The theme of this month's All-Night Vigil in the Milwaukee Archdiocese was "The Imitation of Christ." I had the second talk at 11 last night. The topic was from Chapter 27 of Book III of this classic work of Christian spirituality: "Self-love is the greatest hindrance to the highest good."
Isn't "self-love" good? Shouldn't we love ourselves? God loves us with an infinite love and shouldn't we love what God loves?
Yes, but our whole notion of love is warped. We love what or who makes us feel good, what gives us pleasure. This notion of love is the opposite of true love because it's all about ME. It's all about "getting" rather than "giving."
Behind the original temptation and sin was this self-focus. Our ancestral parents were tempted by the Enemy to stop thinking about God and to focus all their attention on themselves. "Can you really trust God? Wouldn't it be better to have more control of your life? Then you wouldn't have to bother God. You could be more independent, more in charge. Why, you could be gods yourselves and then you wouldn't ever have to fear that God wouldn't be there for you!"
Our parents gave in to that seductive line of reasoning and the consequence was immediate. They became totally self-conscious. They felt shame in each other's presence. They hid from each other, covering themselves, and they hid from God. As the story goes, God came looking for them so that they might take their daily walk during the breezy time of the day. He called out to them. Adam answered: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself (Genesis: 3:10). In that short response, the man refers to himself five times. The world now revolves around him. He is the center of his universe, of his consciousness. It's as though the great internal spotlight of his thoughts and concerns has turned away from God and his wife and turned entirely in on himself.
This is not "self-love." His choice led to "self-slavery" and ultimately "self-hate." Jesus came to save us from this. Rather than grasping at equality with God the Father, Jesus "emptied himself, ... he humbled himself" (Philippians 2:6-8).
We have an expression for a proud man. We say, "he's full of himself." Jesus emptied himself to be filled, not with himself and his ego, but with the love of the Father for him and with love for all God's children. He taught us the secret of happiness which much of the world does not comprehend: in losing ourselves, we find ourselves. Or as the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes: "it is in giving that we receive."
This is true love of self and it leads to the highest good, that for which every human person was created: love of God and union with God, and love of neighbor or the communion of saints. Jesus shows us the way. He shows us that in giving all, we receive all. The first words of this chapter from "The Imitation of Christ" are "you must give all for all."
A geography lesson can help us here. The Jordan River flows south from mountains in Syria. It flows into the Sea of Galilee, a body of water filled with life, where Jesus and his apostles fished. The water flows into the north end of the sea and out the other end, continuing its journey south to the Dead Sea where its journey ends. The Dead Sea has no outlet. It receives the water of the Jordan River but does not give it away. Instead, the water sits and stagnates. There is no life there.
Our lives are like that. If we hold on to love and focus all our attention on ourselves, we stagnate and die. If we lose ourselves in the love of God and neighbor, giving without counting the cost, we find life. Only empty hands are able to be filled.