Sunday, April 27, 2014

Divine Mercy- What Does It Even Mean?

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. "Mercy" is a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. I imagine others have some of the same issues I do with the word, "mercy." It's just feels unfamiliar and odd to even say. 

I spent several years following a philosophy that people should not feel guilt or fear. In order to have "personal power," you would fight these feelings and the beliefs that produce them as the enemy. Any form of judgment of self or others was to be avoided, and guilt and fear feelings were usually considered to be the feelings of a victim. An empowered person would avoid those experiences at all costs. So, if there was no need for guilt or fear, there could be no need for mercy. Pleading for mercy would even seem to many as evidence that religion was harmful.

I think at the time I followed this spiritual path, it felt like what I needed. I needed to fight self-criticism. I needed to fight self hatred. You see, I grew up with a mother who honestly did not love me. She wanted to. But, for whatever reason, she couldn't. Even as a baby, she avoided caring for me when she could, leaving that to my father and a nanny. My earliest memories were of her pushing me away, shutting doors so she could be alone, and of her telling me I was a bother. 

As I grew older, her criticism was intense and harsh, but being rejected by your own mother to begin with is enough to wound, even if she doesn't speak to you at all. So, of course I would do anything to flee from that pain, including following a spiritual path that insisted that people never do anything wrong, and that to criticize or judge them at all goes against unconditional love. I had to have a break from the constant psychological onslaught in my head. It remained a constant battle, despite six years of making fighting it my main focus.

In other words, all of that effort did no good. It was, as the expression goes, a "band-aid for a bullet wound." I learned how to ignore self-criticism through the spiritual path I was following, but all of the energy I drew from ignoring it went into the service of myself. That's what "personal empowerment" is. I did very well. A book I wrote and self-published sold over 20,000 copies. I bought a new Audi. I looked and felt successful, and I credited it to my teachers. Crediting them was helpful to their careers because that helped them gain more students and thus more income. 

At one point, the bottom fell out of all that. The teacher I had thought was the next thing to God and who I had sworn to follow to eternity said he couldn't be my teacher any longer. And so, I became lost. Before then, I had created an altar to myself, focused on myself as a goddess and did incantations to produce "prosperity and abundance" in my life. That worked. I had spent hours staring in a mirror trying to "love myself perfectly" because that is what he told me to do. But, towards the end, without his support, I saw a demon in myself in the mirror. I began to dream of demons and eventually, I had the crushing realization that I had betrayed the God I knew so well as a child.

Of course, I'd known it all along, but I pushed those thoughts aside. I believed that they were parasitic, sucking the "personal power" I was trying to attain. There's no real excuse for what I did, wounded or not. I knew deep down that to try to be God (or a goddess) was the opposite of my Christian faith. It took ending that relationship with my teacher to wake up and face the decision I made and when I did, I could not forgive myself for it.

Following that time in 2006, I ceased to care about anything. I was diagnosed as agoraphobic. I did not want to leave my home. I found out I had some neurological problems and shouldn't be driving. I was also diagnosed as autistic for the first time. I kept myself occupied with computer games to shut out the pain. I believe for six or seven years, I also blamed myself for "failure" in life because of that very reason- that I didn't care about myself or my life, so I had ceased to accomplish anything, like building my career or having a family. I wasn't suicidal at that time, but I also didn't do more than just "exist." I went on disability. I was flat and felt nothing, day in and day out, for years. Often, I actually thought of myself as being like the "walking dead." And truthfully, I was. Once I stopped fighting guilt, it swallowed me whole, only worse than before. 

Three years ago, I started an RCIA program and two years ago, I became Catholic. I started to put God first more and more. I swore to consecrate my life and every breath and every heartbeat of it to Him and I have not wavered in my dedication to that aim. I know I'm doing the right thing, with absolutely no doubt, even though I am doing the opposite of what I was taught for years through my previous "spiritual path." In the process, I've been rebuilding a better life, based on Christ as the foundation. The "real me" has started to emerge, a new creation in Him. I am a person I never knew before and I am living in increasing peace and joy.

Learning who I am now leads back to the concept of "mercy." What does it mean to me? At first, I thought it was thinking God was a harshly and unfairly judgmental person and so you had to plead for mercy so He didn't crush you like a bug. But, that is not what mercy is. That would just be how I felt as a child. So, then I thought maybe mercy was realizing that because we're sick and wounded, we can't help but do the things we do, so we shouldn't judge or criticize ourselves for it at all. But, that's not what mercy is. That's what my past spiritual teachers thought, but it was not that.

So, what is mercy if it is neither of these two things? I prayed for it for the past two years with absolutely no clue what I was praying for, honestly. But, it's actually something in the middle, between these two extremes. God's mercy is about admitting when we sin against God but also accepting His compassion for us in our human condition. It has taken me a long time to reach this place of "balance" within myself. During Lent, it all started to "click" more and more.

The Divine Mercy Chaplet is important because I think most people in the world today don't know they need mercy, or they have been taught to fight those desires, or they don't believe deep down that God is merciful and loving. It's not just me who struggles with these issues, although I did have "all the above." And so each year, including the year I became Catholic, I've prayed the Divine Mercy novena. There is medicine in repentance but the healing of our soul is not complete without acceptance of His mercy. Only through praying for mercy for others did I begin to realize what it means for myself.

For more information:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mortification- Then and Now

A few nights ago, I saw a picture that was purported to be of a woman who had her mouth and one eye sewn shut by Saudi Arabians because proclaimed Jesus was her savior. The first thought many Christians had was of her bravery, to face such pain out of loyalty to God. Yet, later in the evening, I found out that the story was only a fraud. The picture was a form of "performance art," and a Japanese woman had volunteered for this treatment. She chose it- for art. (I've placed the link to this picture very low on the page. If you think you might be triggered by looking at this, don't worry. Just don't click the bottom link.)

Let's look around and see what people are doing in the world today. As of this moment, if I were to go to a therapist and tell him that I had a corset sewn into my skin for pleasure, that would be considered healthy and okay. As long as I did not have a problem with that, it would not considered mentally ill. I could talk to that same therapist about choosing genital mutilation for myself and he would not blink an eye. I could tell that same therapist that I pierced or slit my tongue, that I or that I walked my boyfriend around with a leash and collar like a dog, and that would be fine too. If I am comfortable and happy and expressing myself in the way I want, that's fine.

The focus in therapy, especially in "pop psychology," tends to be on using only "positive" ways of speaking to and treating ourselves. We are to have "unconditional positive regard" for anything we feel like doing, even in the above examples.

Positive approaches are good but they are not the only approaches that are good.  Practices of discerning judgment are not necessarily unhealthy.

What is the goal of bodily mortification today? Some people want to endure pain because they genuinely like it. Others think it it cool to endure the pain and show off their bravery to others. Some find the practice to be a way to be creative and express themselves. In either case, the motives are purely self-gratifying.

The old way of self mortification was the opposite- It was to help people move beyond the self, into a closer relationship with God, and a life of greater service to others. When bodily mortification for the sake of penance is done today, this is often considered "sick" by psychologists. However, if someone comes into their office with a peeing fetish, (by modern diagnostic manual standards) that is not considered sick.

Furthermore, if I were to intentionally cause discomfort through self-denial for the purpose of becoming stronger to withstand sin, such as Catholics do during Lent, that would be also be considered ill to many modern therapists. For certain mental health professionals, it's considered sick to judge yourself, to feel guilt, to feel fear of any kind. While not all therapists take such an extreme view, the basic structure of this perspective permeates most mainstream therapy. 

Today's Catholics practice penance, such as fasting or giving up something we enjoy, especially during the season of Lent. Most people never practice severe bodily mortification, as was done in the middle ages, because the point of penance is not simply to suffer and hurt. The point is to help us turn our hearts away from the many harmful consolations of the world and towards the loving arms of God instead. It's a form of re-training. The point of mortification is not to suffer for suffering's sake. Today, mortification most often takes the form of fasting and giving up things we enjoy for a certain period of time. It's not what it used to be.

People often think back to medieval practices of penance and bodily mortification and contemplate how mentally disturbed they seem to us now.  I'm talking about the kinds of things people used to do (and some still do, in a few very rare orders now,) like sleeping on hard floors or self-flagellation. Many people don't understand the reason people did these things. It is assumed they must have hatred towards their bodies or that they believed that the body was bad. However, that was not the true reason in many cases. In order to draw closer to God, people practiced self-denial. Today, as well as then, the goal of self-denial is to cultivate gratitude and love for God regardless of pain or pleasure, regardless of whether we get what we want or not.

Another goal in self-denial is to imitate Jesus in offering sacrifice, to experience union with him through "suffering with," which is the heart of compassion for our dear friend, Jesus. Catholics don't see the body as bad. The body is good but we would rather be controlled by our choices than our automatic bodily passions towards things. The practice of self-denial can bring unity and harmony to body and soul, not separation.

Many people today want to separate the body from the soul. This is hatred of the body on a whole new level. "Feminism" has been becoming more and more defined as celebrating all that is not motherhood. We want to deny that our biological bodies have anything at all to do with our "gender," or the societal concept of who men and women are. Many believe it is possible to be born in the wrong body- female instead of male, for example. Yet, the same people who say God puts the wrong people in the wrong bodies will say that God does not make mistakes and that He created gays, so being gay must be the way they were intended to be.

I include no moral perspective in the above comments about bodies and gender. I offer only  logic for reflection. My hope is that whether people agree with what I'm saying or not, people will see a different perspective and know what that perspective involves. It's so odd to live in a world where everything is okay, as long as you are doing it for selfish reasons, but to sacrifice for others is considered ill.

To learn more about the Catholic perspective on suffering, take a look at this really thorough article:

Do not follow this link if you might be triggered by looking at a picture of a girl with her mouth and one eye sewn shut. (The picture is midway down the page.)