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.
When we are stuck in a state of restless dissatisfaction—“I want this, I want that”—we can fail to see the value of life and focus only on what is wrong with the situation, ourselves and other people. We may relentlessly push ourselves to achieve success and independence because we want what do not have. And once we have it, we want something else. When we are caught in this dynamic, we do not value the good things we have in life or take joy in God.
The remedy for this unhappy state is simple: gratitude. It should not surprise us that people who feel thankful acknowledge inner richness and deeply appreciate small things that many of us take for granted—good health, the beauty of nature, a kind word. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often speaks about the joy of breathing!
Are we supposed to be thankful even in times of suffering? How are we to respond to the tragedies and evils that cause us such great pain and turmoil? Gratitude does not mean ignoring hardships in life. True gratitude exists only where compassion and awareness of evil are present. It is strange but true: when we have struggled with illness, we appreciate health; when we experience a broken relationship, we rediscover the importance of friendship, when we have experienced the agony of defeat, we appreciate the sweetness of success.
In good times and bad, may we allow gratitude to open us to the presence of God. May we learn to savor God’s loving relationship, who gives us this day our daily bread. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart states, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
As you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, take time to reflect on your practice of gratitude. Do you easily give thanks for the many gifts in your life in a spirit of inner contentment for what you have, or are you easily caught up in the sense of dissatisfaction with life, forgetful of your blessings through lack of time or attention? How might you cultivate gratitude in your life?
Sister Carol Coston, OP, has brought to our Motherhouse a new vision of Earth ethic, called permaculture, (permanent agriculture). This new vision serves to correct the skewed vision perpetuated by the food industry. As Sister Carol writes, “Currently, much food production is viewed as big business for profit—not as a response to each person’s right to eat. Efficiency is measured by total profits rather than by the quality of the food or the condition of the soil. The land is often abused rather than “cared for.” Seed-bearing plants are not seen as a gift from God to be shared but as the first step in a vertical integration of agribusiness.”
Permaculture is a design based on natural ecosystems that would put food production back into the hands of local farmers with the support they need to sustain it. Cities and communities would be arranged in such a way that people would have direct access to locally grown food instead of importing it from thousands of miles away. Tax breaks, water subsidies, price and other supports would be designed to aid small farmers rather than agribusiness. A key principle of permaculture, Sister Carol states, is “to give back to Earth as much or more than you take from her.”
As you look at the world, what new vision is needed to promote the reign of God which includes the care for the entire earth community? What actions are you willing to take to make your personal vision a reality?
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?
Only 48% of American Catholics are certain that you can have a personal relationship with God (Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 2008). Only 5% of “practicing” Catholics are what Sherry Weddell* calls intentional disciples, that is, women and men who have a growing personal relationship with Christ, and have made a definitive choice to dedicate their lives to God through prayer, study, virtuous living in love of neighbor as self, service for the common good and public witness to their faith. The majority of Catholics, she says, are in one of the earlier, essentially passive, stages of spiritual development characterized by trust, curiosity, and openness but have not yet reached the levels of serious seeking and the commitment to a life of discipleship.
How does this information about American Catholics resonate with you? Are you certain that you can have a personal relationship with God? Who is Jesus for you? Are you taking conscious steps to grow in your prayer life, theological understanding of your faith, personal maturity, commitment to serving the last and the least in our society, and willingness to publicly witness to your faith?
*I attended the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) this past week. One of our keynote speakers was Sherry Anne Weddell, co-founder, and co-director of the Catherine of Sienna Institute, an affiliated ministry of the Western Dominican Province. Over the past twenty years, Sherry has developed a variety of formation resources and has worked with an international team that has formed Christian disciples in hundreds of parishes, in 137 dioceses on 5 continents.
Sister Carol Coston, OP, reflects on her personal discernment process: “As I think back on these experiences and on the way I have changed over the past six and a half decades of my life, I recognize that my personal transformation has been more evolutionary than epiphanic. The movements have involved gradual changes, a sort of unfolding, rather than abrupt shifts— although, once I complete the internal shift, the external decisions to act on the internal change have always come quickly.”
Three deep impulses have guided Sister Carol’s life: her quest for God, her struggle against racism and class prejudice, and her commitment to social justice and care for Earth. She helped found, and for 10 years served as the first director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, based in Washington, DC. Sister Carol was also a founding member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board, serving as the Board’s chair for 12 years and representing our Congregation in dozens of shareholder resolutions on issues of justice in the global economy.
She founded and directed two Partners for the Common Good loan funds, raising more than $11 million in religious investments to provide low-interest credit to low-income communities in the United States, Latin America, and South Africa. She also co-founded and co-directed Santuario Sisterfarm, a sanctuary for cultivating diversity and sustainable agriculture in the Texas Hill Country.
Sister Carol is the first and only sister to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, given by the President of the United States “in recognition of U.S. citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for our nation.”
What internal change are you noticing in your own life? How has this internal shift borne fruit in external action? What deep motivations guide your life?
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.
Can a forest help you discern? Reflecting on this “Season of Creation” (September 1 – October 4) that Pope Francis has asked us to celebrate has me thinking of the perspective that nature can give us. Whenever I take time to walk in nature, I am in awe of all that is going on around me. I become aware of all the life in plants, insects, and various creatures, all oblivious to my existence. Walking a nature trail always seems to give me a helpful perspective: all this life goes on whether I am here or not. The energy and vibrancy of God’s creation is so vast, yet I am often not conscious of it.
I come away from my walk in the woods reminded that the world and all creation are so immense and that I am so small. Not that I don’t matter. To the Creator of the universe, we all matter. But I am a part of something so much bigger that I can’t fully grasp. That awareness brings me a sense of both awe and peace. My struggles matter, but they are just one part of a vast universe. I can go forward a little more calmly and make a humble decision, trusting in the God who created all.
Gaze at something in nature today, even a weed breaking through concrete, and see what message it has for you.
We can make two mistakes when we face a major decision. First, we can rush into a decision just to ease the tension of not knowing. Some people like to have things settled, and are very uncomfortable when matters are up in the air. At first, they feel relieved after their quick decision. They’ve decided – it’s done. Phew! But then, doubts start to creep in, along with concerns that they never faced. In some cases, since they already announced their decision, they go forward, hoping the situation will get better. But it doesn’t. After a lot of pain and chaos, they reverse their decision. We see that sometimes in short-lived marriages.
The other big error is never making a decision. Some people really like to leave open all possibilities. They don’t want to say “yes” to something because that means saying “no” to many other options. That’s good for a time, but if they stay in that mode, they end up being 80 years old, still trying to decide what path they want to follow, never having made a commitment to anyone or anything.
True discernment balances these two tendencies. It listens deeply and honestly to our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to possible decisions. It lets us stay in the tension until one path becomes the clearer one. At the same time, it recognizes when we have given something enough time and exploration and we have to take a leap in trust. The Holy Spirit is actively involved in this discernment, speaking to us about what we need to pay attention to and giving us the courage to step out and take a risk.
Which of the above styles is yours? What do you need to do to balance your discernment?
Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the right answer arises by itself? This line is based on the writings of ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Ironically this line from a pre-Christianity philosopher helped me in my Christian vocation. Many years ago, when I was still in temporary profession, I was going though a difficult time and the path was not clear for me. When we are uncomfortable, sometimes we can make poor decisions to get rid of the discomfort, or just to have a sense of doing something. Waiting is tough. But I printed out that line and posted it on the edge of my computer screen, and waited. I knew I was in muddy water and I needed to wait until the right path was clear.
It took a long time but that line reminded me that God’s call was to stay faithful to the path I had begun. Over time the mud settled and the path became very clear. I was able to walk forward to my final vows right out of the mud. We don’t always get clarity at the moment we would like. Sometimes it takes quite a while for us to discern clearly God’s call for our lives. Waiting with feet in the mud can also be an act of faith and trust in God.
May you enjoy the feel of the mud on your toes this summer day.
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!
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
Director of Formation
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
Director of Vocations, East Coast-Midwest Vocations Promoter
Adrian Dominican Sisters
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