A Summary of “With Empty Hands” by Philip McParland

This deeply insightful article, sub-titled ‘The Journey Home’ deals with the challenges we face in letting go of the ‘false self’ and ‘pride’ and embracing the ‘true self’. McParland begins his article by stating, ‘’The journey of life is sometimes referred to as a homecoming.” The image of home suggests at the very least, ”a place where we will truly know that we are accepted, cherished and safe. We have a deep longing to feel loved and to feel secure. These longings can only be fulfilled in the presence of God. In the Father’s house all is gift, all is grace, all is given. There we will sit at love’s table and taste love’s meat. Because the Father’s house is a place of graciousness and unconditional love the Father wants us to come to him with empty hands — In case we think that coming to the Father with empty hands is easy, it isn’t. The journey home is full of twists and turns. Sometimes it feels like an adventure, other times it is struggle.” McParland suggests that there are two things we need to let go of if we are to truly stand before God empty handed, and these are the false self and pride.

”Letting go of the false self and pride involves two major processes of purification which tend to be emotionally painful and very unsettling. The false self and pride are so deeply ingrained in us that they are extremely difficult to root out. In fact, in the experience of the Carmelite mystic, John of the Cross, it takes a ‘dark night’ to break their power. John actually speaks about two dark nights, the night of sense and the night of spirit. It could be argued that his night of sense shatters the false self and his night of spirit destroys our pride. This was certainly the case with Therese of Lisieux.”

“The false self is created by the childhood wound of conditional love. It has us find our value in what we have, in what we do and in what other people think of us. The false self is expressed in our preoccupation with accumulation, achievement and approval. These three A’s are all external sources of value. They are our attempts to find happiness in things outside us. Building our lives around accumulation, achievement and approval can only lead to dissatisfaction and disappointment. They cannot bring us the meaning and fulfillment we long for. Sooner or later we must accept that we are not what we have, we are not what we do, and we are not what other people think of us”.

“The acceptance that we are not what we have, we are not what we do, and we are not what other people think of us usually comes at a huge cost to us. It is especially painful emotionally. For most people it takes a crisis of some sort to make them stop defining themselves by their possessions or their productivity or their popularity. Most people need an experience of failing and falling to break the way the false self has been operating in their lives. They need to stumble over a stumbling stone!”

McParland then poses the question, “If we are not what we have, we are not what we do, and we are not what other people think of us then who are we?” He goes on to quote the renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung from his classic work ‘Modern Man in Search of Soul’ as follows: ‘Among all my patients in the second half of life—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life'(pp.229)

McParland then adds the following, “What Jung seems to have discovered is that the question, ‘who am I?’, can in fact only be answered in a religious or spiritual way. Sooner or later I need to know who I am in the eyes of God. According to Jesus in the eyes of God I am a beloved son or daughter. I am the Father’s beloved son or daughter and the Father is pleased with me. This is my core truth, my deepest identity.”

We find it very hard to accept unconditional love, if our experience in childhood has been one of conditional love.  We need to heal this childhood wound of conditional love, as the false self is created by this wound. “We realise that we do not need to earn God’s love by our perfection or performance or productivity. The Father’s love is gift, not achievement”.

The author points out that the battle between the true self and the false self usually occurs in midlife., and that this is the time when we are ‘invited’ to claim the true self and tame the false self. He states “It is not possible to tame the power of the false self unless we are claiming the true self. We cannot let go of something so ingrained and habitual unless we have found something more powerful to replace it. To know myself as a beloved son or daughter means that I no longer need to define myself by what I own, by what I do and by what people think of me”

We are invited to surrender and to trust as we journey towards acceptance, and towards receiving the unconditional love that is offered.


Author: Tomas Maher

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