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A Self-ish Reflection

by Fr. Alphonsus Hermes, O.Praem.


When we begin Lent, we start with these sentiments: “Let us make this day holy by our self-denial.” Then we hear the second great commandment already promulgated in the Old Testament: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I must, at the outset, say that this reflection will be rather self-ish.

Someone once complained to me that a priest they heard speak was emphasizing self-denial. It sounded harsh and unreasonable to them. These words can be hard to hear if we have a poor understanding of what a “self” is.

On one side, we have the language of “self-denial.” “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” “Unless you deny yourself/forsake yourself/hate yourself, you are not worthy of Me.” “Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things,” St. Paul tells us every Sunday evening of Lent, “in order to win a crown of leaves that withers. You should deny yourself in order to win a crown that never fades.” “He who trusts himself has a fool for a guide,” the Imitation of Christ warns us. We should mistrust ourselves. It is hailed as a virtue in some places, when accused, not to defend yourself. We find listed among the vices selfishness and self-pity.

In the language of virtue, all of these point to the excessive value of self. This is the language of Lent, which wants to deflate an overstuffed opinion of self, to foster the virtue of humility, putting us in proper relationship to others, and to God. All sins can spring from a disregard of others’ rights and needs when we become too focused on our own: stealing, lying, defrauding, slander, negligence, cursing, swearing falsely. The over-inflated tire explodes, and the whole vehicle of the common good cannot move forward.

And yet, when we try to drive with a flat tire, the progress of the whole vehicle is still hindered. Although they may seem like vices to a Christian focused on communio, the world recognizes the value of such things as self-sufficiency, or being a “self-made” man.

A speaker at the abbey once taught, “You cannot give yourself, unless you have a self!” St. John Paul said that we find fulfillment “only in a gift of our self,” which he said was the very definition of “love,” quoting Gaudium et Spes: “Man cannot find himself, except in a sincere gift of self.” There is a beautiful prayer which says, “O my God, I give myself to You, with all my liberty, intellect, heart and will.” For example, in the consent of marriage, the bride and groom give themselves to one another—if there was nothing good in yourself, then to give yourself to another would be an insult, not a gift.

All of the negative meanings of “self” condemn a distorted and perverted self. We say that someone has a poor self-image when they go to an extreme in self-criticism or even condemnation, even denying the fact that there is goodness in them. If someone even lacks that foundation, that understanding of their nature, then all the Christian talk of self-denial will be misunderstood. Either it will become self-destructive, negating the goodness of human nature and God’s image, or the person will close their ears to talk of self-denial, because their understanding of it will contradict their desire to respect themselves.

In other words, someone cannot set out effectively on the path of self-denial, or rather self-mastery, unless he first understands the fundamental goodness he has in virtue of being created in God’s image, as we hear in Genesis: “God looked on the man and woman He created, and saw that they were very good.” If we don’t understand that we are good from the beginning, then the message that we are sinners will not be helpful. If you don’t make the right distinctions, you can promote selfishness on the one hand, or self-destruction on the other, but the goal is self-control, virtue, wholeness, integrity, holiness.

As we develop the virtue of justice toward ourselves, we will find that a necessary means of self-respect is self-discipline, even self-denial. Then we can show a proper care for our neighbor, giving to him what is due to him, and practicing works of mercy. Thus, justice to ourselves is loving ourselves. And justice and mercy toward others is love of our neighbor.

The self which God created in the beginning has been changed by sin, to become a lesser version of itself, disintegrated, incomplete, lacking wholeness. This is the self we deny: the one which strives to preserve its perversity, remain in its disorder, cling to its frailty. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow after Me.” The cross is the tool which Lent uses to refashion the integrated self, the virtuous self, the self which is worth giving to God, to a spouse, to others. The more one becomes the “best version of himself,” the better gift he can make of himself to the beloved Lord, at his self-offering of vows, at the moment when he renders his soul to God in death, when the body begins to return to the dust from which it came. Changing habits, avoiding sin, fashioning virtue all require a self-denial, a denial of that fallen self, not leaving it where it has fallen, but doing the work of picking yourself up, and striving for the acts and virtues of which the true self is really worthy.

If we saw the dignity which God has bestowed on our selves, we would strive to preserve and perfect our selves, both as an expression of gratitude and awe at what God has done in us, and also to cooperate with the work of the Master Artist Who wants to make of us a masterpiece of mercy.

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