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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.
There are times when we absolutely have to die to find new life, and this is something we resist. Because discernment involves the difficult task of making life-changing decisions, we are forced to let go of some possibilities in order to open ourselves to new and abundant life. Here is just a small sampling of death-to-new-life choices we are called to make on our journey of discernment.
The death we may need to embrace might be deciding to quit a secure, high-paying job in order to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the work we love and that uses our talents and strengths to the fullest.
It may mean taking the courageous step of finally ending a relationship that has proved to be a dead end so we can be free to pursue more life-giving relationships.
It may require that we die to an addiction that binds our freedom to be truly intimate with others and to experience the fullness of life in all its joys and sorrows.
If we come from a home with some troubling family dynamics, it may mean finally leaving home by doing the inner work necessary to release and integrate the painful feelings of grief, fear, and anger. Only through this kind of death, will we be able to experience the new life that comes from our ability to trust self and others.
All these choices require dying a death, which is frightening. It seems so much easier to hold on to what we know, even when what we know is killing us. The death and resurrection dynamic, however, gives us the hope that strengthens us to do what must be done.*
What death-to-new-life decision might you be wrestling with? Do you have a spiritual director, counselor, or trusted guide who will gently nudge you toward the death you need to die?
*See Thomas Hart, “Toward a Life-Giving Christian Spirituality: Ten Guiding Principles,” Presence, Vol. 23, No.3, September, 2017.
At different times in our life, we all have encountered the frightening face of death. As much as we would like to avoid death and dying, death is an undisputed fact of life. As the poet Emily Dickinson amusingly wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” While we know the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, death is something that human beings have never been able to accept as something that ought to be.
This Holy Week I had a quite unexpected brush with death. Some dear family members from out of town came to visit. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day and the three of us were enjoying an idyllic afternoon at the lake. Two of us were out on the lake in a paddleboat, while the other was watching birds from the shoreline. All of a sudden, we heard a jarring cry from the middle of the lake “Help, help!” A kayaker had flipped over into the icy water and could not swim. We were the only people out on the lake. We immediately started peddling our paddleboat toward him as fast as we could, while the one on shore jumped into a rowboat and headed toward the capsized kayak. In less than ten minutes we reached the young man who managed to pull his numb body into the row boat. In the safety of our boats, we were all deeply grateful that our sunny, fun-loving lake had not become a watery grave.
Our different scrapes with death push us to ponder more deeply the mysteries of life and death. According to our Easter faith, the basis for hope that death is not only bodily disintegration, but also the triumphant integration of life in eternal fullness is the resurrection of Jesus. As John Sachs asserts, “Jesus’ resurrection was not a personal privilege or reward for Jesus but an act of God ‘for us and for our salvation.’... What the Spirit accomplished in Jesus is the work of the Spirit in all of us.”* This is the reason why Paul gleefully asserts: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” with Christ’s death and resurrection and taunts: “Where, O Death, is your sting?” (I Cor 15:55). For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the source and model of our own resurrection.
Today, let the mysteries of death and resurrection help you to ponder what gives real meaning and purpose to your life. Does your Easter faith free you to take risks for the sake of Christ and his Gospel?
*John R. Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 76.
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