Superheroes, the False Self, and the Prayer of Recollection
The appeal of superheroes is that they are given secret superpowers. My son loves his superhero action figures, costumes, and movies. He runs through the house imagining that he is a superhero for hours on end. And since he’s four, he can combine whatever strengths he wants and nobody can correct him.
As adults, we may still dream of being superheroes, but have consigned ourselves to reality: Superheroes are imaginary. No jumping in the phone booth to go from Clark Kent to Superman. No Batmobile. No flying suit like Tony Stark.
But perhaps we play the superhero game in another way. Because being a superhero really is all about doing good in the world, good that cannot be done by ordinary humans. We play the role of superheroes in the masks we wear with others, doing good, so we think, by being someone other than who we really are.
Some refer to this as the false self. Brennan Manning refers to it as the imposter. We give in to the lie that who we really are is not good enough, not liked, not worthy of approval. So we create a persona, someone we think others will accept, all the while still disliking ourselves and believing that God dislikes us, too. We fool ourselves into thinking this is the only way to be good and do good in the world.
- If I’m attractive, I use my good looks to attract others and that becomes my identity.
- If I’m good at my job, my identity comes in earning money or being looked at as successful.
- If I’m funny, I use humor.
You get the idea. We become self-absorbed and pressured to always be good enough as these various types of people rather than holding these good identities loosely.
The self caught up in power plays, image management, worry, or other sin is not the true self, but a self that creates its identity through attachment to other things. God has given us an identity of self in Christ.
This is different than the way we act differently for the roles we play. I am one person at the church, and another at home–out of necessity. My kids don’t need me to be Pastor Josh; they need Dad. My wife doesn’t need a counselor; she needs a listener who isn’t going to fix things all the time. Get it?
Thus, there is a sinful, false-self-kind-of-living and a roles issue at play in our lives all at the same time. The prayer of recollection (or re-collection) addresses both issues. It is about re-collecting, re-gathering up the fragmented parts of us. Our true identity is in Christ, and the prayer of recollection helps us reconnect all these identities in Him.
A “recollected” soul is one at rest in God. It is the opposite of a distracted or fragmented soul. As we pray, we confess the false self with its addictions, sins, idols, and pretenses in order to move into communion with God. And yet we are not talking the whole time. This is a much more receptive form of prayer; less speaking and more listening.
Transformation into Christlikeness involves detachment from whatever keeps us from resting in Christ. Some of these things are simply distractions and some of them are parts of our false self.
Finally, this form of prayer will require what Teresa of Avila calls “a prolonged, resolute act of the will.” She wrote in The Way of Perfection:
“Our senses, imagination, and intellect tend spontaneously toward exterior things, on which they are dispersed; therefore, the soul, by a prolonged, resolute act of the will, ought to withdraw them from these exterior things in order to concentrate them on interior things — in this little heaven of the soul where the Blessed Trinity dwells. This exercise, especially in the beginning, requires effort and energy and it will not be easy at first….let the soul try to cultivate the habit, despite the fatigue entailed in recollecting itself and overcoming the body which is trying to reclaim its rights.”
So, to pray this way:
- Identify and confess areas of the false self—your addictions, sins, idols, pretense–and allow God to forgive you.
- Withdraw from urgent affairs and your whirlpool of activities. This is not about presenting requests to God.
- Get in a posture of receptivity rather than activity.
- When other thoughts press in—planning a vacation, needs at home, stress at work—don’t push them aside but confess them and present them to God.
Here’s an example.
O Lord, I admit that I am not you. I am finite creation. I know that my body has limitations; I cannot know everything or be at other places at once. I try sometimes to be in other places or to grant every person’s desires when deep down I know I cannot.
(Take time to admit those areas where you are trying to be God for others.)
Then thank God for being who He is and for your nature as His creation.
Lord, at my deepest place, I am not any of these roles I occupy.