A memorable epitaph can be a writer’s final bid to leave undying words behind, albeit words that are literally chiseled in stone. The pulp fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft certainly has some claim to make in this regard. His unassuming granite marker, paid for by loyal fans, reads: I AM PROVIDENCE. However, any metaphysical implications are quickly dispelled once you understand that Lovecraft, who was an atheist, is buried at a cemetery in Providence, RI, his hometown. The epitaph is taken from a letter he wrote to his Aunt Lillian in which he said, “I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have — in some form or other. Providence is part of me — I am Providence…”
As it happens, the sentence “I am Providence” is not original with H.P. Lovecraft, whether or not he was aware of it when he wrote to his aunt. It originally appeared in St. Athanasius’ biography of St. Anthony, often regarded as the founder of Western monasticism in the third century CE. Anthony fled into the Egyptian wilderness, spending years shut away in a tomb and later in an old Roman fort. According to Athanasius’ account, he was tempted by the devil and beaten so badly by demons that he was left for dead. At one point a towering figure appeared to him and proclaimed, “'I am the power of God; I am Providence. What wilt thou that I give thee?” But Anthony saw through the devil’s ruse and sent him packing by spitting on him and invoking the name of Christ.
Anthony may have been heeding St. Paul’s warning that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. But what then are we to make of mystics in every faith who have made similar statements about themselves? Consider this ecstatic utterance from St. Catherine of Genoa: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.” Or this from the Sufi adept Bayazid Bastami: "I went from God to God, until they cried from me to me, 'O Thou I!'" And this from the Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am part or particle of God.” Even St. Paul, one of Christianity’s founders, weighed in as follows: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Such statements might indicate their authors were deluded, if not actually possessed by the devil. The assumption is that they believed their persona had been transformed into God, or that they had assumed godlike powers. However, I would suggest the situation is more nearly the opposite: that the self they had previously regarded as the bedrock of their existence had been subsumed by a being altogether larger than anything previously imaged – as William James described it, “to be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.” There is even a theological term for this phenomenon: kenosis, from the Greek for “emptying.” It derives from a New Testament passage in which St. Paul writes that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Paul, of course, regarded Jesus as the Son of God, and as such he had to surrender his godlike qualities in order to become fully human. The process works in reverse for the rest of us: we must surrender our personal will in order to become like God.
But how exactly do you go about emptying yourself? Every religious tradition touts various prayers and practices that will supposedly render us fit vessels for God’s grace. Yet any attempt to surrender our will to God is itself an act of will that perpetuates the illusion that we can exercise our will apart from God. Each thought of a new and improved self is another silken thread woven into the web with which the self is ensnared. It is only when we finally realize there is absolutely nothing to be gained by our own efforts to find God that we give God room to find himself in us.
2 Corinthians 11:14