When I was a graduate student studying counseling, I learned about the importance of self-care for the caregiver and healing professional. Of course, this word was used synonymously with self-love, in that we were encouraged to pamper ourselves by spending time getting a pedicure, binging on movies, sleeping in, or going out to eat with a friend. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these, they can easily be misconstrued as indulging the flesh. For me, they are.
On the other hand, self-love among Christians is often viewed in conjunction with narcissism, that excessive focus on oneself, one’s desires, and pleasures. I think most of us who are striving for holiness hesitate to participate in the conversations about self-care or self-love, because they have been so secularized that we have lost the means to articulate – or even first understand – their true meaning and purpose.
The book, Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen, is not a new one. In fact, it was published nearly forty years ago.
Yet as I’ve read it, I’ve discovered his seamless connection between solitude and developing one’s interior life with community and hospitality. It is a conversation relevant to today and based on the commandment from Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
…In solitude we can pay attention to our inner self. This has nothing to do with egocentrism or unhealthy introspection because, in the words of Rilke, ‘what is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.’— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (p. 28).
True love of another must begin within the heart of the individual. It’s impossible to reach out to those who are lonely or hurting when we ourselves have not paid adequate attention to our own longings and musings and unfulfilled needs. It is not sinful to set aside sacred time and space to rest each day, to enter into silence and prayer, to care for our bodies with proper nutrition, exercise, and water. In fact, this is what it means to love oneself — to recognize that we have a responsibility to care for the mind, body, and soul we were given by God.
It seems to me there is a sacredness in true love of oneself that is entirely apart from the selfishness of following whims and doing what feels good in the moment or indulging our senses constantly. When I am managing my care well, I am at peace within. My mind is clearer. I am better able to process my feelings and to thus share what I have that emerges from the holy space I’ve made each day that only God can fill in me.
Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.ibid, p. 51.
Loving others in the Gospel sense — the sense that “other” is not really “other” at all, but another human with an eternal soul just like I have — is born from our ability to cycle through seasons of solitude and activity. The active part, for my own life, happens when I am called out of myself and into the world full of people I don’t know or at least don’t know well. Some call them “strangers.” Again, looking to the New Testament, I am reminded that the strangers — the aliens, orphans, and widows — are really my brothers and sisters, my neighbors.
If I am to truly love each of them in the Christian sense of the word, then I must embrace the truth that I am not much different from them at all. I think this stems from an acknowledgment of our own wounds and broken nature, because then we can view the addict, the homeless, the disabled, those with mental illness, etc. not as inferior but as equals.
And that is when we are capable of entering into honest and sincere conversation with others. We do not approach them with a specific agenda in mind, but rather an emptiness, a readiness and eagerness to give them space to be who they are freely and without judgment. That is the beginning of love.
…All healing is an interested effort to know the [person] fully, in all their joys and pains, pleasures and sorrows, ups and downs, highs and lows, which have given shape and form to their life and have led them through the years to their present situation.ibid, p. 67
True healing happens between two people who respect the eternal in each other and allow each other room to explore their history, their experiences, their sufferings and joys, their plans and dreams. This cannot happen when suspicion, prejudice, or separateness keeps invisible emotional barriers operating in the conversation.
In fact, I have never engaged in conversation with another person so drastically different from myself in which I ended up thinking less of that person. When we meet someone, there must be genuine interest in hearing that person’s story and discovering all the complexities that comprise a person’s worldview, perspectives, beliefs, and values. This happens naturally when both parties are open to both learn from and teach each other rather than proselytize or perpetuate harmful (and often erroneous) stereotypes.
An Open Heart
Healing is the receiving and full understanding of the story so that strangers can recognize in the eyes of their host their own unique way that leads them to the present and suggests the direction in which to go.ibid, p. 68.
Finally, to be hospitable and welcome the stranger, it must be more than just offering an occasional meal, donating to a charity, or passing out coats in the winter. True Christian hospitality is at its core a gift of the heart – from the heart, to the heart – where one listens to the other without worry or consideration of time lapsing. Just being with a person and offering one’s heart, open and inviting and receptive, is often enough to begin the healing process with one who has felt rejected, abandoned, ignored, overlooked, and ostracized.
Our job is not to preach but to pray for the humility to learn from those we encounter and give them a reason to discover a new pathway of hope in life.