My body is almost my own again. At least my skin has stopped being unbearably itchy.
When I was in Alice, almost two weeks ago, my Guardian Angel gave me the use of a bath, and I put in this solution that relieves itching. [Extreme ick warning] I’m pretty sure I watched the scabies debris float around as I scrubbed at my useless, mottled skin. Better out than in I guess. Still gross though. [End ickiness – there is more ickiness in this post though so fair warning].
I was pretty relaxed after that first bath. When asked how the bath was, I said, “I’m still itchy, but for the first time I don’t want to tear off my skin, so that’s a win.”
There’s this story in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis, where one of the characters gets turned into a dragon. When it’s time for him to become a boy again, Aslan leads him to a healing pool and tells him to scrape off the skin. So he scratches and peels off a layer, like a snake, but there is still another layer underneath. He scratches and peels that off too. But there are more and more layers revealed each time he peels one off.
This goes on for some time, until Aslan has a go at peeling off the dragon skin. He doesn’t just get one layer. He digs right down to where the boy’s true, fleshy skin is, and peels off the whole of the dragon skin, a process that is extremely painful for the boy. When Aslan is finished, the dragon skin sits in a big knobbly lump next to the boy. The boy then swims in the healing pool while his skin smarts satisfyingly.
That’s what I wanted to do: Tear off my disgusting motley dragon skin and find the soft flesh underneath.
But of course the dragon skin story isn’t just about dragon skin. Actually I have been talking about peeling off dragon skin for some weeks now, since before I even got scabies. It all started with Richard Rohr.
I was part of a bible study that started out with a Lent study. So after Easter, we were somewhat unmoored. Unshaven Intellectual brought along two options for a sermon to watch. We went with Richard Rohr on False Self v. True Self (watch from 19:49 if you have a short attention span). It was kind of life-changing. Weeks after that night, I was still discussing this concept with the other bible study members. Months later, Nurse Jade and I still refer to it in our discussions of life and theology.
From here this blog post makes more sense if you go and watch the sermon, but I will explain it to you with reference to the dragon skin, both mine and the boy’s.
The way we come to an understanding of God, or the mystical Other, is of a God “out there”. To be with God we have to reach where God is, by achieving our salvation. But this just leads to a whole bunch of navel-gazing and never living up to the ideal.
The more mature way to experience God is to realise that we are already there, in God. We are made in the image of God, our DNA is divine. That is the true self. But initially when we fall into the true self, it feels like dying, because it means a destroying of everything we had carefully constructed for ourselves. The death of false self can take many forms, but usually comes about when we come to the end of our own resources. That’s when we fall into the limitlessness of God, whose resources never run out. But this process almost always involves pain.
It is not really death though. We are just shedding our dragon skin to reveal the true flesh underneath.
Part of living within the false self is working for your goodness, trying to be a better person. ‘Achieving’ yourself into being a good person or a proper Christian is like the boy in the story scratching off layer after layer, never getting at the heart. It is about as likely to work as my scratching my own skin is going to heal it.
I don’t have to tear off my layer of disgusting, pockmarked, bleeding and scabbing skin in order to find the soft skin underneath that feels like me. But the process of getting well again is pretty similar to the process of going from the false self to the true self.
I can’t achieve it. Scratching, while it is sickeningly satisfying in the moment, leaves me bleeding; choking on my own self-disgust. There is no way for me to achieve good skin again, no hoop for me to jump through that will bring newness.
I have to attend to the problem. A week or so ago this involved putting betadine on the wounds, changing the bandaids (or getting my poor sister to do it); putting on the bark skin treatment The Translator gave me in Arnhem Land; and bathing with the anti-itch solution.
Now that the sores are healing up well, it just means making sure I scrub them properly in the shower, and in general resting/sleeping a lot, and not over-exerting myself. So I’m taking care of myself, but I am not working to be healed.
Healing from having dragon skin is like the process of entering your true self instead of false self. I have to just give in to the healing. As soon as you start matching yourself against a checklist, or working to become the true self, you have fallen back into the false self.
This is why grace can be the hardest part of the Christian faith to accept; paradoxically, because it is the easiest. I don’t have to work for it – and can’t. The way to accept it is by letting go of control and the idea that I can achieve goodness. It means attending to my spiritual needs the same way I attend to my sores; not in order to fix them, but in order to allow God’s grace to heal me.