A woman who suffered from nerves asked the doctor if her nerves could be fatal. ‘Not a chance’ he replied, ‘but they will kill whoever has to live with you.’ Twice in my life I came to close to having a nervous breakdown, the first was back in the seventies while I was still in college. This Sunday’s Gospel reading today always brings me right back to that period. There was no external crisis going on that I can remember but it was a time of feeling lost, helpless and confused, so bad in fact that I was very close to leaving. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave but rather my inner world was collapsing and I was in turmoil. I truly didn’t know where to turn or who to turn to. Even prayer didn’t seem to make any difference and felt like an avoidance of something fundamental.
One day after lectures I lay on my bed feeling like the hen when she looked at the scrambled egg, ‘There goes my crazy mixed up kid again’. Another student, to whom I shall be eternally grateful, walked in, saw my state of distress, and simply said, ’Do you know what’s wrong with you?’ ‘I would dearly love to’ I replied.’ He said, ‘You have never really accepted yourself, just as you are’ That was it; he didn’t elaborate and just walked out. The penny dropped. Suddenly I could see how I had been running from myself and even using prayer as an escape. On the road to Damascus St Paul had his conversion experience where scales fell from his eyes. That was my Damascus road, the most significant turning point of my life where the scales fell from my eyes and I could suddenly see where I had been going wrong.
‘Love God and neighbour’ was what I had grown up with, as my working definition of Christianity, but to love myself in a manner that wasn’t the same as being selfish was almost a new language. New it may have been but it made perfect sense. If God loved me then how could I not love myself? If God delighted in me as his creation then who was I despise myself and say that he made rubbish. By not loving myself as God loved me I was throwing that love back in His face. If I didn’t have the humility to give love to myself how foolish I was to think that I could give it to others. How can we give what we haven’t got?
Throughout my 40 years as a priest that message has been the one that I have been drawn back to over and over again. It became bedrock of my entire ministry. It really is the foundation. ‘Love God and neighbour as you love yourself.’ That word ‘as’ is so important because it is as we love ourselves that we are enabled to love God and others. If we don’t do it in that order then we become a walking mass of contradictions. It is precisely because we are so infinitely loved by God that we can love and value ourselves. As the Book of Sirach says: ‘With humility have self-esteem and prize yourself as you deserve. Who will acquit the one who condemns himself and who can lift up the one who puts himself or herself down?’ The implication is that not even God can do so. It’s amazing how we got things so screwed up in the past. In an old Legion of Mary handbook from the 1940’ it regarded self-esteem as one of the big sins to be avoided. With such nonsense being taught for so long is it any wonder that we could all truthfully class ourselves as ‘Recovering Catholics’.
The essence of sin is rejection of ourselves, of who we are as God’s creation and his children. The only permanent relationship we can have from conception to eternity is our relationship with ourselves, based on our relationship with God of course. This just has to be got right. Otherwise the first person we would meet wherever we go to wil be ourselves. It is also true that we can never love another person more than we love ourselves and neither can we ever be closer to another than we are to ourselves.
The Lord I believe has a great sense of humour. About twelve years after the encounter mentioned I was asked to speak at a summer school in Maynooth. During the talk I made reference to some significant moments during my time in the college particularly with that incident as being the most important lesson of my life. Afterwards I decided to stay over and asked for a room where I could bed down for the night. There must be close to a thousand rooms in the place and where do you think I was given; the room where that incident had occurred so many years before. The door still had the sticker that I had placed on it saying Jesus is Lord that I had put there myself. It was as if the Lord were confirming just how important that message of loving myself really was.
So, how am I in relation to myself? Am I comfortable with who I am and with my own worth, even my own magnificence, because if not I have a divine right to be.
Fr Jim Cogley