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of us the parable that speaks most poignantly of this is the process is the Prodigal Son.  It is in this story that we find the older brother who is blind to the kind of love that the Father has for his returning young son.

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’  (Luke 15. 28-35)

There is a lot noise at the moment about Mindfulness  - a meditation technique that has its roots in Buddhist practice. A whole industry has sprung around a form of non-religious meditation which seeks to calm our ever increasing busy minds. It does not take a social scientist to appreciate the need for a clearing of the thoughts in a culture which pours an avalanche of information, into our craniums. The pace of life is also indicative of stress, anxiety and depression. Yet, meditation, as helpful as it is, can only part be of the solution to human unhappiness. I personally worry that Mindfulness could come over as a tool which is somewhat bourgeoisie. Does it colluding with the status quo of a consumer culture which sanitizes our intense greed for things, ill will and delusions? Is it not part of an identity makeover, a constructed dream of an idealized lifestyle? And what of nasty thoughts that invariable surface, our nastier self, the sins, the pain, the repressed memories, the trespasses we still need to forgive and be forgiven of? (My money would be more on the Franciscan practice of contemplation in action.)

These talks are not proposing a meditation tool.  There is no special course to be done or spirituality workshops. Because of my own religion I am appealing largely to the Christian tradition of which the Scriptures (and the words of Jesus in particular) are central. So in the mix is some are some wisdom from various well known saints as well as insights from some new trends in psychology. Later on I will also bring references to a school of thought from the Eastern Church called the Philokalia. It is a sort of manual on the inner life.  Maybe it could be called ‘Heart-fullness’?

We talk about people having a heart. Sometimes we say that so-and-so is cold hearted. We hope that others will “giving a damn”. The heart is part of our vocabulary. Like prayer and open heart is at the same time effortless and mighty hard. It does not assume academic abilities or is dependent on status. It could allude a neurosurgeon but come easy to a hospital cleaner. It does not require emotional intelligence. An open and big heart has a child-like quality.  Remember the words of Jesus – unless we become like a child in this respect we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

I fail at this daily -  we all do. As a pastor this has been one of my priorities to propose that we are big hearted. Over twenty years of ministry I have seen too many victims of  the Church hurt by those of us inside her ranks. We have damaged others and perhaps this indicative of us not recognizing our hurts. At times we have all been lousy ambassadors for Christ and put others off religion. “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5.20)

To propose this is not to argue for a dilution of doctrine. That is all too easy, and possibly a short cut.  I am not a natural liberal. We need not edit Jesus and His teachings. That is a displacement activity in this respect. Rather our task to have a bigger heart.

Christians have said some really good and helpful things about the heart over two thousand years. Jesus spoke about this spiritual organ often. ‘Where your heart is there your treasure will be also.’ The disciplines of the heart are often in in the New Testament alongside the word ‘Agape’ which we translate as ‘love’ or in the King James Version ‘charity’.  Mystics, poets, hymn writers, artists, preachers, missionaries, pastors, have been caught up in this sacrificial holy love and their works witness to something which is not simply soppiness or sentimentality but an encounter with the fire of the Spirit. I want to look some of this afresh with some group discussion and during Lent some homework.

How to Love Yourself?

The Anglican Eucharit starts with the summary of the Law by Christ – the call to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  If we turn that last bit around the conclusion must be that we will struggle to love others if we do not first love ourselves. But, doesn’t self-love go against the grain of Christian teaching? Are we not meant to be selfless and put ourselves second? And further more, what of those who have been damaged psychologically or abused? Is not a call to love yourself in that case just silly preachiness?  Finally, what of our sins? If we love ourselves are we not airbrushing the wrongs we have caused and cloaking the darker parts of our personality?

If you have any sympathy with me as a speaker then you can see that this is a psychological minefield. So I am reaching out to a Sixteenth Century Counter Reformation Spanish saint for help. This is someone who combined tough worldliness with a rich inner life. Her mystical encounters with God are legend but so also is her no nonsense take on the mundane, the political and day to day reality of community living . She found God as much in the pots and pans as in the fiery spiritual arrows that seemed to penetrate her in a near sexual manner. This is Teresa of Avila (1582) who with John of the Cross (not to forget  Ignatius Loyola) revived the religious life. Her writings are fashionable in church circles  and she deemed thoroughly ecumenical.  For a moment, in these few minutes, let Teresa be our therapist, or more accurately - confessor.

The world of therapy tends to see self-esteem as Holy Grail to a good mental life. If we have bags of self-esteem then apparently we will have less depression, anxiety, and so on. I want to argue by going against the grain that there is some evidence to show that this is a psychological cul-de-sac.  Self-esteem tends to be based on needing to feel above average, even better than others. I will not enjoy self-esteem by writing an OK sermon: for me to feel good, it needs to be deemed outstanding. The problem of endless comparisons with others has worsened in a world of constant numerical comparisons - the biggest instance being Facebook “likes”.  The same can be seen in the epidemic of body dysmorphia where young women seek to be ultra slim and young men take dangerous quantities of dodgy steroid to bulk-up muscle. Likewise, those of us who are in or approaching middle aged are lured by cosmetic companies offering all sorts of surgeries and potions to nip and tuck, transplant hair, remove hair, lift and lower, etc. The media plays on this and in particular advertisers. When failure hits, as it does to all, self-esteem provides NO shelter from the storm. The only option is to remain on an anxious striving treadmill.  It goes without saying that the market is full of quack therapists ready to hear our story and tells us that what we need is that elusive self-esteem.  (There goes a landmine!)

Though “ravished” by God, Teresa still described herself as a worm. At first we might presume that this is predictably negative. She was of her time. We sneer at this and think that we are much more enlightened. C S Lewis warned us that it is all too easy for modern people to have temporal snobbishness where we imagine that those in the past are stupid. In addition, we are all too familiar with religious people preaching a joyless hard message of sin and misery. Remember the Quivering Brethren from Cold Comfort Farm (by Stella Gibbons - 1932) where the preacher taunts his small but faithful flock “I’m going to make you shake.”  There is, however, in Teresa a magical twist. We can easily miss it in her writings because all too often we speed read and do not grab the detail.

“Certain little worms feed on luberry leaves, till afterwards they become bigger and then on the boughs they go spinning silk with their little mouths, and making little cells very close, in which they are enclosed. From this cell or bag, which contains a large but ugly worm that dies, there afterwards rises a white and very beautify butterfly.”

Teresa’s silkworm emerges as beautiful only through its own death.  This is the central paradox of Christianity, that in order to have life, one must first die.  (Luke 17.33)

American psychologist and academic Dr Christen Neff has proposed that what we need is not self-esteem but self-compassion. (Indeed, this appears also closer to the wisdom of Buddhism than the current Mindfulness trend.) She suggests we need to develop a kindly inner voice of encouragement, an understanding and forgiveness rather than a harsh judgment, and to acknowledge our common humanity and therefore know how alike we are in our common imperfection.  Catholic author Rachel Kelly (Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression)  “For Christians the notion of developing a gentler, less judging inner voice is at one with that of a forgiving God who has sent us His only Son to make our forgiveness possible. ”

Anglican priest George Herbert’s (1633) poem Love III in which the narrator is resisting God’s call to join him at the table  picks up this theme.

“And know you not,” said Love
“Who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down,” says Love,
“and taste my meat.”

 When Teresa of Avila died, in her breviary (daily prayer book) where found the words; “patient endurance will attaineth all things.” The journey of self-compassion is often a slow gradual one.  It cannot be attained in an instant like a Microwave meal. So we need patience which in ancient times was a virtue.

Likewise, Neff’s call for a sense of common humanity is a big part of the Christian story. “There is,” Saint Paul writes, “neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28).  From this pastoral practice comes an experience of solidarity and an emerging sense that the Church is an exclusive judging cult but ‘catholic’ – namely an universal society which aims to include the widest number of people  into it’s fold. In the next session when I explore the heart of God I will refer to the parable of the lost sheep. (Luke 15. 1-7)

Perhaps one of the faults of modernity is for us to take ourselves too seriously?  Ironically we imagine the saints as dour fellows, plaster cast humans, when the evidence is that these people had bags of humour and much self-deprecation.   One of the keys to happiness has to be not taking ourselves too seriously. We do well to laugh at ourselves. When I abruptly left my second curacy a local homeless character, Nicky, was selling the Big Issue outside the presbytery front door (another name for a vicarage.) As I drove off he solemnly directed in my direction with great comic timing words from the infamous Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah – he’s just a very naughty boy.” Perhaps God was saying something. I have tried since to lighten up. Saint Paul described himself and other believers as “fools (clown) for Christ.” (1 Corinthians 4.10).  St Teresa of Avila had this fun side to her spiritual insight. To conclude I let here have the last word.

“Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy me.”
What a burden I thought I was to carry
A crucifix, as did Christ.
Love once said to me “I know a song
Would you like to hear it?’
And laughter came from every brick in the street
And from every pore in the sky.
After a night of prayer, God changed my life when
God sang, “Enjoy me.”

Questions for Group Discussions

  1. Is it true to say that Christians are portrayed as dour people who are neither fun or humorous?
  1. Can self-compassion also involve being truthful with ourselves, our limits, the failings, our sins?
  1. Thinking of the words of Saint Teresa on God’s song to her - what are the things that stop us ‘Enjoying God.’
  1. What might we say, how might we encourage, someone who tells us that they have low self-esteem?