On Loving Oneself

Andrei rublev  trinity  (C.1411)

Andrei rublev trinity (C.1411)

“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you love now.” (Alan Cohen)

One of the most difficult things for both religious and non-religious alike is to love oneself. That is, to accept ourselves as we are in the moment and not as we might want ourselves to be tomorrow. It can be more difficult than the giving or the asking of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? “The most terrifying thing,” writes C. J. Jung the well-known founder of analytical psychology, “is to accept oneself completely.” Of course, we are not speaking of egotistical or hedonistic self-worship which has become one of the staples of modern culture given the rise and ubiquity of social media. Loving ourselves for who we are is for the most part insufferably hard because no one knows us as we know ourselves. No one has access to those dark places of the soul which we ourselves possess and would recoil from, if we were to encounter them in another. “But I do nothing upon myself”, reflects the 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne, “and yet am mine own executioner.”

In our hearts we have committed abominable crimes, too despicable and shameful to mention. We know all too well who we really are deep down. We punish ourselves, sometimes mercilessly, for our past misdemeanours and mistakes. We needlessly poison our spirits. We relive the pain we have caused others or which has been delivered to us. And so it must, and it will hurt. But here, in the very place of that agonizing conflict rests our way out from this condition of ‘self-unforgiving’. Only after this toughest of confrontations with one of the most sensitive components of our consciousness, can we come to a true comprehension of what it means to love oneself. Vironika Tugaleva, who fought many life-threatening battles to do with her self-esteem, writes knowingly from her own experience, “You will not love anyone or anything until those eyes in the mirror soften up and embrace the beauty that is already within.”

It is very important to arrive at a place where we are at peace with the present, the eternal-present, to come to an understanding that any absolute resolution can only ever come with our death. For the present let us consider ourselves works in progress imbued with an infinite grace and the potential to accomplish wonderful things. There is no denying the effect and burden of guilt, for real or even perceived failings, volumes have been written on this subject. The underlying consensus of the literature is unless we deal with this pressing weight of self-condemnation (again an entirely different matter to self-correction and interior vigilance), unless we find our own way out, unless we initiate a process where we can begin to be gentle and kind to ourselves, we will only perpetuate the anger or self-hatred. There will be no peace for the heart remains agitated. And so we look for the other, destructive ways out, we abuse ourselves through various forms of addictions and cause damage to both the mind and the body. We set about decomposing and deconstructing “the temple”.

For each one of us the path to self-love will be different, we will be touched and inspired by separate revelations and distinct moments of higher intuition. But there are to be found in each of our stories some very similar signposts. To offer a peace offering where we have offended and to repair a wrong where possible; to make a personal sacrifice in whatever way that might be demanded of us; to not permit for others to diminish or to wound our self-esteem; to surround ourselves with people who practice the art of love; to respect ourselves; to love as we ourselves might wish to be loved; and especially to forgive those who have hurt us. We should try, also, to remember we are fragile and wounded creatures ourselves and that we are dealing with other similarly imperfect creatures. “The other” is living out the conditions of his or her soul’s present state of enlightenment and they too are on the journey to self-knowledge.

So why is it important to love and to be kind to ourselves? Because it is only in loving ourselves can we unleash the great torrent of love and grace which rests dormant with in us, for it is precisely here that one of the greatest spiritual maxims has been spoken, and this by the GodMan Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Unless we love ourselves, that is, to see the potential grandeur and awesomeness within us which flows from the creative energies of the Creator, we cannot love our neighbour. That is why there is so much hate in the world, and why killing and wars will not end. We have stopped loving ourselves and so we have stopped seeing God in the presence of the other.

Prayer, however we might choose to initially practise it, brings us back into the interior of our being and to the recognition that we are not a random existence. Our presence upon this earth was an act and a movement of infinite Love. We had been loved and known, Jeremiah the OT Prophet gives us to understand, even before we were “formed” in our mother’s wombs (Jer. 1:5). Loving myself means I acknowledge my absolute uniqueness. I establish my self-worth in the originating act and movement of Love proceeding and emanating from the Creator. The acknowledgement of the existence and continuing activity of this originating source of Love which has brought us into being is where the principal foundation of our value and uniqueness is to be found. It is not in our achievements or temporal successes, not in our fame or gilded reputations, not in our possessions or accumulation of wealth, not in our physical attractiveness or in our great intellects.

One of the fundamental teachings of Trinitarian theology, which has also been stunningly presented to us in the Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, is the reciprocity of love which emanates and flows eternally between each of the three divine persons. There is a “stumbling block” for those who would criticize the Scriptures as pointing to a God who makes too many demands to be loved and to be worshiped. If the Creator did not have this divine sense of self-worth His love for us would be impossibly diminished. It is this self-worth which led to Gethsemane. It is where He empties Himself of His divine splendour to save the world. Here is the highest example of theophany and humanity. The great fruits of this self-love into which we are called, are humility and self-knowledge. “Yet not I”, says Saint Paul, “but the grace of God which was in me” (1Cor. 15:10). There is no place here for self-aggrandizement nor for vainglory. This is not the “self-love” of the beautiful hunter Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He could not detach himself from his image and eventually drowned. These are things we should always guard against and cannot ever be immune from. 

Significantly, in patristic literature when the narcissistic elements of ‘self-love’ are warned against, it is invariably in the context of kenodoxia, which is, vainglory and empty pride.

“Dear Lord, teach me the proper and safest way to love myself that I might draw nearer to You, to discern Your imprint on my hand, to experience You in my neighbour.” 

Sorrow Comes to All

“Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not a substitution, but saving companionship.” (Kallistos Ware)

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Where is God during these times? Where is He when bad things happen to good people? How do the words of a preacher help or heal those who have lost their homes, who have lost their families, those who are alone in prison, or in a hospital dying of cancer? The mother whose child is dying in her arms because it is sick or hungry? “Where is God?” ask the poor and the abandoned. “Where is He now?” asks the young person about to put an end to his or her life. The words of no individual, however great, cannot ever eliminate the pain nor explain away the suffering. We would be deluded to think that our words, even though genuine and caring, could wipe away the multitude of tears. And yet, by pointing to divine revelation, that is, witnessing to Scripture and to the “Word” (the eternal LOGOS who was from the “beginning” Jn. 1:1), a sorrowful heart can be shown that there is, indeed, a way through the suffering. However desperate and improbable our situation, always there is hope for we have been “begotten” to a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 1:3). God is there, sharing in our common humanity, “taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), experiencing our pain, empathizing with our humiliation, feeling our rejection, suffering with us in a meaningful and enduring way. He does understand our grief and reveals to us the way through our sorrow.

In His human nature, before His terrible crucifixion, the GodMan prays, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). He is there in every hospital and prison and orphanage and broken home and mourning heart. “I was naked and you clothed Me” (Matt. 25:36). The Father was there at Calvary when His only begotten Son cried unto Him, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) There will come a day, Scripture tells us, a specific moment in history when all sorrow and all suffering will come to an end, “[a]nd God will wipe away every tear... there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying... no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). God promises, that similarly to Jesus, our pain will be redeemed and a higher understanding will come to us for “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1Cor. 13:12). This does not lessen the brutality of our toughest battles, but it does mean our tears and suffering are not to be looked upon as ‘wastelands’. These experiences of sorrow ("feelings of deep distress") are not only commonplace in our lives, but often they are the only authentic way of communicating with each other. Real pain, unlike feigned pleasure, cannot be easily counterfeited. Fairy-tales and myths, from the earliest of years when the believing community was persecuted and torn asunder, had nothing to do with a faith ‘blind’ to the outside reality -but it was a belief tested and realized in the world and established in blood.

What may presently be inexplicable, will be made clear to us on that last day to which we do "not know what hour" (Matt. 24:42). We will see that our path, strewn with both joy and heartache, was our unique way through life and that it could not have been any different; in some tangible sense our spiritual DNA. And that He, our Lord, was there with us in ways that we could not ever have possibly imagined. That He was there during those times when sorrow might appear to be robbing us of breath and even of life itself- as the penitent thief himself discovered on Golgotha Hill when he asked the Lord to remember him in His kingdom, “[a]ssuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

Sorrow does not discriminate and it cares little for our religious convictions or philosophies. We all have to find a way through our suffering and to make sense of it. Our profoundest thinkers have encouraged us to not fight the provenance of our pain but to ask the meaningful question: What does this suffering mean for me and how can I use it? There is an assumption of reason here, that we are not dealing with “accident”. The Universe itself we are discovering is not without cause or order. If gravity is just slightly moved, then there is nothing. Physicists and cosmologists are all the more speaking of “fine-tuning” and moving away from theories of random behaviour. We, too, are the stuff of stardust. Let us at least, if we are not able to do anything else, bring comfort to those who are in deep distress. This alone might be one of our great successes as human beings.

“Dear Father, I still do not understand and I suffer at the awful horrors and unimaginable pain about me. How are these dreadful and abysmal things possible when every good thing has proceeded forth from Eternal Love? I weep at the impossibility for wherever I turn, I come back to you, and to you Alone. Yes, my Lord, if there is any small goodness within me, it is on account of my suffering, and if we have performed any good deed, that too, is on account of our suffering that we might learn something of compassion.”