LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

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“If we look to the bottom of the raging dissatisfaction that characterizes so many people today, chances are it all goes back to a dislike of self that has a way of poisoning everything else one perceives.”

John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event

The way we treat ourselves is the way we will treat others.  The counsel of Jesus to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” both begin with a love for the self as a unique and wonderful creation of God.  We often miss the fact that we have to respect ourselves before we can respect others. In order to love our neighbors, following Jesus’ advice, we first have to drop the harsh and often hostile manner with which we treat ourselves.

The recognition that you will only be able to love your neighbor as you learn to love yourself is an important insight into the words of Jesus. The pattern you develop in dealing with the person you deal with most often, — yourself — becomes the pattern by which you will begin to relate to everyone else. If you don’t like yourself and are critical of yourself at every juncture, you begin to see others only in a critical way.

The hostile, critical, dissatisfied way we treat others becomes the way we perceive and begin to act toward others. One escape is to try to find heroes whom we imagine are not like us. They are super-humans without our flaws and imperfections. “If only we could be like so and so,” we say. And so, in our raging dissatisfaction with ourselves we try to become someone else, rather than learning to love the person we are.

The parables of Jesus are wonderfully good news for us if we could truly believe that what Jesus says is true. His parables tell of a God who accepts all of us as we are, without condition, in spite of who we are and where we have been. The doors to God’s acceptance are flung wide open. All are invited to enter, the poor, the marginalized, the unworthy—even you. Entrance is free and welcome to all who will enter. The parables tell of a God who is even willing to come out and search for the lost, the wayward, and the lonely. The doors to God’s acceptance of whom we are right now, in spite of our flaws, are open to all. 

Why do so few go in through these doors? Is it because, in our critical way of dealing with ourselves, we know ourselves to be unworthy, undeserving of that kind of love—the love we really need?  

What would happen if you believed these stories just for a minute and, foolish as it might seem, you went in? You might find that knowing you are loved and accepted will allow you to be a little easier on yourself. At the same time, you may become less critical of others and more willing to love them as you love yourself. 

LONELINESS

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Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on the difference between loneliness and solitude. In English, the two words have slightly different meanings; where loneliness has a more negative connotation, solitude has a more positive one. “Being alone” can be good or bad depending on the feelings and emotions attached to it. We might say, for example, that we enjoy “being along,” but when we say that we are “lonely” it is always value-laden and negative. Solitude, on the other hand, suggests that it is an aloneness that we have sought out, a space that we have carved out for ourselves in which we might devote needed attention on ourselves. 

We do not always experience loneliness when we are alone. On the other hand, we may feel very lonely in a crowd. In A Philosophy of Loneliness,[1] the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, observes:

Loneliness as such cannot be predicted by the number of people that surround an individual, but by whether the social interactions that individual has satisfy his or her desire for connection; that is, by whether they interpret those social interactions as meaningful. Loneliness is a subjective phenomenon.[2]

Svendsen distinguishes between chronic, transient, and situational loneliness and by extension between endogenous and exogenous loneliness.[3] Chronic loneliness describes the situation in which “the subject experiences constant pain on account of having insufficient ties to others.” 

Transient loneliness, Svendsen observes, “can overtake us at any moment, whether we are at a crowded party or home alone.” 

Situational loneliness is caused by life changes, such as the death of a friend or a family member. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into isolation. This is particularly true for those living in skilled nursing care, who in order to protect themselves, are often isolated not just from their families but from the very people with whom they live in common. Many are left alone in their rooms with little to no contact to family and friends outside because of their current situation. 

During the COVOID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in a peculiar form of situational loneliness in which we desire to be with one another person — in school, church, or other social situations — but cannot fulfill the desire for the personal closeness that might mitigate our loneliness because in-person contact in these places is either restricted or forbidden.

Svendson did not have the pecularities of the loneliness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in mind when he published this book in 2015. His main contention when he wrote the book is that loneliness, whatever the cause, has more to do with the interpretation of our own internal state, than it does with external factors. Loneliness is experienced as coming from external forces even if that is not truly the case. We may think that loneliness is a fact of our environment and that changing our environment will change our own perceptions of loneliness. Loneliness “is experienced as a lack of satisfying relationships to others” because either we may not have sufficient relationships with other people to satisfy our own expectations or because the relationships we do have do not provide the emotional closeness that we desire — or perhaps both may be the case. 

Loneliness feels as if it is being externally imposed on us, but perhaps we have some character traits or personal expectations of others that shape that perception. Do we, for example, feel lonely even in the midst of a large group of friends and family members? Do we expect other people to respond and somehow take care or reduce our own loneliness?  “The pain of loneliness,” Svendson argues, “is the pain of insufficient acknowledgment.” In other words, our perceived loneliness may in fact be caused by the expectations we bring to our relationships with others.‘

Instead of expecting others to take away our loneliness, Svendsen maintains, we must acknowledge and take responsibility for our own emotions. “Your emotions are your emotions,” he observes. “They belong to you.”[4] While you can’t choose what or how you feel, you “can try to change the way that you think” about the situations in which you experience loneliness. “You are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.” It is a loneliness for which you must take responsibility. For despite everything, Svendson says, it is your loneliness.[5]

Loneliness in all its forms will come and go in life. Loss and isolation are a part of living. No matter how many connections you have with others, you may not be satisfied with the quality of these relationships. How then can you find a way to move from loneliness to making more meaningful connections with others? When you acknowledge and take responsibility for your loneliness,  that begins to transform your perception of that loneliness. Instead of looking to others to satisfy your longing for connections, you might examine what you expect of others. Rather than viewing your loneliness as something that originates outside yourself, ask yourself what you might do to begin to make more meaningful connections with others?  


[1] Lars Svendson, The Philosophy of Loneliness. Kerri Pierce, trans.  (London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2017).

[2] Svendson, 22-23.

[3] Svendson, 28. 

[4] Svendson, 133. 

[5] Svendson, 138. 

THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

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Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.

EUCHARISTIC COMMUNITY


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Note: This is a follow-up to my post “We are Eucharistic Beings” from November 20, 2018.

All of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are important. But the question that always stands out for me as a parish priest is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”

Making this promise puts us in continuity with the earliest church, the church of the apostles. In Acts 2:42 we read that the members of the earliest Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The central aspects of my ministry are shaped by this promise. I strive to teach and proclaim the apostolic faith of the church and to foster a Eucharistic community in which fundamental respect for the dignity of every person is not only welcomed but essential.

The other promises made in the Baptismal Covenant fall under this “devotion,” this commitment to living in a community formed by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We can only “respect the dignity of every human being” when we respect the members of our own community, the people we often know best but find most difficult to live with. In my ministry,  I find that people long for genuine community. They long for a place where they can love and be loved in return. This recapitulates the whole story of the Bible: God desires to form a people, first Israel and then the Church, who will love God and whom God will love in return.

In community, we have to learn to love people we do not necessarily like. That is why Christians need the Church. We need its community and fellowship if we are to grow and mature in our Christian lives. Christians need the church to teach them how to love others fully and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”

The response to the baptismal questions is important to keep in mind: “I will with God’s help.” Remaining in communion and fellowship with others is not always easy. We can only do it with God’s help, and God is always present to assist.

When we promise to continue in “the breaking of bread” we acknowledge that we are Eucharistic “companions,” literally, persons with whom we share bread. In a true Eucharistic community, we do not have to agree on everything. We only have to agree to continue to break bread and share it with one another. In a Eucharistic community, I believe, genuine diversity and differences of opinion can live side by side because in community we fundamentally live for one other.

Finally, when we promise to “continue in the prayers” we make a fundamental commitment that we will lift up and honor all of God’s people, and the world in which we live, before God. Prayer reminds us that everything we have comes from God and that nothing we have comes from ourselves alone. We are “Eucharistic beings” who are created by God to give thanks. It is only when we offer prayer and thanks to God and when we care to the utmost for those who are different from ourselves — always respecting the dignity of every human being — that we live into our full humanity.