The Rigorous Practice of Self-Compassion.

You can take the boy out of the seminary, but back in the ‘80’s, I found that it was harder than I thought to get the seminary out of the boy.  I’d halted my movement toward the Catholic priesthood close to two-years gone by, but at twenty-eight years of age, I still couldn’t kick the idea that maybe God had a planfor my life that might include an ordination after all.  Ten years earlier, I had precociously attended a private-directed retreat which became the first of at least a dozen in the contravening ten years. Over that stretch of time, I knew that, from a Catholic perspective, the grandaddy of all directed retreats was written by the Sixteenth Century Christian mystic, Ignatius of Loyola.  In my circle of Vatican II nerds, Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exerciseswas thought of as the spiritual equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon, a Tough Mudder, and a Navajo Sweat Lodge all rolled into one.  It involved a month of keeping silence and praying,save for a once-a-day meeting with a spiritual director whose job was to listen for how God was speaking to the retreatant.  On the basis of that listening, he or she would assign another day’s worth of spiritual practices taken from Ignatius’ ancient playbook.  My first application from a year earlier was rejected…something about being “too close to a transition.”  At twenty-eight years-old and two years removed from seminary, I received my acceptance letter, and was informed by The Sacred Heart Retreat House in Sedalia, Colorado, that Father Vince Hovely, SJ. would be my director. 

Come hell or high water, I was bound and determined to dive head-first into any ascetical practice that Ignatius or any other saint ever cooked up!  Horse-hair shirt or underwear?  Size-me-up!  Self-flagellation?  Bring on the cat-of-nine-tails!  I was gonna get myself a once-and-for-all answer to that pesky priesthood question that hung around my young adult life like aghost that refused to leave the Bardo.

When I arrived at the retreat center, I’m not sure what I thought my Spiritual Director would look like.  The Buddha?  Anthony DeMello? Thomas Merton?  When I met the fella assigned to me, I was struck by his Paul Newman eyes.  They were as deep and blue as a Colorado lake.  But unlike those glacier-fed pools, his demeanor conveyed a kind of warmth and just a shade of barely hidden mischief.  It didn’t take long for those wise eyes to size me up.

In answer to his question, “What are you here for?”  I explained my desire for God to tell me what to do about this priesthood business.  “How’s about you just try focusing on The Light, rather than your question?  Over the month that you’re here, maybe if you get more and more with The Light, there will be enough of it to spill over onto that issue.”  I was crest-fallen, but the logic made sense in a disappointing kind of way.  Several days in, I asked him when the fasting would begin.  His answer:  “You’re not somebody who needs to fast.  You need to be focusing on the grace of self-compassion.”  The sound-track in my head to these meetings and others like them, was the “Whah, Whah, Whah, Whahhh!” of 1970’s game-show contestants losing.  As frustrating as those early days on my retreat were, come to find out, Vince was exactly right.  His recipes for me were God’s recipe for me.  I left that retreat unsure of the answer to my initial question, but convinced of an Abiding Love at the core of me and everything else.

I’m thinking of that old retreat from so long ago because it seems to me that this is the time of year when everyone becomes like the twenty-eight year-old version of me.  At the New Year, people in our culture resolve to dive into this or that ascetical practice…something to do with losing weight…something to do with gaining more temperance over alcohol, sweets, or carbohydrates…something about a momentary desire to be “the best version of myself.”  

This year, I’m revisiting the wisdom of Father Vince Hovley’s prescription of self-compassion.  Rather than losing a few pounds in January that you will gain back in March, maybe this is the year to dedicate yourself to a discipline of loving and cherishing the first gift you ever received:  YOU!  

I’m not the first to notice the cruelty that is so casually traded these days in our culture.  I am more and more convinced that an epidemic of self-loathing is at the core of peoples’ willingness to humiliate and denigrate.  Decades of separation from communities of support reached an apex during the Pandemic.  Without the vital mirroring function of Beloved Communities, so many of us fail to recognize the inner-dignity that is our birthright.  My friend and spiritual companion, Don Eggleston likes to say, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”  Perhaps another way to turn that phrase:  “You tend to treat others the way you treat yourself.”

Would you like to join me this year in daily practices of self-compassion and self-love?  Here is a partial list of spiritual practices that I am contemplating.

A Candidate for a New Year’s Resolution:  A Daily Practice of Self-Love and Compassion

• Each day, I walk my dog by a 350 year-old oak tree.  I plan on stopping at that sacred spot and praying for the gift of self-compassion each-and-every day this year.  When I can’t make it, I plan on asking for that gift as part of my morning meditation.  Do you have a sacred space to lift a similar prayer?

• This year, would you join me in being more mindful of the automatic thoughts and interior dialogue that spring up in your consciousness?  When you find a sharpness or cruelty in your self-talk, would you take a moment to soften your approach with yourself?  Rather than despising the inner-critic, could you try loving even this part of yourself?

• Do you know how to make contact with your “Inner Child?”  If not, see if you can locate photographs of yourself at three, four, five, or six years of age.  Another approach is to spend time with a small child and see if he or she can lead you to that kind of spontaneous, vulnerability inside yourself.  

• Is there a community of people, or even one single person who reminds you of what a treasure you are?  If so, can you resolve to spend time with him/her/them on a regular basis this year?  

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