As I begin this venture of a new blog, a curious fear stalks me. The fear is not a new one but I thought I had left it behind. How silly of me.
I will confess it, here and now. I am afraid of comments. It doesn’t matter if it is a publicly posted comment or an offhand remark made in passing by a reader that I know personally. They scare me. (Thanks to the kind souls who got me started with comments, forcing me to face my fear.)
While it might seem logical that I would fear critical or controversial comments, I haven’t really thought much about them. My true terror seems irrational: I fear the positive comment, the one that pays me a compliment, the one that makes me feel good.
It is an odd sort of thing. In the course of my professional work, I encounter so many people who are starved for a positive word, an acknowledgment that they have done something well, that they have some value. To be criticized and demeaned from childhood has left them with very little sense of self. What self they have is often badly damaged or sadly immature. And here I am, seemingly so unappreciative of the kind words of others.
Yet it is not that I am unappreciative. It is that I am afraid.
I am afraid because I know that my problem is not low self esteem emanating from a damaged sense of self, but pride festering within a bloated ego.
I am so very thankful for God’s gifts to me, the “talents” He has entrusted to me as well as the loving parents who instilled in me a healthy sense of self. It is my sin that scares me, my weakness in the battle against the passions.
Until I was led to read and learn with the Orthodox a couple of years ago, I don’t think I had ever heard the term “passions” before. Conceptually similar in my Catholic upbringing were references to “the seven deadly sins”. However, despite 16 years of Catholic education, I don’t believe anyone ever explained to me their meaning.
My point is not to criticize the many religion and theology teachers I had over the years. Rather, what strikes me is how readily one can grow up within a devout family and participate in every church ritual with serious intent and miss learning something so essential to the Faith.
My only related memory was, as a child, reading a little book to prepare for confession – and it frightened me. I did not know what a “deadly sin” was and could only assume that it was worse than a regular sin. Hence, for years to come, I believed that I sinned (in a deadly way) when I felt good about myself for something I did well. That was my understanding of pride and it was my job to banish it.
Unfortunately, there was so much that little book did not teach me. It did not teach me that all the good that I do or accomplish is God’s gift and therefore it is my duty and joy to praise Him without ceasing. It did not teach me the beauty of holy humility, the emptying of self before God with complete knowledge of my utter helplessness and need.
Not that I would have understood this at that tender age. But what I did learn learn was to suppress my natural feelings out of fear and to substitute a humility that seemed false, a lie I was to tell myself. It seemed that I was to deny the positive data of my accomplishments so that I would not think too highly of myself.
At some point, the entire model became unsustainable, as the “deadly sins” of normal human feelings like pride (not to mention the really shameful ones, like anger and lust) demanded to be heard in my life. To survive emotionally, it became necessary to embrace my human self.
I came to realize that I was not so different from my patients who had damaged, immature or nearly absent selves. None of us can genuinely surrender our selves, even to God, if we do not first have a real self. For the abused, this may mean a period of extensive healing of old wounds and positive growth so that they can know who they truly are.
For me, healing has meant learning to discard the prideful and artificial sanctity of a self who works hard and follows the rules, thus thinking she owns whatever goodness is made manifest through her. I have been called to discover not who I am but what I am.
To discover that I am nothing before God but a helpless sinner is not easy for one such as me. It is not because it is demeaning. It is not. In fact, it is perhaps the most liberating and loving experience that there is.
It is difficult because the ego in me is always fighting it, not wanting it to be true, scrambling to find evidence of how good I am, how smart, talented or holy. And that is all smoke and mirrors for the truth.
For the truly holy know what they are. Mother Teresa in the Catholic community bore witness, “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Among the Orthodox, Elder Paisios knew very well that the many miracles occurring through him were God’s actions not his; he said of himself, “I’m a tin can shining in the sun – it looks like gold, but it’s empty.”
I am just beginning to know what I am. What I truly am, sinner before God, empty of any significance of my own.
And, in this newfound awareness, I am afraid that I will fall to temptation. But I must expect that of myself – because of what I am – and be prepared to repent and place my hope and trust in God’s unfailing mercy.
Therefore, I cannot take this little “talent” He has entrusted to me and bury it in the ground because I am afraid. Rather, I must step out from the darkness of my own corruption, share what He has given and trust in His healing Light.
Please pray with me and for me, as I pray for you, kind reader.