Without a healthy self-love, there can be no love of God and neighbor. According to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christian times, we cannot begin to learn how to love God and others without first learning how to claim for ourselves a self to do that loving. To many contemporary Christians, loving means that as Jesus sacrificed himself for others, so Christians must also in their everyday lives sacrifice their very selves for the sake of others.
While it is true that love requires self-giving and discipline to respond to the needs of family, friends, community and those we serve, it is misguided to think that love is of such a self-sacrificing nature that Christians ought not have a self at all. One sign that we lack a self is the feeling that our worth is determined by others’ approval or liking of us. If we are captive to the need for approval, we may well refuse to make the right decision we know is true to our convictions out of anxiety over what others may think of us. As Christians, we need to realize our intrinsic value as created in the image of God. Our true identity rests in God and our primary relationship is with God.
For this reason, the Desert Fathers and Mothers told their disciples to be like the dead when it comes to other people’s opinion:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said no. The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of human beings or their praises, and you will be saved.”
The clear message in Macarius’ teaching is that if we are able to understand that our authentic identity is not linked to others’ evaluations of us, we are free to be our true self. Only then will we be able to respond to the call of Christ to love God and neighbor as self.
In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, I thought I would share with you part of a Thanksgiving reflection given by our Sister Maria Goretti Browne, OP, that focuses on the sometimes hard work of practicing gratitude. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life and at times we need to lament and share our grief with others and with God. By embracing suffering in this way we can grow in our ability to love life unconditionally.
Sometimes, however, we may choose to intensify the difficulties of life by incessant complaining, stirring up resentments, nursing grudges and basically being a walking wet blanket. There is another more healthy option: gratitude. Research tells us that if we learn how to appreciate life in all its dimensions, we will feel better, be less prone to stress and sickness, sleep better, and live longer and healthier lives.
Sister Maria Goretti challenges us to give thanks in all circumstances of life. She recounts a rather extreme response of giving gratitude in the unbearable circumstances of war. She writes:
I read one time that during the war in Southeast Asia, there was a young Vietnamese boy who would sing as he worked in the rice fields, even as the bombs burst all around him. He explained that he could not stop the war, but he could keep the fear of death from overtaking his heart; he had to fight to be peaceful and happy inside while the horror and sadness of war swirled around him.
Maybe gratitude is an attitude. Most of us take very good care of our bodies, even try to walk – what is it – 10,000 steps? We practice each day, and eventually we will get to the 10,000 number. How about us practicing gratitude – Each day being more grateful than the day before, being more and more conscious of the blessings in our lives. Just look around. Thank God for our vocation, be it religious life, or married life, or single life; we are blessed with wonderful spouses or companions, wonderful co-workers, blessed with beautiful families, blessed with talents too many to enumerate, blessed with the ability to spread God’s love. Everywhere we look we see where we can spread that love and gratitude.
We know the account in Scripture of the three young men who were thrown into a fiery furnace. What’s the first thing they did? They broke into a song of praise and thanksgiving for all that God had made. Theirs was such an attitude of gratitude that their suffering was secondary. They danced among the flames unharmed (Daniel 3).
What about us? Do we find ways to give thanks to God in all circumstances?
Every good life choice is grounded in self-esteem. With self-esteem, we reverence and respect our own person as a gift of God. We are not trying to look or be like someone else. This brings to mind the familiar story from the Talmud about Akiba.
When Akiba was on his deathbed, he complained bitterly to his rabbi that he felt like a complete failure. The rabbi moved closer and asked why, and Akiba confessed: “I have not lived a life like Moses.” He then broke down in tears, admitting that he feared God’s judgment.
At this, the rabbi leaned into his ear and whispered gently, “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
With self-esteem, we embrace our true self with unconditional love. In turn, we make decisions that bring about our own flourishing and the betterment of our world.
As you reflect on important choices in your life, will the decisions you make reflect a careful attention to what nurtures your authentic self and brings the fullness of life God so wants to give you?
Young women discerning a call to religious life often ask if living a vow of celibacy means giving up their sexuality. I usually begin my response by saying that the vow of consecrated celibacy is a radical way of loving God, self, and others with our whole heart, mind, body, soul, and strength. God’s gift of self to me invites my mutual self-gift in return. In my personal response to God’s call, I commit myself totally to God to the exclusion of any other primary commitment to spouse, family, or projects. By living this vow I desire to embody with my life the profound truth that the multifaceted love of God satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart for a lifetime.
Celibacy clearly requires abstinence from genital sexual activity. In making this commitment to God, I freely and knowingly set limits on my human experience. I will never love and be loved as wife and mother. These important dimensions of my sexual identity I will never experience. Like any major life choice, my choice to live a life of consecrated celibacy involves legitimate suffering and letting go as well as joy and abundance. Anything of value comes at a high cost. My vow of celibacy, however, does not mean giving up my sexuality or my capacity to be creative.
The most fundamental aspect of human sexuality is our need for intimacy, our need to be lovingly related and connected to other human beings and to all of creation. As a celibate lover, my need for intimacy is as great as that of a married person. As Father Clark puts it, “Intimacy is as much a part of my sexuality as it is part of a married person’s. Human sexuality is about intimacy.”* Real intimacy requires a multiplicity of personal skills from self-esteem to compassion, caring presence, appropriate confiding, trust, loyalty, fidelity, as well as a number of skills for personal freedom. We learn to channel our sexuality into a broader way of loving. A celibate does not deny her sexuality; instead, she uses that God-given energy to love and serve generously.
*Keith Clark, Being Sexual…and Celibate, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1985), 30.
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?
Based on a reflection by Sister Joan Delaplane, OP
This past week, our Dominican community celebrated the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Catherine: Dominican preacher, teacher, healer, reconciler, writer, mystic, and all in a mere 33 years; first woman named as Doctor of the Church! A woman whose times were like our own in many ways: upheavals, insecurity, fear, wars, natural calamities, lost faith, and scandals in the Church. And how did our sister Catherine face these challenges? As Suzanne Nofke summarized it: “The Truth and Love that is God possessed her, and she laid her whole being on the line with his for the life of the world” (Catherine of Siena: Vision Through a Distant Eye. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).
Yes, Catherine’s “mad lover” God was Truth and Love. As I reflected on Catherine and our own time, however, two phrases grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go: Truth of Love and Love of Truth. Catherine’s grounding in the Truth of Love, who is God, impelled her to take the love of truth to others. Perhaps you’ve seen the cover of Time magazine earlier this month: “Is Truth Dead?” Alternative facts and fake news seem acceptable; some don’t even care, or even echo Pilate: “What is truth?” It’s as though there’s a cloud over us, making it difficult to perceive the light of truth.
And what does this Truth of God’s Love look like? Jesus embodies the truth of God’s love as a caring, tender washing feet of those who had betrayed him, denied him and abandoned him. The Truth of God’s Love is a forgiving of those who had abused him, hated him, and left him to suffer the throes of an agonizing death. Jesus shows us the truth of God’s love as a trusting in God to be with him when all he felt was abandonment, pain, and the seeming failure of his mission. The Risen Christ shows us the Truth of God’s Love that transformed locked up, fearful disciples into fearless preachers speaking the truth in love.
Like those first disciples, Catherine heard Christ calling her to embody the Truth of Love in her world: “I need you to walk with two feet; love of God and love of all that God loves.” We, too, are called to be the Truth of Love for our world. Like the small groups of people who traveled this past weekend to walk on two feet in Washington, D.C. with others for love of the Truth of Climate Change. They will witness to the call of all people to be part of healing and preserving God’s beloved creation.
What are some of the ways that you will embody the Truth of Love and the Love of Truth? Let us know in the comments section what occurred to you in your reflection.
A number of different people have told me that because of their personal experience of suffering and the misery in the world, they no longer believe in an all-loving God. Without doubt, human misery can shatter belief, not only in God, but in the goodness of humanity as well.
As we enter into Holy Week, the Church invites us to reflect on how Jesus viewed his suffering and death. Throughout his ministry, we know that Jesus freely accepted suffering as the cost of his revolutionary proclamation of the reign of God. As his death approached, he felt deep anxiety in the face of suffering, sweating blood as he prayed to be spared the inevitable. Nevertheless, he resolved, with God’s help, to stand in fidelity to his mission. Then, in the throes of his agony on the cross, it seemed that even God, whom Jesus had preached as compassionate and loving Abba, had forsaken him. He cried out the opening line of psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mk 15:34), expressing his real experience of the absence of God. Yet, at the heart of his vulnerability, was an unwavering belief in his own goodness as well as a deep trust in the psalm’s promise of God’s help and vindication. The hidden closeness and strengthening love of God within him was made visible when Jesus offered forgiveness to those who crucified him, (Lk 23:34) promised paradise to the penitent thief, (Lk 23:42) and entrusted the care of his mother to the beloved disciple (Jn 19:26-27). Even as Jesus was lifted up in crucifixion, his loving communion with God was made available to all people in their most perilous experiences of suffering and death. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of his death, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32).
In his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, (I 59) Rainer Maria Rilke portrays our loving God, who walks with us through life, encouraging our trust especially in times of suffering. Rilke writes:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
This Holy Week, may you experience the hand of God take yours in everlasting love.
I do not know about you, but my love for self, others, and God is far from unconditional. For example, there are a number of conditions I lay down before I will love myself. I need to be successful in my work, have friends who treat me according to my will and have things go my way, just to name a few. Here is an everyday example of what I am talking about. When I am driving on the back roads of Michigan, I am peaceful, content, driving along as fast as I want, enjoying the scenery. This loving feeling changes quickly, however, if I happen to get behind a car that wants to take their time going 45 miles per hour. Suddenly, I am no longer peaceful, content and enjoying myself. I have become more and more frustrated and resentful that I’m stuck behind this driver, and there is little opportunity to pass. I have put a condition on my love for myself, that is, things must go my way. The good news is that when we catch ourselves in the act of loving conditionally, we can make a change. I have learned to take a deep breath, and enjoy the scenery even more because I am now going at a slower pace. I will give myself the feelings of peace and contentment no matter the conditions. The love I give myself is enough. As the author of The Presence Process Michael Brown says, “There’s no reason, excuse, or justification for treating ourselves with anything less than unconditional love” (208). God loves us with an unconditional love and calls us to do likewise. When we learn to love ourselves unconditionally, we can more easily love others and God this way as well. How unconditional is your love? What conditions do you place on yourself, others and God before you will love them?
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
Even though we elect our public officials, I believe that God elects every human being to serve the world according to their unique giftedness. For God, there is no need for campaign speeches and ballot boxes to prove our worthiness to love and make a contribution to the common good. In the eyes of God, there are no winners or losers, only the victory of God’s love embracing all of creation. All people are created with an innate dignity and special capacities to make the world a better place. The real challenge is discernment, that is, making a decision in conversation with God about how and what we will do to promote the reign of God’s justice and peace on earth.
In this “land of the free,” are we making life-decisions from a place of internal freedom? God always works through interior freedom, never forcing us, but allowing us to respond out of our deep desire for love. The famous Jesuit, Father Pedro Arrupe, puts it this way: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love—and it will decide everything.” What love is worthy of the commitment of your freedom? What love has your vote?
This week’s blogger is Sister Marilyn Barnett, OP.
What led me to promote racial equality throughout my life? Maybe it was because my parents were born in Jamaica, or maybe it was the cultural diversity of my own birthplace and years of growing up near Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was taught at the side of my parents that God loves every one of us, we are all made in God’s image, and every nation on Earth is held in the gentle palm of God’s loving hand. I know that God’s call to enter religious life and encounter people of different cultures came while working with the Hispanic community in southern Colorado.
As a young person, I observed the actions of others in my neighborhood – those who would have nothing to do with persons of color or those who would cross the street if there were people who were not part of “their group.” I remember being told by older people that it was probably not “wise” to associate with different races since we had nothing in common with them, i.e. language, features, customs, food, and religious affiliation.
At the time these so called “words of advice” caused me to wonder, and later to brood over this seemingly widespread attitude of discrimination. I began to clearly recognize the subtle and overt ways minorities were portrayed, and the dislike, cruelty, and hatred that developed. I began to study, read, and immerse myself in actions that would promote racial equality wherever I ministered.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters have recognized, encouraged, and supported this deeply profound truth of God’s love for all. Our Vision and Enactments, both past and present, have given me the freedom to live this truth.
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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 new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!