So: It’s the Jesuits who’ve dragged me out of my blog-silence. Damn them! Damn them and their gentle urging toward the contemplative life! Damn them, making examination of conscience feel so necessary and treating self-reflection as an act of divine love! Ugh! Ridiculous!
Anyway. This post is happening for two reasons.
First: Because I heard a homily that knocked my socks off this morning, based upon John 10:18, which is the famous Good Shepherd parable (here in part):
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
The central motif of this homily came from the above, and from the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who said, “Love consists in sharing what one has and what one is with those one loves.” The homily’s train of logic is one I’ve already failed to articulate once this morning, but I’ll try again to communicate the structure of the priest’s argument as best I can:
1. Love is sharing what one is with those one loves.
2. God shared what he is with every individual on the earth (all of whom he loves) in the most perfect possible way: The sacrifice of Christ, who is God, for the redemption of the world.
3. Sharing what we are with those we love is, therefore, the closest way to imitate the way God loves humanity, which is good, because there is no love higher or more absolute than God’s.
4. In order to share what we are with those we love, we must love what we are. There is no way to imitate the love of God unless one begins with loving oneself in the same way that God does.
It is a beautiful circle, and I threw my mind into it and let my thoughts follow it back and forth like tracing knotwork with a finger. It is not a philosophy that requires perfection. It assumes an underlying goodness in all of humanity (which must exist, because humanity was made by God, and in imitation of God), without specifying that a godlike love must come from a perfect soul. It’s the act of sharing that is love– the act of being oneself and engaging with other people and being willing to let other people share themselves with you. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me; to love like Christ is both to know others, and to let them know you as you really are.
The idea of grace is in this, as well. There is nothing you do or can do to earn the love of God. It just exists. God shares himself with the world in perpetuity. No imperfection can blunt that love, no change in yourself can increase or decrease it. That, too, must be something to imitate, the priest suggested – love for yourself, like the love of God, must always be present within you, right? No change in yourself should make you love yourself less. And, you know, human love for self or others can’t be as perfect as God’s love, but there is value in striving for this. There must be.
…Look– I feel deeply self-conscious about throwing around phrases like “to love like Christ” and “in imitation of God.” When it comes to my own ill-formed theological leanings, I have a tendency to force my feelings and my thoughts separate, like a five-year-old who won’t eat her peas and carrots if they’re touching on the plate. Also: I will be the first one to admit that I know sweet fuck-all about theology in general, and Jesuit theology specifically. I have not studied any of this. My research credentials are Usually Remembers To Go To Church. I only have what I’ve always had: An ever-evolving tangle of the Catholicism of my upbringing and the secularism of my personal and academic and political life, and then my own half-baked revelations ground into the mix, uncatalogued and flowering only when they feel like it. So I don’t mean to try to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
I only mean this: That combination of verse and writing and logic hit me hard this morning. I grew up under the Jesuit charge to be a woman for others; to achieve perfection by self-sacrifice, by dissipation of ego. I always struggled with the guilty feeling that I would be a better person if I cared less about myself. And so it was powerful for me, to be told that love of others had to begin with love of myself. That I, I, by the act of being myself, am already in closer imitation of Christ than I ever actually thought I could be.
Which brings me to the second reason this post is happening.
This post is happening because I have been working in the past few weeks, with the help of my counselor, to develop a habit of self-compassion. When it comes to my own mental health, I tend not to be kind to myself; I tend, even in my good moments, to be cruel to myself in a way that I would not be with anyone else who came to me with an identical problem.
For example: Someone who asked me for advice on overcoming correspondence anxiety would not get a reply of, “Just write the fucking email, you absolute moron.” Someone telling me they felt a persistent fear whose origin they couldn’t perceive and whose physical effects they couldn’t shake would not get a reply of “Get it together. You’re being an idiot.” I wouldn’t award someone who successfully fought off an intrusive thought with a big medal reading “CONGRATULATIONS: I GOT OVER MYSELF.” But these are things I tell myself, even in my best goddamn moments. I try to make my anxiety a smaller problem than it is through the power of gentle self-deprecation, and fail to notice when See? This problem isn’t as big as you think it is turns into Normal people who don’t suck aren’t bothered by this problem, and the fact that you are means you suck.
And so willful self-compassion is something I’m trying to make a habit. The affirmative act of not being angry with myself for not measuring up. Treating myself with the love and kindness and compassion that I want to have for the people around me. Seeing love for myself as a reflection of the love I try my best to feel for other people. Believing that love is the act of sharing myself means believing that there is something in me worth sharing.
I don’t mean to make this about anyone but me, because not everyone’s a Christian and not everyone cares about Jesuits and not everyone is willing to start with the assumptions underlying this philosophy, which are most of the reason it was able to hit me as hard as it did. But there’s the connection between the two thoughts, between the homily and the counseling session, there’s my train of logic: If I believe that the imitation of God is the truest way to a good and fruitful life, and if I believe that the act of sharing what I am is an act of love in imitation of God, and if I believe that I cannot love others in imitation of God until I love myself–
–then I think there’s not a straighter or more powerful road to self-compassion, for me. Not in this moment, anyway. The beauty of this idea overwhelms me. The thought of it is a comfort, in the way an open door is that lets light into a room, when I hadn’t even noticed it was getting darker as I sat alone inside it.
The Jesuits gave me a free book as I left church this morning, of prayers and poetry written by priests as companions to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Some of the poetry is hilariously bad! Some of it is pretty good. I liked this very very short one by Anthony de Mello:
“Behold God beholding you, and smiling.”