Sunday, November 04, 2018

Having a Healthy Self-love

Caravaggio's Narcissus (c. 1597)

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 4, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 18; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2018]

Most people are familiar with Narcissus, the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.  It happened one day when he caught a glimpse of himself in the waters of a spring.  He was captivated by his own beauty, and that enthrallment ultimately led to his demise.

This, of course, is where the word “narcissism” comes from.  If a person is narcissistic, he is (and here I quote Webster’s Dictionary) “extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importancemarked by … excessive admiration of or infatuation with oneself.”

There’s even a clinical disorder called “narcissistic personality disorder,” which, according to the Mayo Clinic web site is a condition in which people “have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

This, my brothers and sisters, is not what Jesus is talking about in this gospel text we just heard from Mark 12 when he says to us “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We need to be clear about that.  Jesus is not advocating narcissism in giving us this commandment, nor is he encouraging sinful pride.  Rather, he’s indicating to us there that we should have a reasonable, healthy love for ourselves. 

And this is extremely important—especially for our neighbors!—because our ability to love them in the way Jesus wants us to love them is directly dependent on our ability to love ourselves in the way that Jesus wants us to!  Notice the wording of the commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  If you have a narcissistic love of yourself, you will tend to have “troubled relationships” with others (to use the expression on the Mayo Clinic web site).  The same is true if you love yourself too little, or worse if you hate yourself.  In fact, if your attitude toward yourself is hatred, your neighbors will really be in trouble—because your tendency will be to treat them in the same way!

So, what is Jesus telling us here?  What does it mean to have a healthy, reasonable love of ourselves—a love that we’ll be able to show to our neighbors?

Well, I would say that a healthy self-love is rooted in an appreciation: a deep appreciation of yourself as God’s loved, special and unique creation (even though that creation has been wounded by sin).

The writer of the 8th psalm, for example, had this kind of appreciation.  He had a deep appreciation of his own dignity as a person created in the image of God, as well as an appreciation of everyone else’s dignity.  He indicated that when he wrote these famous words: 
When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him little less than a god; with glory and honor you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hands, put all things under his feet.
Now if you’re a Christian you will have a second appreciation that will help you to love yourself in a healthy way: you’ll have an appreciation—a very deep and profound appreciation—for what God has done for you in Christ Jesus.  You will realize, in other words, that Almighty God, the Creator of the entire universe in all its splendor, thought that you were worth dying for!  You, personally—even with all your imperfections and weaknesses—are that valuable to the Lord.

How could we not love what Almighty God himself was willing to die for?
This is why Jesus said to us, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  Hopefully we all believe that about ourselves.  Many people, sad to say, do not.  They hate themselves and think they’re worthless—usually because of things they’ve done.

Well, St. Paul also did bad things in his life, but he still loved himself; he still had an appreciation of himself as God’s good creation, as well as an appreciation of what Jesus Christ had done for him by his passion and death.  This comes through in that famous passage from First Timothy where Paul reflects on his conversion.  He writes,

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful.  I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.  You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I myself am the worst.  But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might be an example to those who would later have faith in him.

To love someone is to desire the good for them.  Well, the best thing we can possibly desire for another person is that they make it to heaven!  Paul knew that God loved him (even with his sins) because he knew that God desired heaven for him—and that God had sent his only begotten Son to die for him to make sure that this desire would eventually become a reality.

So if God loved Paul that much, how could Paul not love himself—and his neighbor as well?

God desired heaven for Paul, Paul desired heaven for himself (that was at the root of his self-love), and he desired heaven for everyone else—even his enemies.  He knew how much mercy, forgiveness and patience God had shown him in his life (that’s clear from the passage I just read), and he realized that he needed to show that same kind of patient, merciful and forgiving love to others.

He loved his neighbor in the best possible way, because he loved himself in the best possible way.

Which is precisely the way it’s supposed to be for each of us—and for every Christian.