see some of our own shadow. But if we aren’t willing to see our shadow, we’ll miss out on much-needed wisdom, and end up “imprisoned” within ourselves or “taken to court” by others:
Make friends with your opponent quickly while he is taking you to court; or he will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and the officer will follow you into prison. You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)
The “opponent taking us to court” is a telling metaphor for what we allow inner stories to do to us. We can create entire and self-justifying scenarios of blame, anger, and hurt – toward ourselves or toward others. But Jesus is saying, “Don’t go there!”
Moving to second-half-of-life wisdom comes through healthy self-critical thinking, including necessary shadow work. Gradually, we learn to see ourselves beyond our own shadows/disguises.
Shadow work in humiliating work, but properly so. And I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life, the only difference being that we are no longer surprised by our surprises or so totally humiliated by our humiliations!
The saints learn and grow from encountering their shadows. A saint is someone who no longer has an “I” to protect or project. They saints learn they will never be perfect – and they’ll never be perfectly right; so they just try to live in right relationships. In other words, they try above all else to be loving.
The reason that mature or saintly people can feel so peaceful – so accepting of self and others – is that there is not much hidden shadow self left. (There is always and forever a little more, however! No exceptions. Shadow work never stops.)
Shadow work is almost another name for falling upward, because the closer we get to the Light, the more of our shadow we will see. Lady Julian of Norwich put it best of all: “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”