Show Mercy to Yourself
By Marian Friedrichs (Sep 24, 2014)
Saint Francis de Sales wrote, "Be patient with all things, but most of all with yourself."
We know the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and try to practice them in our dealings with other people, but do we extend the same care to ourselves?
If we withhold mercy from even one of the least of Jesus' loved ones, we withhold that mercy from Him (see Mt 25:40). And we are among those loved ones. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:31), so that means we are called to care for ourselves — our bodies and spirits — just as the works of mercy challenge us to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of our neighbors. In fact, being merciful to ourselves may be crucial to our ability to be merciful to others.
Recently, I started going to confession once a week, and from that I've learned something interesting: I need to go to bed earlier. Frequent confessions force me to notice which sins I commit over and over again, and it turns out that almost every week I have to confess to impatience, irritability, snappishness, self-pity, and judgmental thinking. One Saturday my pastor suggested that all of this may have to do with stress. He was right. How could I deny that I'm more likely to snap and lose my patience when I'm tired or feeling overwhelmed? I had known that before he mentioned it, and as I said my Act of Contrition, I felt a tug at my conscience when I promised to "avoid the near occasion of sin." Could I really promise Jesus to avoid the near occasion of sin if I kept depriving myself of rest, knowing that would lead me to be cranky with people?
Woodrow Wilson observed, "[I]n the Lord's Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach." I teach middle school, and a few years ago I discovered that I can't fast during a work day because my hunger leads me to treat my students with less patience and gentleness than I should. In my classroom closet, I have the spiritual and corporal works of mercy posted with a note: "Let mercy begin here and now."
I wrote that note to remind myself that my first duty is to be merciful to my students. Once I noticed that fasting was getting in the way of that, I knew I had to stop, no matter how good a thing it was. Mercy needed to begin even closer to home than I thought: with myself. Before I could be merciful to them, I needed to take care of myself and make sure I got food when I needed it.
Sometimes losing sleep or going without food can be a holy act of love, but constantly running on an empty tank can undermine our mission to spread the Divine Mercy message. Remember, we are Christ's hands and feet and witnesses here on earth. If the hands and feet lack strength and the witness lacks joy because we have unnecessarily deprived ourselves of basic needs, what becomes of the important work we have been given to do?
One Saturday, when I confessed yet again to judging other people harshly, the priest told me, "I want you to work on loving and accepting yourself. If you can't have compassion for yourself, you can't have compassion for anyone else." He was also right. If I constantly criticize myself, it's tempting to look smugly at other people to make myself feel better. On the other hand, if I accept myself as I am, I don't need to try to feel superior to others, so I can see them with loving eyes. Self-acceptance also helps me avoid the habit of critical thinking that inevitably clouds the way I see everyone, not just myself.
But that self-acceptance has to be unlimited. If my love for myself goes up in smoke every time I make a mistake, and Jesus commanded me to love my neighbor as I love myself, then my love for others will not be very Christlike. Jesus commands us as His disciples, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (Jn 13:34). If I am to love others as I love myself and to love them as Jesus has loved me, then I must start by loving myself as Jesus has loved me, and there are no strings attached to that love.
Saint Faustina experienced that first-hand after she had received a glimpse of the suffering that lay ahead of her in spreading the Lord's message of mercy. God made Faustina understand that "the whole mystery depended on [her], on [her] free consent to the sacrifice," but that "even if [she] did not give [her] consent to this ... He would not lessen His graces, but would still continue to have the same intimate relationship with [her]" (Diary, 135).
We have inherited a powerful lesson of unlimited love, and like peace in the hymn, we need to "let it begin with [us]."