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.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Communion of Saints: We’re All Connected!

(All Souls’ Day 2018: This homily was given on November 2, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  It was given at a Mass for those who have lost loved ones during the past year.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2018]

The popularity of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) is pretty easy to explain: People want to stay connected.  They want to stay in touch with family and friends—with the people they love.

And that’s the big problem with death (at least it’s the big problem with death when you look at it strictly from a human perspective).  Death destroys the connection between us and those we love.  Our ability to communicate with them, and influence them, and interact with them is taken away, sometimes suddenly.

And it hurts.

All of you have known this experience during the past year—and probably many times before that.

But notice what I said.  I said this is the case when we look at death from a strictly human perspective.

However, we’re not supposed to look at anything in this life from a strictly human perspective, and that includes death.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered, died and rose again from the dead, and that has changed EVERYTHING!  Everything—including our relationships with those who have gone before us in faith.

As Catholics, we say we believe in the “communion of saints”.  (We say that in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”)  The Catechism tells us that the communion of saints is “the Church”—which means the whole Church, the entire People of God: some of whom are not here on this earth at the present time.  Some of God’s people are already in heaven with the Lord, others are being made ready for heaven by passing through the purifying fires of purgatory, and the rest are here with us. 

So the whole Church exists in 3 different “states” or conditions: there’s what’s called “the Church triumphant” (that refers to those in heaven); there’s “the Church suffering” (that refers to those in purgatory); and there’s “the Church militant” (that’s us).

And we’re all connected!  That’s the good news!  Spiritually speaking, nothing—not even physical death—completely severs the bond between those who are in Christ.  The Catechism puts it this way in paragraph 955: “So it is that the union of the wayfarers [that’s us here on earth] with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods.”

This is why we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us.  We believe that their prayers before the throne of God can bring us graces here on earth.  And they can!  They can because we’re still connected to them in the spiritual realm. 

We also believe that our prayers and sacrifices can directly benefit the souls in purgatory—helping them to be purified and thus get to heaven more quickly!  This is why we have Masses said for the dead: it’s to help our deceased brothers and sisters who are currently in purgatory!  Remember, those who are in heaven don’t need our prayers because they’re already in the kingdom, and those in hell can’t be helped by our prayers because hell is eternal.

The only ones that we in the Church militant can help are those in the Church suffering—and vice versa.  The souls in purgatory, according to many of the canonized saints, can also pray for us; they just cannot pray for themselves.  They need us to do that for them.

And if we do pray and do penance for the holy souls, they will know it!  They will be aware of the fact that we are helping them—which can also be a great help for us, especially if our relationship with a certain deceased relative or friend was not all that it should have been.

You see, if you’re a Christian it’s never too late to make amends; it’s never too late to demonstrate your love for another person.  You know, every once in a while someone will say something to this effect: “I never told my dad I loved him before he died,” or “I never asked my mom for forgiveness for what I did.”  They say these things as if they’re totally cut off from their deceased loved ones.

But that’s not true!  As I’ve hopefully made clear, if their loved ones are in heaven or purgatory, they are not totally cut off from them.  If their loved ones are already in heaven they’re perfectly happy and have no animosity toward anyone; and if they’re in purgatory they will be blessed through the prayers and penances that are offered up for them, and they will be incredibly grateful to the people who are offering those prayers and making those sacrifices.  And they will no doubt pray for those persons while they’re still in purgatory and later on when they finally get to heaven.

So it’s never too late to touch other members of God’s family and of our individual families, even if they’ve gone home to the Lord.

And in a similar way, as I indicated earlier, they can help to bring God’s blessings to us by their prayers. 

Let me give you an example of this from my own personal experience.  As some of you know, my mom died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 60.  In the years before her death my mom had two great loves: the priesthood and young people.  She served a number of good priests for many years as the secretary at the parish I grew up in in Barrington; she prayed and offered her sufferings for priests; and she did a lot of work with young people, especially on youth retreats at the local CYO center. 

I had been in Westerly a little more than two years when mom died, and those two years were pretty normal.  Nothing really extraordinary happened in my priestly ministry.  But after my mother died some truly incredible things began to occur here.  Youth ministry exploded.  Young people started coming to our youth group from all over the place, and a number of them discerned a call to the priesthood and/or religious life.

Now perhaps that’s all a coincidence.  I’m willing to admit that possibility.

But I’ve never thought so.  I’ve always had the sense that Dolores Suriani has had something to do with all the good things that have happened here, spiritually, in the past quarter century.

I can’t prove it, but I believe it—because I believe in the communion of saints.

So as we pray for our deceased loved ones tonight, we should also ask them to pray for us, that we will be faithful to the Lord during our remaining time on this earth, and someday join them in the Church triumphant, the kingdom of heaven, where all of God’s people will get together—and stay together—forever.