“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love God. Love other people. Love yourself. These are the three loves. And it is love of self that makes possible love of others. It would have been a lot easier to understand, maybe, if Jesus had just said, “You shall love your neighbor.” Adding “as yourself” suddenly makes the whole thing rather complex.
Where to begin to muse on this? Reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen a week or so ago impressed me deeply. It is only 95 pages long but packed with wisdom. Nouwen writes about Solitude, Silence, and Prayer, and applies the teaching of the desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries to the timeless pursuit (and therefore today’s pursuit) of genuine Christian spiritual depth and maturity. Reading the book moved me because I can remember the time years ago when I had a spiritual life more like what Nouwen wrote about than what I have today. The slide from the depth I knew then was very gradual and imperceptible.
Yet I do not think that I have fallen by the wayside—not by any means. I have never given up my devotion to God or my desire to love others. In fact, they are more intense than ever. But over the past few years I have permitted a huge growth of “responsibility” to choke my “pressing on”. For a couple of years I have been on the edge of burnout, and I think that only my inner resolve has kept me going. I suspect that that resolve was really a subtle way of unconsciously, unwillingly keeping God at a distance and refusing to grow. What feels like a “slide from depth” is actually, I believe, a greater deepening—a deepening by destruction of incrustation and spiritual barnacles. I would never have taken on this course willingly, but I recognize it as an expression of divine mercy.
I thought that my blogposts on the theme of “office and person” have been about trying to learn to love others. I think now that they were mostly a way of revealing my burdens in a careful, controlled way while simultaneously preventing them from being lifted. I clutched the “old way” and made it really difficult for anyone to try to provide assistance—even as I wanted it, and even as others wanted to help. I held on to fear and refused love.
So I realize now that where I have fallen short most is in loving self. Probably that is the hardest thing for most people who are serious about following Jesus. I have certainly seen that spiritual ailment more often than any other. Yet I know that if one does not love self Christianly, one cannot love others very well either. In spite of lots of effort and best intentions, I have not really loved others very well recently—in part because I thought it would take “lots of effort”. How foolish. This must be at least part of what Jesus meant when he commanded, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a complex mystery, but it is profoundly true.
If we believe that God is love and that he loves us, how can we possibly accept a state of not loving self? Can we fail to love that which God loves, and think it is okay? How logical it seems once one is in a place to see it anew.
Now in the early days of sabbatical, I am able to begin, a little, to see more clearly. I haven’t stopped trying to love others, but I have seen better how much I had failed to do so in the past couple of years because of failure to love self. Setting aside the responsibilities—many of them probably artificial to one extent or another—of parish leadership has cleared away much of what I had permitted to obscure The Way of the Heart. This is the very meaning of sabbatical—the seventh day “rest” from the six days of work. One might think that the people who were given the Ten Commandments would have found the fourth one, to keep the Sabbath day holy, the easiest one to observe. Who wouldn’t want a day of rest, for Pete’s sake??
Yet “rest” definitely does not mean just kicking back and snoozing. It means not letting the cares of life cover over one’s relationship with God—keeping one’s relationship with God paramount: the “greatest” commandment, remember, with which this blogpost began. The fourth Commandment is a specific form of the first of the Ten: You shall have no other gods before me. (In fact, every commandment is an extension of that one.) I had broken the fourth Commandment like a china plate dropped onto a brick floor.
I doubt that it was a “coincidence” that a few days into the sabbatical I was in the hospital—for the first time in forty years. A misdiagnosis of abdominal pains and a treatment that was the opposite of what was needed had me writhing on the floor in the middle of the night. “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst, what’s your pain level now?” they asked me more than once in the hospital. That night I am not ashamed to say that it was a ten.
A trip to the emergency room the following day, proper diagnosis and proper treatment followed by admittance, led me to an enforced rest. The experience was a little expression of my whole recent spiritual life. Now that I’m back home and recovering, I realize that now there is a crack in my former parameters—and, by George, I can see a little light.
I suspect it’ll be a good sabbatical.