My childhood God was a caring, parent-like figure who lived up in heaven and ruled the world from afar. Early childhood specialists tell us that children begin to create images of God that represent their parents’ way of being. At the same time, they also internalize parental standards, values, and expectations as well as the rules of religion and society. They see God as a loving parent who intervenes in our world, rewarding good behavior and punishing wrongdoing. Their God is all-loving, but also rule-making, judgmental, guilt-evoking and at times terrifying. Healthy adult spiritual development requires the transformation of our childhood images of God into the living God imaged by Christ.
Here is an example from my own life of the gradual change in my God imaging. In my early twenties, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I was impressed with her self-esteem and love of life despite the fact that she was hiding in an attic with her family to escape the Nazis. She valued her experience enough to keep a diary where she shared what was happening in her life: her new boyfriend, problems with her mother, etc.
I began to think, maybe if I keep a journal I will catch her spirit and experience the joy of living, no matter the circumstances. You may recall that Anne gave her journal a name, “Kitty.” She began every entry like a letter, “Dear Kitty.” “Kitty” became her friend and confidant. My question was, how do I want to name my journal? Who do I want to be my friend and confidant?
I wanted this kind of personal relationship with God. So I began my journal, “Dear God,” and I started to write down everything that was going on in my life. In the middle of this, however, I started to think, “This is really stupid! My ordinary, everyday life is not important to God Almighty. A friendship with God is simply not possible.” I finished the letter anyway and signed it, “Love, Sara.”
That weekend I went to Mass at our little parish church. The priest was a visiting priest and to my surprise, his whole sermon was in the form of a letter from God addressing all of us with love. I just sat there in awe! My letter to God had been answered! I was in tears! God is closer to us than we realize. My image of God changed. God is unthinkably humble and is seeking a friendship with us, even more than we are seeking a friendship with God! How has your image of God changed as you have matured into adulthood?
Do you ever struggle with being kind and compassionate toward yourself, especially in times of personal suffering? Even though one of the foundational pillars of Christian Spirituality is the love of self, we tend to be harsh and judgmental about our own flaws, failings, and limitations. In his teaching on friendship, the great Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, asserts that since we are more closely united to ourselves than to any other person, all the good we desire for our loved ones, we most want for ourselves. Therefore, the heart of wisdom is to love and accept ourselves as our own best friend. This counsel suggests that when times are really tough and we are experiencing suffering, we give ourselves the patient caring and tenderness that we need.
Human development specialist, Dr. Kristen Neff, has developed what she calls a “self-compassion break.” This five-minute break in time of suffering consists of three main components. First, we must recognize that “this is a moment of suffering” and to speak gently to ourselves in naming our pain. She encourages us to say something like, “Sweetheart, this is really hard right now.” We then simply allow the difficulty to be present and we soften toward it. Second, she suggests that we remind ourselves that “suffering is a part of life.” Instead of feeling alone and cut off from the rest of the world, it is important to remind ourselves that suffering is a part of the human condition. Other people are suffering in a similar way as we are suffering. Third, we say, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” We offer ourselves soothing and comfort with gentle kindness. She encourages us to put our hand on our heart and feel the care streaming through our fingers. See her website. Learning to love ourselves in this way enables us to love others; when we befriend ourselves, we can be true friends to others. Likewise, this friendship with ourselves also helps us to better open up to the friendship of Christ.
I invite readers to share in the comments:
What has helped you to love and accept yourself?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you be a friend to others?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you to be a better Christian?
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!