A couple nights ago, the children gathered in the living room to listen to mom read a rather old-fashioned story about a young girl who makes a loving sacrifice for a poor child. This young girl was facing poverty herself, and rather than lamenting her loss, sought to give comfort to her neighbor…
Sweet story, lovely lesson, but not the subject of this post.
Earlier in the story, the father of our young heroine was told he must leave the city for a healthier climate or he would, most certainly, lose his life. He explained to his children that it was imperative to his vocation as a father, and to show loving obedience to God, that he do everything within his power to preserve his life, and thus, fulfill his obligations. His primary concern: that he live, in order to impart faith to his children and to do everything within his power to lead them to God.
For most Catholics, it is the mantra that permeates most of what we do and defines who we are. We love life, we refuse to do business with those who do not, we do everything in our power to elect politicians who will support the preservation of life from conception to natural death. Without life, we cannot know, love and serve God in this life, so that we can be happy with Him in the next.
I’ve come to realize that “sanctity of life” applies to me, too. I am obligated to preserve my life and to do all of those things (within my means) that will ensure a healthy and long life, according to God’s plans for me. Often, I’ve neglected my own health, frequently taking the martyr’s stance, trying to convince myself that neglecting my own needs is necessary in order to serve…and yet this is not exactly the “dying to self” that will ultimately save my soul. As a wife and mother, I’ve been given a sacred charge: the nurturing and instruction of my children, and the loving service of my husband and home. There are times, I must admit, that I’ve thought that paying attention to my health and my needs is selfish, and in some cases, vain. This perception is entirely false and is crippling, both physically and mentally to the vocation of motherhood. Ultimately, my neglect is born of laziness, and sometimes, a nearly presumptuous assumption that God will take care of me, even if I refuse to do so myself. All of this from a person who spent many years putting herself first, and is now living on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
How well do we serve others, if we have needs that aren’t being met? How well do we love others, when we don’t love ourselves?
As I ponder the implications of what it means to love oneself, I’m reminded of a story about the early years Bl. Teresa of Calcutta spent in India, amongst the poorest of the poor:
Mother Teresa decided to live like the poor she would serve. The poor in Bengal ate rice and salt, so Mother Teresa tried to sustain herself for a while eating only a little rice seasoned with salt. However, such a diet did not provide enough nourishment. Mother Dengel’s sisters intervened decisively. “If you continue to eat like that, in a short time you will waste away from consumption and die,” she told her. “Then you won’t be able to do anything for the poor.”
Mother Teresa pondered their advice. She realized that she had been carried away by her enthusiasm and lack of experience and that her zeal could be fatal. She decided she and her future sisters would eat simply but sufficiently in order to remain in good health and totally dedicate themselves to serving the poor.
“simply but sufficiently…”
This applies to me. Watching what I eat, engaging in physical activity, taking recreation as needed and foremost, nurturing my heart and soul through prayer and the sacraments…these things are all “simple” and “sufficient” and are steps to an authentic self-love that will aid in my service to God and family.
To love and be loved. To love ourselves, that we may love others. Isn’t that an awesome thought? We are created to love God. To love the life He has given us. To take that love and give it…generously, and not count the cost.
I have to admit, this is a hard one for me. I want to believe that I’m loving, that I give love generously, but I deny myself so much of the care that authentic self-love requires…and thus, I’m not sure that I’ve been so loving, after all. I’m praying that God will help me in this endeavor. I’m my own worst enemy, my biggest critic and am not caring for myself as if I truly value my life.
A little mystical side trip to help explain…
Many years ago, I had one of those “Saul on the road to Damascus” kind of conversions. I was given the grace to look into a mirror and see myself in the true and hideous state of my sins. It was an awful thing to see, so horrifying and sad that I wept, begged Jesus’ mercy and sought to make recompense for all the pain and offense I’d caused Him. Looking into the mirror again, moments later, in a state of contrition, tear stained and sorrowful, I saw myself as truly beautiful for the first time, ever. Beautiful, as God made me and sees me…it is a memory that sustains me during dark times and is a humbling reminder of what I’d been…the quintessential “good person”…self-involved, vain, proud and arrogant, presuming to know the mind of God and deciding that He understood all the “hard choices” I had to make, ie., my many and various sins. I had been seeing myself for years “through a glass, darkly” and having come face to face with reality, could never go back to where I’d been.
In my zeal of shedding that past life, I went through a period of extreme scrupulousity. Have you ever been there? Attributing sin to nearly everything, seeing no virtue in any of my actions…oh…it was horrible! Praise God, much prayer, spiritual direction and a willingness to move forward eventually cured me of that curse.
And now this. It is imperative that I: care for myself “simply but sufficiently.” Recognize what is vanity and what is not. Take the lessons of being a pro-life Catholic and apply them to my life. That I not lay down my life, until God has called me to do so. That I learn to be “perfectly okay with dying right now” and, at the same time, delighted to live. And, finally, to revel in every moment that is given to me, that I may grow in the knowledge, love and service of my good God in this life…
So I can be happy with Him, in the next.
He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22:37-40