We must in no way be surprised to find self-love in us, for it never leaves us. Like a fox it sleeps sometimes, then all of a sudden leaps on the chickens; for which reason we must constantly keep watch on it, and patiently and very quietly defend ourselves from it.
— Saint Francis de Sales, Letter 17, to a Young Lady
In addition to battles that come to us from the outside, there is a much greater battle that faces us in the darkest recesses of our minds and hearts. We all know that the thoughts that run rampant through our heads and the passions that stem from deep within us can be much more dangerous than the onslaught from our environment. And, of course, it is important to note that the two are closely related, as influences in our environment can either impede or encourage our self-obsessed natures.
Despite our greatest efforts to remain grounded in faith and truth, we cannot help but define our worth somewhat in terms of the venomous culture in which we live. We begin to believe we have a right to do what we like, whether enjoying some quiet time or controlling our money. Spiritual reading reminds us that everything has been given to us, to be shared on our journey back to Him who is the greatest Giver.
There is nowhere in the culture that we can turn to obtain an accurate picture of the value of self. But spiritual reading leads us to the fresh waters of humility, to the concepts of selflessness, self-examination, self-effacement, self-gift.
Unfortunately, we hate to be called out on our interior struggles to control self. At least that has been true for me. When I began reading spiritual classics, I was a little put off by what I considered to be a directive issued in some spiritual books to “hate” myself. After all, I’ve always considered myself to be a decent person.
I kept thinking, “I’m not perfect, but I try to be kind to others; I do what I can for friends and family. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself evil, so why would I hate myself?” I felt the writers who made mention of this idea were a little over the top, to say the least. Here is an example of what I considered extreme talk from the classic Spiritual Combat, by Lorenzo Scupoli:
The essence of the spiritual life does not lie in any of those things to which I have alluded. It consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the divine goodness and greatness, of our own nothingness and proneness to evil; in the love of God and the hatred of self; in entire subjection, not only to God Himself, but, for the love of Him, to all creatures; in giving up our own will and in completely resigning ourselves to the divine pleasure; moreover, in willing and doing all this with no other wish or aim than the glory and honor of God, the fulfillment of His will because it is His will and because He deserves to be served and loved. . . .
But if you aspire to such a pitch of perfection, you must daily do violence to yourself, by courageously attacking and destroying all your evil desires and affections. In great matters as well as in small, it is necessary, then, that you prepare yourself and hold yourself in readiness for this conflict, for only he who is brave in the battle will be crowned.
When I read this passage, the alarms went off. Of course, it makes sense that we are to love God and subject ourselves entirely to Him. But I was taken aback by the harshness of the words “hatred of self ” and “doing violence to yourself.” These concepts were alien to everything I had been taught to believe. I mean, words like these could wreak havoc with my self-esteem! Not to mention my self-regard, self-worth, self-identity, and selfishness. They certainly put a huge dent in my efforts at self-aggrandizement! And they even made me recognize all the self-pity I had felt since reading that passage.
When God created everything, didn’t He say that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31)? And what about the fact that God made me in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26)? If that is true, I wondered, why must I hate myself?
Wisdom in the Golden City
After I took some time for prayer and contemplation, I remembered a children’s book that I’ve read to my kids every Lent for the past several years. The book is called The King of the Golden City: An Allegory for Children by Mother Mary Loyola (which I strongly recommend for children and adults alike — particularly the version with pictures: it’s beautiful!).
The King of the Golden City explains the passage from Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat in terms that even a seven-year-old can understand. And frankly, in order to digest such concepts, I often need to approach them as a young child would, because they are so foreign to everything I’ve been taught.
Chapter 5 in The King of the Golden City, “A Troublesome Partner,” is a great lesson in self-mortification. Following are a couple of excerpts from this chapter:
All the men, women and children each had a comrade who was always with them, from the time they came into the Land [of Exile] till the time they went out, and forever after. The name of this partner was Self. The two were never separated. They walked, worked, went to sleep and woke together. But the owner of the hut was — or ought to have been — master or mistress there. Self was the sub- or under-partner. So it was not what Self liked or disliked that mattered, but what the King wanted and what was good for the owner of the hut. This lesson Self had to learn, and, as a rule, it was learnt very slowly.
If allowed to become master,
Self showed himself a cruel tyrant. He made a slave of the hut-owner who should have taught him better, and treated him so badly that life was a misery to him. No: the only way to secure any kind of peace was to keep this unruly comrade in his place and put him down firmly when he gave himself airs.
I am certainly not a theologian (as demonstrated by my use of a children’s book to make sense of a passage from Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat), but in light of this description quoted above, I understand Self as almost separate from Me. It reminds me of the old cartoons where a person, when contemplating an action, has a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other. Perhaps this detestable “Self ” being described by Scupoli is the result of concupiscence. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, concupiscence is “an inclination to sin” that we all inherit a result of the Fall of Adam. The Catechism assures us that while “it is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.”
After reading The King of the Golden City and the Catechism, I understand that Self must be trained to be subject entirely to God’s will. How can I love God above all things if I love my Self and wish to please my Self above all things? There should be no Self but that which is completely in union with God. And to the extent that Self is not completely subject, it should be hated and viciously attacked, or else. That said, through the grace of Christ, it can certainly be overcome.
Spiritual reading can help us tame Self. Just as the wisdom of the ages helps us keep all the messages from the world in check, it can remind us to keep Self in check as well.
Spiritual reading allows us to separate the wheat from chaff. It helps us to ensure that we promote the fruitful parts of ourselves and have disdain for those whispers of entitlement. Only to the extent that we unite our wills to Christ’s are we good. Christ is the perfect God-man. Any deviation from His will is a flaw in our character, in our makeup, a cancer to be carved out — not just a little, but completely, so that what remains may not spread and do more damage than the initial tumor threatened.
The bottom line is that to love Christ is not to be “good enough.” It is not to listen to the world when it claims, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” To love Christ is to let go of one’s self and give all to God, so that, like Saint Paul, we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). To love Christ is to become a saint. Spiritual reading provides us with a map to sanctification.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in How to Read Your Way to Heaven: A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.