Last weekend was rough. Due to a variety of circumstances, my work hours were much longer and more wearing than usual- which would have been bad enough without the fact of college starting back last Thursday. So by Sunday afternoon after church I was in a state of deep self-pity. I brooded darkly over the facts of my recent existence: work was awful, I had barely slept for days, my feet and back and head ached; besides that, I don't have any definite direction in life, I'm wrestling over which Church to join (a topic for another post) and I'm single and lonely and did I mention burned out? It was along these lines that I mourned the unfortunateness and unfairness of my poor existence.
However, I pulled out of it after a little while, mainly after overhearing my parents discuss one of my brother's schoolmates- a young man whose parents are desperately poor and lives in awful conditions. Actually, I've been by his house once before, to pick him up for Wednesday night church service- a little worn-out place directly behind a spawling complex of chicken houses. In case your olfactory organs have been spared chicken houses, let me describe it: one of the nastiest industrial smells in the world, a step above pulp mills and fisheries and just perhaps a rung below pig farms. It's horrid: the stench permeates everything around it. These folks live right next to one. I remember it took several miles of driving before the smell got out of my car's system. Anyway, that's only part of the young man's situation: I understand he has a number of other problems. It was the remembrance of this- and the corrollary that it's not a rare thing- that knocked me out of my vulgar self-pity.
It's terrible, really, and shameful: the few times I ever get really upset, the few times after childhood I have earnestly shed tears is almost always because something has seriously (or so I think at the time) impugned my sacred comfort. I expect, not the absolute best of course- just the close runner up. You won't find me weeping over the injustices perpetrated every day against my fellow men: Genocide in Darfur? Persecuted Christians in China? The poor family down my road? No, if I get pained and upset, it's because I'm feeling bad, I'm in more hardship (which has never been more than the slightest) than I'd prefer (which is none, thank you). I do not weep over my sins: at evening prayer I may feel a little contrition, just enough to use a slightly longer form of confession. "Grant me the though of confessing my sins"- but only for ten minutes or so. Repentance is nice, so long as it involves minimal hardship and sorrow. No, if I sorrow, it is the ungodly sort, not the sort that "leads unto salvation."
All this falls back on a very root problem: self-love, which St. Maximus identified as "the mother of all passions." I simply like for ME to feel good, I like to worry about ME, and all MY rights and needs, and, durn it, what I WANT. God and other people are all well and fine so long as they contribute to my overall level of happiness. I am self-centered, in egocentric orbit.
Here enters Gospel: there is, however, a hope for my egocentric disease. It is in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and His "Passionless Passion": the hope for breaking free of self-love's chains lie in the breaking-out pattern of the Cross. It is only in the Triune God of ec-static
love and communion that there is any hope at all. It is in the death of Christ that I have died and been raised into new life. The egocentric orbit hs been fatally destabilized on the Cross. When I look to Christ I look to the Maker and Source of new life, of life radically sundered from the fallen, nasty, self-pitying one. It is into this death and life that I have been baptized into, united with, and appropiated through grace. And it is because I am already dead and buried and raised to life that I have any hope at all of imitating Christ in His self-lessness. For in Christ selfishness finds its end: life is returned to orbit around God and love of the other.
It is from this groundspring of hope that I can defeat selfishness in myself. Repentance is driven by the fact that Christ possesse me, and that His death and resurrection are mine. Mortification, dying to self- and with it the rejection of ideas of "rights" and "due deserts," and every other thing I've gladly and willingly been led to believe I deserve
- flow from Christ's Passion and Life, with the sudden dual realization of our sin and God's redemption. Repentance, mortification, contrition, active love: these "work out" the grace that has been deposited in me; I stabilize my will in the will of the Holy Spirit within me- all through yet more grace and unwarranted goodness of God. It is only in the Divine perspective in Christ that we can cease to sinfully pity ourselves and be further isolated in our egocentric prisons, and instead be raised into God's Trinitarian, self-giving love.