The inward journey
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson
March 11, 2021
Greek mythology caught my attention in my early twenties. I was moved by the heroes and heroines that were depicted. From Zeus to Hercules, the gods were my favorite. However, I stumbled upon a Greek tragedy about this hunter named Narcissus. Narcissus was known to reject all romantic advances because he fell in love with his own reflection. One day as he was hunting, he saw his reflection in a pool of water. He stayed there looking at his reflection until he starved and died. Narcissus was consumed by his love for himself. As Greek mythology goes there is a moral lesson to this story. When we are obsessively consumed with ourselves, we flirt with the fatality of death.
However, there is great value in reflection. While an overly obsessive consumption of reflecting on oneself is not healthy, self-reflection is a discipline used to enhance personal, professional, and spiritual growth. Although Narcissus’ self-obsession was a tragedy, we have been given a gift concerning his life. The reflecting pool of water showed Narcissus his reflection; however, he looked no further than the surface. When we look no further than the surface of our reflection, we will get lost. The surface is one-dimensional and serves as the gateway to venture deeper.
Lent is a season that calls Christians to reflect and look deeper within. We are summoned in this season to look into the mirrors of our souls. There is danger and deliverance in looking inward. When looking into a mirror or at our own reflection, we may find ourselves obsessively consumed by our own vanity. This consumption deteriorates the ego and eats away at the soul, leaving us lost and empty. It is unhealthy because there is nothing about this type of reflection that points out detrimental flaws. This type of consumption disregards any spiritual nourishment that would be helpful. There is also the type of consumption that is the opposite of this fatal feasting. While Narcissus was captivated by his own beauty, on the other end of the spectrum is the utter rejection of one’s reflection. This leads an individual into a tailspin of depression and despair concerning what they think they see. Again, these are surface reflections. By contrast, true spiritual self-reflection work is not on the surface.
Self-reflection is a spiritual discipline that develop us in ways that fully express our divinely created nature. This discipline is powerful and offers significant benefits to our lives. It is in looking into the mirror of our lives that we see exactly who we are. A mirror does not cast a shadow, but simply reveals who stands before it. As we gaze into our own reflection, we are invited to get lost. While there is the misfortune of getting lost, there is also a gift. Wandering around in our reflection can be rewarding—with guidance.
Lent is a season that calls Christians to reflect and look deeper within. We are summoned in this season to look into the mirrors of our souls. There is danger and deliverance in looking inward.
During my doctoral studies, I was glad to have spiritual formation as a mandatory course. This forced me to sit with myself even when the busyness of life and ministry pulled me in several directions. Spiritual formation varies across denominations and spiritual perspectives. However, generally, it seeks to help those pursuing spiritual development and a richer spiritual life with guidance. There is nothing mysterious about this journey. It was my pleasure to have begun spiritual formation before my doctoral work. However, having this as a required course forced me to realize and take more seriously just how critical reflecting is to my own spiritual life.
The tragedy for Narcissus was not only that he fell in love with his own reflection, but it was also that he was alone. His occupation as a hunter lent itself to a solitary life. This was unfortunate because had he had a friend, there would have been someone to pull him out of the tailspin of his obsession. I would have hoped that a friend would have been that voice of reason, his conscience telling him that what he saw was only on the surface. Perhaps they would have informed him that there was more than what he saw on the surface. Spiritual reflection is designed to help us see deeper into the soul. It is designed to look beyond the surface. And when we do, we will see pain, past trauma, and imperfections. These troublesome areas are the mirrors of our souls reflecting back what has happened in the past. Progress, peace, and pleasure are also possible on the inward journey of the soul.
Looking into the mirror of our souls with guidance for the specific purpose of personal development can move us beyond the pain, past trauma, and imperfections reflected. Unfortunately, there is the temptation to linger in the “hall of mirrors” that reflect the images that have harmed us. However, spiritual formation with the specific purpose of personal development will use those harmful images to help us. Pain is only painful in the moment that it happens. When we linger in the moment, well past the actual event, the pain becomes cemented in our spirit. It is not the pain that we experience, but the thought of the pain that becomes our reality.
As time passes, without spiritual formation to guide us through that pain, it lingers for years. To move forward involves engaging in the spiritual practice of reflection. Here, with the help of a guide, we are led through the pain, into a future that enables and inspires us to use the pain as a platform to help others. Henri Nouwen refers to those who do this as “wounded healers.”
The tragedy of Narcissus’s death was not only due to his obsession over his own beauty, but also because he could not see how viewing his own beauty could have been helpful to others. It was not the reflection that killed Narcissus, it was the obsession at the exclusion of all life that killed him. In seminary, I heard the phrase, “We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” That stuck with me and has been the foundation of my spiritual journey.
Looking into our own reflection is both rewarding and powerful. As we are guided through the maze of our souls, we see what needs to be developed and begin the work. This work is not merely for our own development, but also for improving the quality of life for all humanity. Here is the steppingstone for the enhancement of humanity, that we learn that our own spiritual growth helps others. May we take the inward journey of the soul during Lent, to help us better the quality of life for all humanity. Because it is in self-discovery that we are able to overcome our vices, to fully express the virtues of love, peace, and justice. It is also in self-discovery that we possess the capacity to be more generous and productive in life.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.